Friday, January 30, 2009
ABF Friday: Karaoke edition!
Just before Molochmas, this humble but easily-annoyed blog complained mightily about the surfeit of lousy, terrible, maddening, and depressingly faux-cheery Christmas songs. But little did I know back then that this Christmas was going to be all about the music! And—thankfully—not the Christmas music, either. Instead, it was Christmas Karaoke at the Lyons’ place!
Now, before you begin retching and shuddering at the idea of Christmas Karaoke, you have to understand that vocals-wise, hanging with the Lyons is like hanging with the Carter family. Cynthia Lyon has been tsarina of Eight to the Bar for over thirty years now, leading the band from its early western-swing days through its bar-band R-and-B days through its we’ll-play-any-damn-thing-you-can-name days. (Here they are doing their swing thing, and here’s a little bit of soul.) Her husband is distinguished sax fellow Collin Tilton. Her sisters Barbara and Todd have sung with the band off and on through the decades, and even though Janet’s tenure with the band was the shortest of the four—dating back to the mid-1970s, well before I met her—she can sing lead or harmony as brilliantly as any of ‘em. (When you put this fearsome foursome all together, they do a mean “Mele Kalikimaka.” You have been warned.) And the Lyons’ solitary man, Bud, plays guitar and bass and can sing—well, pretty much any damn thing you can name, short of Tosca. So this wasn’t some weak-ass, two-notes-flat, Wednesday-night bar karaoke caterwauling we’re talking about. This was the serious shit. The whole thing was Bud’s idea, and it truly was hours upon hours of fun for the whole family. We all set up in Cynthia and Collin’s studio, and Nick played drums to almost everything.
I came in for one of the highlights of the evening: Janet tearing it up on Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up or Let Me Go.” Bud and Todd did an amazing little duet—amazing because completely uncampy—on the Frank and Nancy Sinatra classic “Somethin’ Stupid.” Janet, Bud, Todd and I had a surprisingly good time doing “Needles and Pins”—surprising because although it’s a little gem of a song, the second verse and the changes into and out of the middle eight are a bit odder than people think. Go ahead, try it at home. See, told you. And Todd lit into “Goldfinger” so as to make Shirley Bassey proud. No, really.
There were plenty of Beatles tunes sprinkled in there as well, mostly for the benefit of Jamie and his cousins, Trevor and Dash; the Lyon girls had the chops to pull off the backups on “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl,” and they would’ve tackled the three-parts on “Yes It Is,” but the dang songbook didn’t have it.
It was even fun to find out what did and didn’t work. For whatever reason, Janet and I didn’t get it together on “Shiny Happy People,” but who would’ve guessed that Janet, Todd, and Barbara could make the Fifth Dimension’s “Stone Soul Picnic” come to life? I got extra extra bonus points for being crazy enough to attempt the best song released since 2000; I hit the highs on the chorus OK (I’m a tenor, folks) and managed the minor/major shifts without grinding gears, but had a little trouble with the phrasing at the beginning of the second and third verses. That’s because those parts are hard.
Other parts of karaoke songs that, in my limited experience, the unwary singer has to watch out for: the drop to “can” in “sitting in / floating on my tin can” in “Space Oddity” (all the harder for coming after the long “here” in each verse: pace yourself!); the melisma on “look for the light through the pouring rain” in “Drift Away” (which is why that weak-ass Uncle Cracker guy didn’t even attempt it); and the whole entire long-and-chock-full-of-words third verse of “Watching the Detectives,” for which vocalists should train by running up and down the mountain slopes of Kenya.
I didn’t attempt any of those this time around, though I did sing “Ziggy Stardust” with Bud, to reasonably good effect. The one song that won me plaudits and a few back-slaps from this Tough Crowd was Johnny Rivers’ “Mountain of Love,” which is, admittedly, a pretty easy melody with only a few subtle challenges in the choruses. But it did sound great with Janet and Todd on the backups, and in my humble opinion, the backups make the song go.
But this post isn’t about me. Really! It’s about the guy who, after all the Lyons and Lyon-friends and Lyon-partners and Lyon-progeny had sung and sung and sung again, had to be hauled out from behind the drum kit by order of his mother. “Nick,” came the order. “Get up here and sing or else.” Yes, this Christmas was Nick’s long-awaited karaoke debut! At first, he demurred and tried to hide, but when the Lyons threatened to take him by the ankles and drag him to the mike, he gave in.
So what does the kid pick to sign for his long-awaited karaoke debut, in front of all his talented aunts and uncles? “Faded Love,” Patsy Cline version. Are you $(*#ing kidding me? What the @#$%ing @#$% was he thinking? “Faded Love” by Patsy $*&!ing Cline? “Son,” I thought, “you leave that kind of shit to k. d. lang. This is not a song to be trifled with by the likes of us mortals.” But I kept quiet—and went to get a beer, not wanting to watch the entire debacle.
I came back a few seconds later to hear Nick hit “I miss you, darling, more and more every day” dead-on, crystal-clear, in full voice. No falsetting anything. Well, holy fuggin shit almighty, as Leo Durocher says in DeLillo’s Underworld. And then he did it again on “with every heartbeat I still think of you.” By that point everyone in the studio was staring at him, mouth agape. Nick proceeded to nail the thing. To. The. Wall. He even did a damn fine young-man version of Patsy’s stunning reading of the very end of the song—you know, where she swoops under and over the word “faded” and then does that breathless stutter-stop on “love.”
The room burst into wild applause and whoopin’ and hollerin’, and with every good reason; but Tsarina Cynthia was furious. Furious, I tell you. She marched up to Nick and demanded, first, “how did you know that song?”
“Cynthia,” Janet sensibly reminded her, “he is my son.”
Cynthia wheeled on her. “Quiet, you,” she shot back. To Nick: “How did you know that song?”
“Well, I’ve had Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits since I was a kid,” Nick replied, “and . . .”
“And you know the Bob Wills version too?” Cynthia sounded proprietary: dammit, who’s been letting these youngsters into the family vault?
“Well, sure,” Nick said.
Cynthia was fuming. “Nicholas,” she fumed. “I am so mad that you had this talent all this time and never shared it with us.” Then there was some more fuming I didn’t catch.
Nick shrugged sheepishly. What could he do? It is bad to anger the tsarina. Besides, she was right: what was Nick doing not singing karaoke all these years?
So everybody had a great old time, and Nick’s performance was the hit of the holiday. Why, it even dislodged the Bing-and-Bowie “Drummer Boy” from our brains, though I have to thank Derryl Murphy, in comment 33 of that thread, for alerting us to the existence of the parody version.
And speaking of those Christmas songs! As Janet, Jamie and I were driving to Connecticut this old tune came on the radio, and at first neither of us could place it. After a while, Janet said, “sounds kind of like Donny Hathaway.” For that, Janet gets extra extra bonus vocal-style-identification points! And best of all, the song does not suck. So this Christmas was musically cool after all, on every front.
So, my arbitrary friends: best and worst karaoke experiences of your life so far? Lyon Christmas Karaoke featuring Nick’s “Faded Love” was my best; my worst was watching someone in a bar try to sing Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” The poor guy didn’t realize that the song was computer-generated and cannot be sung by humans, and the results were exceptionally ugly. As you can well imagine.