Nothing like the real thing

At Sonny’s karaoke night, hitting the right notes is secondary to letting loose

Some of us make it big. The rest of us make it to karaoke.

It’s an experience unencumbered by inhibition or fears of being off key, of protocols unwritten but highly regarded — don’t hold the mic too close to your mouth, have fun, and, whatever your shtick, don’t rely on extended air guitar solos.

A bacchanalian enterprise fueled by iTunes and hours in the car singing your favorite songs, a night of karaoke can be a trip through memory lane. After all, where else will you be reminded why, after all these years, we still haven’t shaken the likes of Kris Kross from our collective memory?

The extent to which there’s anything of consequence on the line for karaoke singers depends on how much they’re invested in the performance. But the calculus varies. That was clear on a recent night in Dover at Sonny’s Tavern, which has been hosting karaoke nights, dubbed by host Erik Swanson as Karaoke is Real, for about a year.

Some of the singers helping rip through some 60 songs over four hours said karaoke is their way of blowing off steam and simply cutting loose. Others, however, described the night in metaphysical terms.

“It sounds weird, but it’s almost the most spiritual thing that I do,” said Swanson, who relies on a catalogue of some 800,000 songs to keep things going.

“There’s a reason people sing in church,” he added. “I think there’s something about people coming together and singing that’s really cool.”

4077_Sonnys_Karaoke-6Karaoke Is Real host Erik Swanson takes the mic at Sonny's.

Swanson said Sonny’s has enjoyed a successful run of Thursday night karaoke because the focus is on having fun, not competing. “The ‘karaoke crowd’ doesn’t hang here — you know, the guys who are at every karaoke night,” he said.

To keep things light, and keep singers creative, Swanson often comes up with themes for the weekly sessions — an homage to ‘80s hair bands, punk rock, prom night, and clowns are a few. Last Halloween, performers dressed up as their favorite artist and stayed in character throughout the night.

“People get really into this stuff,” Swanson said.

As the night progressed more revelers appeared, each adding an air of intrigue and joviality to an already happy scene. It was a decidedly millennial crowd, and a mosaic of denim and flannel formed beneath the outdoor wedding lights hanging from the ceiling.

Among the performers on a recent Thursday night was Portsmouth’s Sam Ueda, who sang a tune by Three Dog Night. “I’ve always loved performing and sometimes my week gets stressful, and this is a great end to my week,” he said. “I look forward to the day where I can just kind of let it all out.”

Taylor Lane of Dover, who keeps a “couple-scrolls-worth” of songs on her iPhone, performed DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat.” Though her performance suggested otherwise, Lane said what she lacks in musical talent she makes up in skill.

“The difference between talent and skill … is you practice for hours and hours,” she said. “I drive a lot for work so I sing in the car a lot, and I’m like, ‘I should sing this for karaoke.’”

4077_Sonnys_Karaoke-8Taylor Lane invokes DJ Kool during a rendition of “Let Me Clear My Throat.

Lane recently returned from Portland, Ore., which she described as the “karaoke capital of the world.” She didn’t like it. “It wasn’t the same” as the scene at Sonny’s, she said. “Everyone was really competitive about it, kind of mean. I was really upset.”

Laura Hackney of Newmarket described karaoke as the “next best thing” to performing professionally. “It makes me feel like the performer,” she said after singing Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move.”

“I am performing, but I’m also emulating her,” she said.

Sonny’s co-owner Mark Ryan’s assessment was simple. “I’m really digging it,” he said.

Though karaoke at Sonny’s tends to be a free-flowing affair without strict conventions, participants do tend to abide by a few unofficial rules — and, as Swanson said, none of them have to do with “getting the notes right.”

They include having a strong stage presence and injecting something original — Swanson said spoken word works for him — into instrumental portions of songs.

And what if you don’t have a song in mind and you’re picking one on the fly? According to Swanson, avoid “trite” songs, like Sir Mix A Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” and, for sake of brevity, “never sing ‘American Pie.’” The most important thing, though, is something impossible to imitate or improvise: passion. In other words, as Swanson said, you’ve got to “care about what you’re singing.”

Sing along at Sonny’s Karaoke is Real every Thursday at 9 p.m. at Sonny’s Tavern, 328 Central Ave., Dover, 603-343-4332.

Top of page: Nikki Hentz lets loose during Karaoke is Real at Sonny’s Tavern.