Max's offers karaoke in a side room on Friday nights. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)
They looked like naturals, even as they jumbled the occasional lyric or flubbed a note, here or there.
At Max's Taphouse last Friday night, the figurative spotlight turned to three friends — two with microphones in hand, the other there for moral support — and the drums and piano gained momentum through the speakers. After confidently making it through the first verse, Michael Allison took a slight step forward to seize his moment.
"Then like a sinner before the gates of heaven / I'll come crawling on back to yooouuu," Allison sang, raising a fist in the air and dropping to his knee as the crowd of roughly 35 people cheered.
Mark Bishop, longtime karaoke jockey at Max's in Fells Point, couldn't help but smirk nearby. These are the type of performances that keep amateur lead singers, and the audiences that love them, coming back.
"Usually, the most entertaining singers aren't necessarily the best singers," Bishop said. "You can almost sense their spirit."
In 2018, it's hard to imagine Meat Loaf's 1977 operatic-rock epic "Bat Out of Hell" captivating a crowd — unless, of course, it's karaoke, which remains a staple of Baltimore's nightlife. These days, singers of all talents can perform karaoke in the city in a variety of ways, from weekly karaoke nights to private rooms and a competitive social league.
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Bishop — a "KJ," or karaoke jockey, since 2000 — has become a staple of the local scene. Along with other hosts including Joey McCann and Martine Casner, Bishop is known for his traditional karaoke nights in the area — weekly events where he sets up shop in a bar for the night.
You'll find him at bars like Castaways Bar & Grill in Canton (Wednesdays) and Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn in Essex (Saturdays), but his most lively crowd is late Friday night at Max's Taphouse, he said. There, the audience can really get into performances — from the karaoke standard "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor to alt-rock hits of the recent past, like Harvey Danger's "Flagpole Sitta." It's common to see the crowd cheering on the momentary rock stars wholeheartedly.
"It's a big stress release," Bishop said. "A lot of people get up, having had a couple of drinks, and they sing a couple of songs. And at least for a couple hours, they forget about all their pressures and problems."
While karaoke nights are common, Walt's Inn in Canton has become the go-to bar for karaoke at nearly any time.
Offering karaoke six nights per week, Walt's Inn always seems to have a full crowd on weekends. (The wait time to sing can be up to 90 minutes, said general manager Dawn Green.) The modest corner bar, which has done karaoke for more than 20 years, is a local favorite for its Jell-O shots and friendly staff. Walt's recently updated its songbook to include 20,000 songs, Green said, including an influx of Bruno Mars, country artists and modern hits.
Once in a while, a talented vocalist will take the microphone at Walt's, "but for the most part, everyone's average, so it's an equal playing field," Green said.
"They always say, 'Dawn, just put me up now because it's going to be the best song you've ever heard in your life,' " she said with a laugh. "If I had a dollar for every time I heard that, I'd be on a cruise right now."
Not everyone loves the idea of singing in front of a room filled with strangers.
So while Baltimore is more known for traditional karaoke nights, there are also small karaoke rooms rentable for private parties, the "karaoke box" style popularized in Asian countries.
In Station North, Crown Seoul — the first-floor restaurant run by the team behind the upstairs music venue, the Crown — offers two private rooms, the Blue Forest and the Baby Room. (Around the corner is also Jong Kak, the Korean barbecue restaurant whose second floor offers private karaoke rooms as well.)
Their names reflect their paint jobs and overall aesthetics, and they cost $35 per hour. The size of an encyclopedia, the songbook features Korean, Japanese and American songs, including hits by Nirvana, Jennifer Lopez and Baltimore R&B singer Sisqo.
Michael Young, co-general manager at Crown Seoul, said Asian-style karaoke is more intimate than traditional karaoke because of the tighter quarters and a tiny audience usually consisting of friends. Eight people are the maximum party size for both rooms, he said.
"It gives people a chance to express themselves just like any art form," Young said. "I think people feel open here to do that. They can be as crazy or silly as they want to be, and nobody's going to judge them."
There's more private karaoke on the way, too.
Inside Hotel Revival, which opened last week in Mount Vernon, are three karaoke rooms, roughly 100 square feet apiece. With three distinct designs ('60s Laurel Canyon, late '70s disco and '80s punk), the hotel calls the rooms B-Side Karaoke. They will cost $75 per hour when they open to the public — not just guests — in early May, said Brad Daniels, director of food and beverage for the hotel. The ideal group size is between eight and 12, he said.
Hotel Revival's karaoke adds a modern element: A connected mobile app by Voicebox Industries will allow users to create a songlist ahead of time, so they can get right to singing, Daniels said.
The biggest obstacle might be finding the karaoke rooms. The hotel considers them "hidden in plain sight," located down a hallway near the restrooms of the hotel bar, Square Meal Lounge. Just don't expect to see any signage, according to Daniels.
"You kind of hear people inside and say, 'What is that?' " Daniels said. "I think our intention will always be to keep them looking almost like a storage room — something unique that people can stumble across."
Most karaoke jockeys emphasize the casual nature of Baltimore's karaoke scene, but there is an option for the more naturally competitive: BMore Karaoke, a team-based "social" league. Think of the spirit of say, a kickball league, with weekly themes and silly costumes — all set to music.
After being introduced to the District Karaoke league in Washington, Joy Leah Sisson brought the concept to Baltimore in 2015. Since then, Tin Roof at Power Plant Live has hosted BMore Karaoke.
Over a 10-week season, 48 performers, divided into six teams, perform solo and group performances set to weekly themes, from "superheroes" and "duets" to all '80s songs. A mobile app allows any audience member to vote for their favorite performances.
"Everybody loves to dress up," said Sisson, the league manager. "It's more about bragging rights than anything they've won."
Even though there are prizes (gift cards from sponsors) and voted-upon winners, Sisson emphasized that singing ability isn't often the key to winning.
Instead, it's the performer's creativity and conviction that usually leads to victory. (Last week, the team Nothing But Treble was crowned the winter champions. They'll head to D.C. to represent Baltimore in a "Battle of the Beltway" against Washington teams, Sisson said.)
"It's a 100 percent judgment-free zone," Sisson said. "It's not a singing competition by any stretch of the imagination."
As is often the aim of social leagues, though, the point of BMore Karaoke is to have fun and meet new people, she said.
"The league forces you to be more social, meet new people and really put yourself out there," Sisson said. "We have people that can sing really well, and people that can't. But they're fun, and they don't mind making complete fools of themselves. It's crazy and a lot of fun."
The do's and don'ts of Baltimore karaoke
There are rules — some written, some not — to karaoke in Baltimore. We asked Dawn Green of Walt's Inn and veteran karaoke jockey Mark Bishop to offer advice to keep in mind before belting your favorite song.
“Don’t hand me the Magna Carta,” Bishop said. Submit one song at a time, and once you’re called up to perform, then submit your next song, he said.
“Support the bar,” Green said. Walt’s has a two-drink minimum for those looking to sing; Max’s has no minimum.
Go by the same performance name. “If you’re Bill, don’t try to get up as Will, Willy, William. Be fair to everyone else,” Bishop said.
At Walt’s, don’t be surprised if an enthusiastic singer grabs another mic and joins you.
Be kind to the equipment. “No swinging the mic or banging the mic,” Bishop said. “It can damage the microphone and everyone’s ears.”
Most of all, be kind in general. There’s no booing allowed at either establishment. “Don’t sit there and heckle somebody,” Bishop said. “They’re brave enough to get up there and sing, at least give them credit for that.”