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Karaoke LARP: Live Band Karaoke

Okay, look, I don't agree with Rob Drew's assessment that karaoke is primarily practiced with some larger goal of becoming a famous singer, as if it were a stepping stone along the way to a record deal, but, damn if live band karaoke didn't have me questioning that position.

This week, I returned to last weeks locations to get a second look at each, wondering if what I had seen was the norm. By and large, it certainly seemed to be. Small differences here and there, but the games otherwise worked as they had, with KJs following through with well repeated patterns of play. So, when Thursday came around I took the opportunity to try something different. At Umami Burger in the Irvine Spectrum, every other Thursday, Casual Encounters Karaoke takes the stage and provides the players with the ultimate in wish fulfillment: a live band playing backup just for you, with a repertoire of over 300 songs and a following that seemed completely different from the regulars at other locations.

The location at Umami Burger was the first interesting unique feature. Apparently, Umami Burger and the Improv Theater are owned together in some capacity and as such there are rules concerning potential overlap. Basically, because karaoke is loud, Casual Encounters must wait until that evening's theater performance is finished, which is usually some sort of comedy show. So though Casual Encounters lists that their game starts at 9:30, in practice, at least this evening, the game didn't start until a little after 10. This move also seemed to have added value for the venue. The karaoke would start just as patrons were leaving the theater and so many of them would stop on their way to see what was going on and then many of them would make their way in to watch karaoke.

Those added value patrons, however, were not the bulk of the attendees tonight. Instead, there was a group of people who seemed intimately aware of each other and the band. They had clusters of grouping who all chatted amongst themselves, and across tables to each other. And at the front, across a long table that seemed to be setup like a judge's booth, several gentlemen sat with a phone propped up on a mini-tripod, ready for recording. I don't know how connected to the band they were, but no one seemed surprised by it. And, indeed, the band members, after setting up their equipment, got their food and mingled with these seeming regulars. Once the game began, it became clear that I was correct about this strange grouping of people, as the first performer got up, wearing a cast on her leg and wielding a cowbell for her song, and was met with raucous applause and and a note of distinct familiarity from the band member wielding the guitar, acting as the pseudo-KJ.

And then she proceeded to sit on a stool and sing to Blue Öyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" with appropriately placed cowbell accompaniment. And I sat slack-jawed, watching this intensely different spectacle before me. This was well beyond my anticipation. The player got up there knowing exactly what she was getting into and performed as any rock star would, with all the swagger she could muster while seated on a stool. This wasn't just karaoke. But it also wasn't open mic night or a local band putting on a performance. It was a different kind of karaoke.

There are true variations to this game!

Variations that go much deeper than the individual preferences and play practices of this or that KJ. This was karaoke, analog edition. The board game version, if you will, of the digital edition. Adaptation studies applied to karaoke! From Adaptation Studies, adaptations are a “transport of form and/or content from a source to a result in a media context.” This is by no means a new approach in media, "Humans have a long history of adapting 'texts' into different forms. Historical events and spoken legends were the inspiration for paintings and sculptures, plays, written tales, stained glass windows, and later, stories in the form of the novel" (Film Adaptation). We seem to have a penchant for taking what we know and applying it to new mediums, in new formats, according to new constraints. What's truly interesting about live band karaoke, however, is that "live band" is the original approach to music, generally, but not the original approach to karaoke. According to Rob Drew in Karaoke Nights, karaoke had its beginnings in Japan, first in the form of "early analog systems, later digital systems, systems with key changers and echo effects and choral effects, the system developed at MIT’s Media Lab that adjusts a song’s tempo to your singing, or the one devised by an Oxford linguist that morphs your voice into Elvis’s or Maria Callas’s." But even the analog systems were pre-recorded music on casette tapes at minimum. They weren't a live band filling in for the music; it was always a pre-taped performance of some studio band off somewhere in the world making a reasonable fascimile of the original. Karaoke started as pre-recorded music. Live karaoke seemingly adapts away from the beginnings of karaoke and towards a more "authentic" performance by not returning to the roots of karaoke but by returning to the roots of musical performance. As such, live band karaoke seems to be to karaoke what larping is to D&D.

Amazing. Intriguing. I had so many questions. And then it was my turn.

Holy crap. I stepped off that stage and my hands were absolutely shaking. What a rush. I look like a fool, but I felt like a god. My composure was lost from that point and I was basically useless for the rest of the evening. A man by the name of Bob eventually approached me and offered a slip of paper with a Facebook group name on it. He told me that he filmed my performance and will have it posted to Facebook by the next day. I would learn the next day that this is how they organize; they congregate as a Facebook group and update each other as to the location, set list, and times of the live band group during the week. Despite listing themselves as "k-singers" they seem completely focused on live band karaoke.

At the end of the evening my mind was still reeling with questions, my body now dropping from the intense adrenaline high from earlier. And just as the guitarist announced they were doing their last song, I heard my name again. I was to be the "headliner" for the evening. The final performance. I was closing out the show.

Fucking awesome.

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