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Springs’ dive bars host communities built on karaoke 

Dive bar rockstars

click to enlarge Ivywild bartender Erin Rider sings Black Sabbath. - CRAIG LEMLEY
  • Craig Lemley
  • Ivywild bartender Erin Rider sings Black Sabbath.
The Ivywild Tavern, not to be confused with the Ivywild School, is easy to miss. It’s visually blocked off from nearby South Nevada Avenue by some drive-thru eateries, at the corner of a less-than-hopping strip mall. At least one of the small crew of Independent staffers who come out this night initially mistakes it for part of the adjacent liquor store. It’s a long, narrow dive bar, kept clean and lit dimly, colored lights reflecting off corrugated metal interior accents, far nicer than the exterior would suggest.

We’re not here for the $2 mystery shots. We’re not here to play billiards with a guy who may or may not shark in Daytona Beach. We’ve gathered here on a damp Thursday night for karaoke.

This Japanese-invented hobby has become ubiquitous at bars and social events across the U.S. Certain local bars draw huge crowds — and no doubt huge bucks — on karaoke nights. Thunder & Buttons, for example, was chosen by Indy readers as the best karaoke spot in town in our Best Of 2016 contest. On karaoke nights, its upper floor gets packed with people waiting for their turn to sing, becoming a matchbox-sized version of American Idol.

But in dives like the Ivywild Tavern, there’s a whole different vibe, not at all spectacle. It’s more like an episode of Cheers, where the karaoke jockey (or KJ) shakes your hand and there’s not a lick of irony to be found. These bars are communities where patrons answer the call of the stage and share in the joy of a good song.

Spots like this are well outside of the usual focus of the Indy — or any local media outlet. They don’t seem to change much. They’re not bringing in craft mixologists or big-name performers or what have you. But, if only to their regulars and the Internal Revenue Service, these dives are important and hard to replace.

The word karaoke comes from kara okesutura, Japanese for “empty orchestra.” The term comes from a 1952 incident in Osaka, Japan, in which the backing orchestra for a prominent theatrical troupe went on strike. The parent company of the troupe wound up playing a recording of the usual orchestra track, leaving the orchestra pit empty.

The karaoke machine, which defines the hobby as we know it, came to be in 1969, in Kobe, Japan. Daisuke Inoue was, at the time, a musician who played keyboards as an accompanist for amateur singers in bars — basically karaoke with a live backing track, a trend unique to Kobe at the time. The way Inoue told it to now-defunct Topic Magazine in 2005, a local businessman asked him to record a few keyboard tracks for him to sing along with at a club in another town where he had a meeting. A few days later, the businessman returned, all smiles, asking for more tapes.
Inoue came away from the conversation with the idea for a coin-operated machine, which he cobbled together using a car stereo, a selection of eight-track tapes, a microphone and an amplifier. In 1971, the first such machine, named the Juke 8, hit the market. After a little over a year, it spread across the country. Karaoke didn’t catch on in the United States until the early 1990s, but once it did, there was no stopping it.

It’s easy to see why. In the latter half of the 20th century, the rise of the rock star and the birth of the modern music industry fundamentally changed the way people consume music. But the urge to come together as communities and to revel in the songs that speak to us hasn’t changed. People still want to come together to sing, well or badly, quietly or loudly. And where they sing, they also dance, laugh, love, make questionable decisions, and build the bonds that make their time worthwhile.

Back at the Tavern, one of the regulars, a woman named Rosemary, is celebrating a birthday — she says it’s her 16th, or maybe her 21st. Goodness knows how many times she’s celebrated those birthdays by now. With all her heart, she belts out old Spanish-language ballads. Sometimes she dances when another patron sings.

She’s typical of the crowd — generally older, mostly regulars, all dramatic performers behind the mic, all welcoming. When one of ours performs “Piano Man,” every single person present at the bar sings along.

Everybody gets to sing too, and pretty frequently at that; the crowd’s relatively small. Even bartender Erin Rider, who says she was karaoke-averse in bygone days, takes a turn singing Black Sabbath. KJ Eric Windle, keeps the crowd involved and welcome. He and his daughter operate under the name Beaner Schnitzle — yes, he’s Hispanic, and no, I’m not touching that one. Windle is quick with an off-color joke and even quicker with a sign-up sheet. That night, one repeated quip crosses the line into genuinely sexist, but Rider, who agrees he was in bad taste, later tells us he’s since cut that bit.

A good KJ does more than keep track of who’s singing what and hit play at the right time — they make the singer sound better, maybe by playing with volume levels, maybe by adding a little reverb. More than that, a good KJ will also help a singer feel welcome, engaged and confident.
click to enlarge Eric Windle and daughter, under the name Beaner Schnitzle, KJ at the Ivywild. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Eric Windle and daughter, under the name Beaner Schnitzle, KJ at the Ivywild.
We meet one such KJ at The Buzz, a dive bar at Uintah and 19th streets. Lisabeth Rea, 47, is known to her karaoke audiences as “Li’l Bit.”

“You find a lot of KJs will perch behind their podium and wait for people to come up there,” she says. She prefers to go into the audience and make them feel invited and involved.

“I’ve always felt my strength was making other people feel good,” she says.

Rea has been a KJ on and off since 1994, working stints at dives on the Westside, like Red Rock Lounge and Belle’s Lounge, both now defunct. Rea does shows at The Buzz (which replaced Belle’s Lounge) on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, as well as Saturday shows at Thirsty’s on 21st Street.

When we visit The Buzz, Rea is running a twofer Tuesday event — guests sing two songs in a row. Painted in black and red, The Buzz could just as easily host a David Lynch film festival as its more mundane bar events like weekly poker nights. It’s an L-shaped room, with pool tables down the arm and a stage at the corner. Above the stage, there’s a painted honeycomb mural, keeping with the theme of the place. The karaoke is prominent, but it doesn’t interrupt either the billiards or the poker going on at the same time. Rea says it’s her favorite venue to KJ for, partially because of the odd shape of the space.

“If you get the speakers aimed right, it sounds great, and you wouldn’t expect that of an L-shaped building,” she explains. It’s also less hurried than other places she’s worked, which gives her the time to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves. Because for Rea, it’s the people that make a karaoke night memorable.

“You don’t have to be a great singer, but if you get up there and have a lot of fun with it and engage the people, that’s the fun part,” she says. She recalls a regular at the Red Rock Lounge who’d come in with his girlfriend and sing Charlie Daniels. After a while, the regular asked Rea for a suggestion for something new.

“I couldn’t think of the name at the time, but it was Eve 6’s ‘[Inside Out],’” she says. “He got up there, and what was fun was watching him realize ‘Oh crap, I really know this song! I can do this!’ and watching his confidence build throughout the song.”

She also notes another regular from the Red Rock Lounge, an older woman called Miss Hildy.

“She was the best customer you ever wanted to meet,” recalls Rea. “She had been in Auschwitz and had her number still tattooed on her wrist.” Miss Hildy kept to herself and didn’t sing, but one time, Rea came up and asked if she wanted to hear anything. Miss Hildy asked if she could hear the “Chicken Dance.” From then on, whenever she tabbed out and called for her cab, she always asked Rea to play the “Chicken Dance” for her. Rea says it became a part of her routine, going around and hyping her customers so they’d do the dance when the time came.
“It was a riot,” Rea said. “Nobody would be in a circle — they would just kind of free-for-all it... At the end, [Hildy] would get up, and she’d have tears in her eyes.” Hildy would wish peace and love to all present. She passed away in 2014, but Rea kept “Chicken Dance” as a tradition at her shows to honor her.

“We went to her funeral, all of us,” says Rea, “and we played the Chicken Dance.”

Local KJ Jillian Smith, 50, remembers first doing karaoke in 1992, at a friend’s going-away party.
“I heard of it, and I thought it sounded ridiculous,” she says. At the time, she’d played keyboards and sung in a few garage bands, and the idea of “a bunch of talentless drunk people howling at the moon” didn’t appeal to her. She says, though, her first time singing turned out to be something very different than that. She was hired by a karaoke company called Center Stage that very night, and she’s been in the business ever since.

Currently, Smith owns and operates Valkyrie Unlimited Karaoke, which she bought in 1999. At that time, the only show the company did was at the Adam’s Apple Lounge on Austin Bluffs Parkway, and she’d never been there before.

“It quickly became home,” she says. She now bartends there as well. She’s had regular gigs at other bars around town, but now, it’s all at the Adam’s Apple.

Our crew of four arrives on a Sunday night. The low ceiling over the long horseshoe bar doesn’t hide the fact that the room is expansive. We watch some serious dart players playing round after round on the machines in the corner. We sit beside an older man and woman, both inviting, her ever with a Long Island iced tea in her hand. A young woman sets the karaoke equipment up. It’s Smith’s 22-year-old daughter and business partner, Jynessica.

Jynessica’s been pulling in a younger crowd, Smith says, mostly customers in their 20s — while there are a few people like the older pair we met, they’re not the norm. There’s a little old-time country in the mix, but then a young man does a respectable job of singing “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence.

Smith says Jynessica’s had a lifelong relationship with karaoke. She learned to read with a kids’ karaoke setup they had at home.

“A lot of times on the weekends she would come in and help me set up the equipment [the afternoon before the show],” says Smith. Jynessica took over some hosting duties at “18 or 19,” says Smith. She adds that Jynessica’s always been comfortable singing sober, likely because she was doing karaoke long before she was old enough to have an interest in drinking.
click to enlarge Lisabeth Rea prefers to go into the audience to make them feel invited and involved. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Lisabeth Rea prefers to go into the audience to make them feel invited and involved.
By and large, karaoke is a bar activity, so while drinking isn’t mandatory for belting out the tunes, there’s definitely a relationship. That’s something that makes KJ Eric Watson, 24, stand out, beyond his stunning renditions of crooner classics: He’s also worked in addiction recovery for the last three and a half years.

“I work in treatment in the day, and I’m in the bars at night,” he says. “It seems like a cool place for me to be in case someone needs help. I have a direct line to [support services.]”

We catch him at the Robin Hood on Nevada Avenue near Fillmore Street, one of his two regular spots — he also KJs at The Cow Pub & Grill on Stetson Hills and Powers boulevards. He’s new to the Robin Hood, having only picked up the gig in June.

The Robin Hood’s front room is all light woods and fake stone façade, looking very early ’90s. But the middle area that hosts the pool table is all green and forest themes, a satirical mural depicting characters from Disney’s 1973 adaptation of Robin Hood smoking joints or toting brass knuckles. I can’t help but crack a smile.

Watson tries to whip the bar up by belting out tracks by Michael Bublé and his ilk. He’s never had training; he says it’s all natural talent. His parents are good singers, too.

“My dad and I, we always compete together,” he says. “Both of us have tried out for The Voice several times. We’re thinking about going as a duo the next time we audition.”

Watson’s not the only stellar singer on the premises the night we visit. A young woman in a T-shirt and baseball cap takes on Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and, no qualifiers needed, crushes it, note for note. One of my co-workers later admits that the talent on display intimidated him out of singing that night.
Jillian Smith runs Valkyrie Unlimited as a family biz. - VALKYRIE UNLIMITED KARAOKE
  • Valkyrie Unlimited Karaoke
  • Jillian Smith runs Valkyrie Unlimited as a family biz.
But however good the singing is, Watson faces a particular challenge at the Robin Hood. He has to follow up a KJ called Wolfman, who passed away in June. Legally named Bruce Trites, Wolfman and his wife, Debbie, ran karaoke at the Robin Hood for 23 years.

“He made you feel like you’ve known him for a lifetime,” says Robin Hood owner Jaye Neidigh. “No matter what your voice sounded like, he made you sound good.”

Neidigh says that Wolfman had it all: His songbook was probably two inches thick. He and Debbie were reliable, barely missing a show. They’d dress up in matching costumes on Halloween. He’d go into the audience and engage with patrons, building them up enough to get them behind the microphone. And if they really couldn’t sing, he’d have them do “Tequila” by The Champs.

Wolfman even helped Neidigh and bartenders single out patrons who’d had too much. He’d play dance-along songs like “Macarena,” getting the patrons dancing.

“He learned to read the crowd, and then he got them up and moving so we could read them too,” says Neidigh. He had draw, too — Neidigh says they had regulars coming from Pueblo, Denver and Cripple Creak to hear Wolfman sing.
click to enlarge The Voice hopeful Eric Watson KJs for Robin Hood regular Stephanie Amos. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • The Voice hopeful Eric Watson KJs for Robin Hood regular Stephanie Amos.
What Wolfman built was clearly more than just a crew of drunks howling at the moon. Through the timeless practice of sharing in song, he forged a community.

“He introduced people to each other,” Neidigh says. “We had four marriages ... they came to sing, and they met singing at Wolfman’s karaoke, and they even [proposed] during the karaoke show.”

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