Tender, loving karaoke

For some folks, the local karaoke scene is a culture unto itself

“Any place I go, I give it my all,” says karaoke enthusiast AC/DC Joe, who goes to up to four places a night.

“Any place I go, I give it my all,” says karaoke enthusiast AC/DC Joe, who goes to up to four places a night.

Photo By Allison Young

For listings of local karaoke nights, check out the nightclub grid (page 27) in every issue of the Reno News & Review.

Karaoke, in the literal sense, is a Japanese term translated to mean “empty orchestra.” But to many of us, it means the end of a long night of bar-hopping, generally resulting in an embarrassing video on YouTube featuring a very sloppy rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

While it may just be the means to a drunken end for the casual karaoke-er, there’s a side to the pastime that goes much deeper, to a whole culture in fact. Like everything else the Japanese have given us—sushi, sumo wrestling, anime hairstyles—what was initially just a fad has stuck around like white on rice since the ’80s.

What is it about karaoke that makes it so popular? It’s a combination of things. It’s the fact that it’s an immediate party the moment that first drunk fellow starts belting “Baby Got Back.” It’s the fact that it welcomes all types. It offers immediate acceptance—you’ll get clapped one way or another. Whether it’s because you’re just that good, or because the audience is just that glad you’re getting off the stage. It’s the one sport where the worst players are the most respected—hey, they had the balls to get up there.

Reno in itself is no stranger to the popular bar staple. Every night of the week a venue can be found playing host, making it the ultimate breeding grounds for our own little karaoke subculture.

One of the biggest names in the area is Steve Starr. A resident “K.J.,” as they call it in karaoke terms, Steve Starr has played host for 24 years. He does it all without even having to advertise. “The people created that,” Starr says, in reference to his monopolistic reputation in the K.J. world. “It’s because I bring a show. I’m an entertainer. If there’s no one singing, I’ll sing to keep the party going.”

Starr, who has a background in stage performing, everything from DJ-ing at the Men’s Club, to stand-up comedy, to fronting a cover band, can not only put on a show encouraging others to belt their hearts out, but he carries quite the tune himself. Featuring a velvety Motown vocal strength that melts hearts, including his wife, whom he met at one of his shows.

“Karaoke makes it easy,” Starr confirms of his work’s love connection abilities. “It gives people courage. And whether you’re singing well or not, you just give ’em a look, sing a few words, and the rest is history.”

Starr’s extensive song collection has also earned him his golden reputation. “We download new music every day. My selection is incredible. If there’s a song I don’t have, I bet people a drink that the next time they see me, I’ll have it. I’ve only spent about $60 over 24 years.”

Starr loves the people, in tune and out. Some great talent comes to his show, but his trick for coping when it gets bad? “I got five kids at home,” he says. “I know how to tune things out.”

The singer, not the song

As for the Reno vocalists you may not see headlining their own shows at the Grand Sierra Resort or John Ascuaga’s Nugget, you can catch them on a regular basis at some of the favorite local karaoke haunts. From as far as Truckee to slightly hidden corners like The Point on Fourth Street, to the initial infamous singing and watering hole, West Second Street Bar. These are truly the biggest little stars.

Taking a trip toward Tahoe leads to a stop at Truckee’s Tourist Club, known fondly as “T-Club”—where you’re likely to run into the town celebrity, “Sweets.” While he surely has a given name, no one knows it. And if you ask, you’ll likely get the response—true or not, you decide—that he can’t reveal it, because he used to be in the CIA.

When it comes to karaoke, like his name suggests, 64-year-old Sweets is good with the ladies. Walking up to the stage accompanied by catcalls and high-fives, the first words he belts out are, “Ladies, I hope you wore your panties tonight ’cause they’re about to be droppin’!” And while there may not be a waterfall of women’s lingerie in hot pursuit, Sweets does bring the house down with such classics as Ray Price’s “For the Good Times” and Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.”

“It’s all from the heart,” he says. “If I don’t feel it, I don’t sing it. I’m old school. OG. Triple OG … OG is old guy.” But for a triple OG, he still knows how to bust a move.

When things get a bit too hot to handle, you can cool off with a country line-dance down at The Point. While country may be the unofficial sound of this karaoke spot, it’s décor is that of the Rat Pack days, with the stage being in the “Dean Martin Lounge.” Owned by local musician Paul Jones, The Point is the favorite stage of their resident celebrity karaoke-er, “The Cowboy,” aka Bryan Jon. With his go-to songs, Toby Keith’s “Whiskey Girl” and Kenny Chesney’s “Come Over,” he gets the crowd moving their feet and taking shots.

“This one goes out to all the girls who are drinkin’ whiskey tonight—are you ready?” the Cowboy will ask from under his wide-brimmed hat before kicking into what feels like a private Bryan Jon concert.

“For a karaoke singer to be able to get up and have people sing along, dance, or shed a tear because of a memory, I love that,” he says. “There’s nothing like being able to come here and have people watch and participate.”

For a walk on the wild side, in both location sense and song selection—one has to simply go downtown, to one of the first karaoke spots in Reno, West Second Street Bar. Here, if you come late enough, you will likely get your ears pierced by the impressively high vocals of karaoke scene staple “AC/DC Joe.”

Wearing an AC/DC band shirt is the only giveaway one gets from the unassuming man, who got his start in music from being around his dad’s mariachi band as a child. When he grabs the mic and starts peeling around the bar belting, “Shoot to Thrill,” amid fans howling, “Give it to ’em Joe!” you know you’re in for a night—as your eardrums will remind you the next day. “Any place I go, I give it my all, I let ’em have it,” says Joe, who goes to up to four venues a night. “I meet a lot of good people. AC/DC gave me that.”

That’s a sentiment which, at the end of the night, is a constant among karaoke singers and lovers alike. It’s not about the song selection, or the show, or even the $1 Budweisers at CalNeva. It’s about that pat on the back, and the encouragement to put your name in for a second round. The people are the high note of karaoke, confirming it’s not a passing fad, but a culture.