Active Cultures: this is not your parents' karaoke 

It's 11 on a Wednesday night at Wrigleyville's Underground Lounge, and the emcee calls Garrett Brown onstage.

Brown is a well-muscled five foot four, and his shaved head gives him a monkish appearance. He grabs the microphone as the house band, the Karaoke Dokies, starts up the percolating groove of "Hungry Like the Wolf."

He's got a pretty good voice and manages to stay in tune and in time reasonably well, glancing only occasionally at the lyric sheet. During the instrumental breaks he holds the mike at crotch level, gyrating and thrusting his hips. He stalks off the stage into the audience, then comes back to do a duck walk between the bassist and the guitarist. At the bridge he drops to all fours and chants "Hungry like the wolf" with appropriate hyperventilation. He returns to the floor for the last chorus and surprises the audience by spinning on his back, then flopping on his belly in a showstopping demonstration of the worm. The crowd goes wild.

"I don't like regular karaoke," says Scott Shell, who organizes the Underground Lounge's weekly Rock 'n' Roll Karaoke evening. But he says this is something different. "It's an extreme karaoke night. You're not singing with a machine; you're singing with a live band, so the energy is more intense."

Shell plays in the band Cats and Jammers and delivers subs on his bicycle for a living. In August 2001 he was on tour with a night off in New York City and wandered into the Lower East Side club Arlene's Grocery on karaoke night. The band onstage at Arlene's had learned a dozen or so punk and metal selections, and people were signing up to sing along.

Back home in Chicago, with his band on hiatus, Shell resolved to start his own live karaoke night, except with a larger repertoire and a wider range of songs than there'd been in New York. But when he first approached the Underground Lounge, owner Don Ridge was reluctant to book the series. Karaoke, says Ridge, "was huge ten years ago, but it has a certain cheese factor." However, he was soon won over. "Take 'Livin' on a Prayer' by Bon Jovi," he says. "I can't stand 'em, never have. But the musicians do a great job with it and the audience loves it." The series debuted in February of this year and now draws a loyal crowd.

Shell alternates between emceeing (under the nom de karaoke Scotch Hell) and playing bass in the Karaoke Dokies, with Joe Fossett on guitar and Scott Rosenquist on drums. Another group, the Hootenaners, plays when Shell's on the mike; various guest emcees preside on the nights Shell holds down the bottom.

The two bands have a combined repertoire of more than 130 songs that range from lightweight pop ("Dancing Queen") to classic rock standards ("Proud Mary") to punk anthems ("Anarchy in the U.K.") to metal headbangers ("War Pigs"). The musicians say they feel a responsibility to be faithful to the original material but try to be flexible. "We want the singers to be the stars of the night," says Shell. "So we learn the songs according to the original recordings, but we also have to adjust to the singer as we go along."

No matter how good or bad the singer, the crowd's usually supportive. "Not to stereotype the neighborhood," says Ridge, "but it's Wrigleyville. After a baseball game you can get a pretty hard-core crowd--you'd think there'd be some hecklers. But this is a very nonthreatening atmosphere. It definitely has an edge, but it's really comfortable at the same time."

As the night wears on and the alcohol flows, the energy level climbs. The room is packed by 12:30, when Lindsey Pearlman's called to the stage. The band launches into "Lady Marmalade," and the floor immediately fills with young women in tank tops dancing with their hands in the air. Three guys grind together in sandwich formation for good measure.

Pearlman is in good voice, and she prances around the stage during the instrumental passages. Shell and Fossett sing along with her on the "Gitchy gitchy ya-ya-da-da" refrain. "I'd like to thank God and most of all my parents for having sex and making me," says Pearlman, as she relinquishes the mike.

Offstage she praises the band's playing but gripes that "they could stand to add 20 to 30 more songs. I'd like them to do more styles of music, more songs by women, and more modern songs."

But the secret to the series may be the familiarity of the material. "The best songs to sing are the ones that everyone does but you never get sick of," explains audience member Seth Porges. "Karaoke is like a classic-rock radio station. You don't want to give people something new. You want to remind them why they like it in the first place."

Rock 'n' Roll Karaoke happens every Wednesday night and one Saturday a month at the Underground Lounge, 952 W. Newport. Doors open at 9 and the karaoke starts around 10; there's a $5 cover. For more information call 773-327-2739.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Suzy Polling.

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