Night Life

Ginza Trippin'

When it comes to karaoke, the American consensus is that it's… well… totally uncool. It's on the geeky fringes of polite society, definitely not the institution here that it is in its native Japan. The very mention of the word brings to mind images of drunken, flush-faced Japanese salarymen on the Ginza Strip, neckties loosened under a sake-stained sport coat, bawling out "My Way." Or maybe it's a vision of a gaggle of tipsy college kids giggling their way through "Jessie's Girl." For a hint of karaoke's image problem in America, just look at those Levi's commercials with the tone-deaf youngsters singing "Karma Chameleon" -- the ironic joke being that if you're wearing a pair of Levi's, you look cool doing any dorky thing.

It's that kind of shit that clenches the jaws of those who are heavily into the entertainment. The owners of the new complex Glitter (6260 Wilcrest) are looking to bring some much-needed upscale flavor to Houston's karaoke scene. Glitter, which opened last February, has the requisite lavishness of a standard trendy club, with some extras: a disco ball twirling from the ceiling, a quartet of comfortable leather rolling chairs for each square blue table, and four private rooms for parties, wedding receptions or bar/bat mitzvahs. Unlike other karaoke spots that have only the machine, the music and a couple of speakers, Glitter has a souped-up sound system that pipes the tunage to the main stage as well as to the function rooms.

Obviously management wants patrons to be wowed by what they see. "If someone was to, say, go to some neighborhood bar where they have Thursday-night karaoke night, and they have a good time, they should definitely come here," says Robin "DJ Seek" Wong, who owns the 5,000-square-foot venue with his boys, Junho Song and Song O. "They don't realize there's a club like this," says Junho Song.

You can't blame the boys for wanting to bring a snazzy image to karaoke. While some places like the Karaoke Café & Bar (10625 Veterans Memorial Drive) use the entertainment as a main attraction, karaoke is still seen as a mere promotional tool for other spots, like SRO-Champions (6982 FM 1960), which allows patrons to belt out tunes on Friday and Saturday nights.

Two of the Glitter owners, Junho Song and Wong, apprenticed at another popular karaoke haunt: Spotlight Karaoke (5901 Westheimer). The 12-year-old bar was one of the first karaoke joints to open in Houston. Manager Cindy Chang attributes Spotlight's staying power to the fact that patrons know exactly what they're getting once they enter. "One, we're a family-run business," says Chang, who manages the place with her parents, husband and daughter. "Our club is strictly a karaoke club. It doesn't have dancing one day. It doesn't have live bands the other day. It only has karaoke."

While cynics may cringe when they lay eyes on a karaoke stage, others make a weekly habit out of the Japanese art. David Mosher, a 29-year-old who works in advertising, has been heavily into the scene for eight years, frequenting clubs like Spotlight and the Blue Monkey, a hangout over at City Streets (5078 Richmond), one to three times a week. His shining moment came a couple of years ago, when he won $500 with his rendition of Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back." "But it's also fun to be up on the stage and do something that when you look out in the crowd, you see people smiling or laughing or clapping and paying attention, you know, to what you're doing," says Mosher.

So far, with the exception of a Friday-night event over at Frank's Pizza (417 Travis), karaoke sightings are sparse downtown. In fact, there was talk that Spotlight would set up shop over at Bayou Place (520 Texas), but Chang and her family declined the offer. "The market is not big enough to justify a karaoke club downtown seven days a week," explains Chang. "If your rent is really superhigh, you have to have a volume of people to go through the door to justify your existence, and a karaoke club is not that mainstream to where that can happen."

Even if karaoke doesn't find a home downtown, spots like Glitter or Spotlight will be around to give both introverts and extroverts (and those who make the conversion with the aid of overserving bar staff) a chance to shine. As Mosher says, "It's like, you know, for that small moment, you're the center attraction."

Last Call

A couple of properly hyped throwdowns are attempting to attract the cool people this weekend. On Friday, April 20, at Spy, the club starts up "420 Fridays," in which resident vinyl experts Mike Masters, Alex C, Johnny J and Penetrate will convene for a weekly sharp-dressed dance extravaganza. For more info, call (713)228-0007 or go on-line at www.vinylpimp.com. But the party of the week will be "Rhythmatic Technology" at the International Ballroom (14035 South Main) on Saturday, April 21. As usual, some big names from foreign lands will inexplicably make their way here to entertain us Lone Star folk. Headlining DJs Ed Rush & Optical and Marcus Intalex will jump the big pond from merrie olde England to make their Houston debuts, while the techno trio Headroom will come all the way from Sweden. As always, the requisite regional talent (Kung Fu Pimp, BMC, Ryno, Exxen) will be there to represent the home folks. For more details, call (713)917-4984.

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey