A feature for the Chicago Tribune.
From the beginning, this looked to be a tough assignment. I liken myself to Kimmy, Cameron Diaz’s karaoke-hating character in “My Best Friend’s Wedding”–though I can’t sing nearly as well.
But live band karaoke (LBK for short), an event that’s been packing local clubs since last year, sounded too intriguing to pass up.
Then I learned that Scotch Hell and his band, the Karaoke Dokies, were putting their amateur hour on a boat, and I had to know more.
“Take everything you know about karaoke and just throw it out the window,” says Melanie Maron, a nonprofit attorney by day who discovered LBK a few weeks ago and has since become one of its most fervent ambassadors. “I had to work to convince some of my friends to come. Once coaxed, they were hooked.”
LBK on the lake isn’t just a clever concept. It’s seductive. I boarded the karaoke boat in a fog of existential gloom. But by the end of the cruise I’d danced with strangers, slammed tequila and even taken the stage to belt out Kim Wilde’s ’80s hit “Kids in America”–complete with fist-pumping and an attempt at choreography. Remarkable.
Scotch told me he’d come up with the idea for a karaoke “booze cruise” some weeks previously. “I was fasting for 14 days and I started to have all sorts of weird, creative ideas. That’s when it happened,” he said.
Scotch’s notion was clearly a good one, as evidenced by the throng of would-be warblers amassed at the Chicago River sometime around midnight, July 3. They were itching to hit Lake Michigan and grab the mic.
Unfortunately, the concept hadn’t proved equally alluring to my friends. I only found one willing to go–but the evening of the cruise, I received a sheepish phone call citing a dubious-sounding emergency.
I was a solo sailor.
It’s tough to overestimate the self-pity I felt heading to the rendezvous. The fireworks had ended some time ago, but revelers still roamed the Loop. I felt like an anthropologist, lugging my knapsack and tape recorder through the land of social normalcy. Then, when I realized that the bulk of the boat crowd was at least five years younger than me, I knew it couldn’t get worse: I wasn’t an anthropologist, I was a chaperone.
But a transformation began as soon as I went aboard. The boat was tiny, with the bar and the band set up on a partially enclosed lower deck and an upper deck open to the stars. It was the perfect platform to observe all the activity on the streets and exchange shouts with fellow seafarers chugging up and down the river.
The small size of the craft and gentle, rolling motion created an immediate sense of intimacy. We’d hardly cast off before I was approached by Maron, a friendly young woman in a black cowboy hat. She’d rounded up three friends to join her on the cruise–though only one was willing to sing.
But that was OK. The band kept the lead singer’s mic fairly low, so even the most tone-deaf vocalist couldn’t ruin the music for the audience. A few people stayed on the upper deck, drinking in the skyline and enjoying the lake breezes. But most crowded below to watch friends play rock star.
After a few lurches marred the opening numbers, the captain slowed the boat to a crawl, and the rest of the cruise was conducted at a speed that wouldn’t challenge even the most booze-addled sea legs. And the sensation of bobbing on the dark water, meters if not miles from shore, fostered a sense of luxurious abandon. At least, I assume that’s what it was. It might have been Kevin Brennan, who, in the persona of MC Barry Lacroix, kept the energy high throughout the three-hour tour.
The end approached and I began to feel the pull of the stage. The band’s Mike Coy–who, tricked out in naval toggery, served as cruise director–asked if I wanted to get up, and I did. I figured Wilde’s song, which features an undemanding vocal, would stand the abuse I was bound to inflict. (Sound melodramatic? It wouldn’t if you’d ever heard me sing in the shower.)
As I stepped up to the mic, I suppressed the urge to call for a lifeboat drill.
But looking into a sea of friendly faces, I realized something: They didn’t care that I couldn’t sing. All they cared about was keeping the feeling going–cracking open another beer, toasting the skyline, and draining the last drop out of that hot, crazy night.
I took a breath, cued the band, and began.
–Etelka Lehoczky, 2003