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Live band karaoke in Sonoma

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The next Live Band Karaoke is at the Starling starting at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 21.

The corner of Spain Street and Highway 12 was the home of the Blue Moon Saloon for years, and the site of a much-loved Sunday Blues Jam.

“It was the place to be for local musicians, sometimes 15 to 20 players were there,” says local musician Johnn Murphy.

When the building came up for sale, partners Elizabeth Krist and Fred Johnson bought it and, of course, changed things around a bit. Now, it is the Starling Bar, a cocktail lounge, home of fancy drinks and, again, great live music.

And, as of a few months ago, something called “live band karaoke,” or LBK.

In traditional Japanese karaoke, the singer performs to an audience using a prerecorded music selection. But with “live band karaoke,” a singer performs in front of a live band. The singer gets the satisfaction of letting loose their inner rock star, and also gets to taste the remarkable feeling of being on stage with a band of live musicians backing them up.

What began as an experiment has turned into a phenomenon.

John Arntz is the local live band karaoke mastermind, and is responsible for bringing it to the Starling. Randall Burrows serves as the MC. Once a month a handful of locals lets it all hang out in front of adoring and incredulous friends. The first few brave singers are soon joined by almost a dozen more eager to take the stage, with time being the only limit to how many people can get up on stage.

The implementation of LBK is where it gets really impressive. Interested singers contact Arnz about performing. If there is room on the bill, a song title is mentioned, which version of the song they want to emulate is discussed, and the musical key for the songs is determined. Arntz prepares a chart of the song, and distributes it to his band. The members have a week or so to practice on their own. Then, on the Tuesday before the Thursday performance, the band rehearses the songs. The singer never actually sings with the band until, well, show time.

Glen Ellen resident Chris Wall made his third performance recently at Live Band Karaoke. He spoke about how he prepared. After selecting Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” he practiced by singing with the record. It was easy, just like “singing with Bob.” But when he got onstage, it “sounded different, a totally different experience.” He liked it so much, and the crowd liked it so much, he did it again the next time. His third time on stage, he was comfortable enough to bring along a harmonica, and blow a bit during “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

During the most recent Live Band Karaoke event, 14 singers performed 17 songs to a delighted crowd. The first set was mostly planned and the performances very strong. When the band took a break, several wannabe singers approached Arntz outside the bar. One young woman asked if they could accompany her on “Fat Bottomed Girls.” Arntz replied that that song was particularly dependent on the four-part harmony of the recorded version, and cautioned against it. She countered with “Casey Jones,” though a version the band did not know. They settled on “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and she nailed it. Another young singer, Emma, asked Arntz if she could perform “Here Comes the Sun.” An emphatic “yes” led to a sweet, seat-of-the-pants yet dead-on version of the Beatles classic.

The next Live Band Karaoke is at the Starling starting at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 21.

The Starling House Band, consisting of Arntz on bass, Bob McBain on keyboard, Davo Farrell on guitar and Michael Israel on drums, provided the singers with solid accompaniment throughout. Hats off to them for learning so many new songs, and being so musically fluid.

Arntz, who also has years of experience setting up and guiding people across ropes courses, sees live band karaoke as something similar. “It’s a musical ropes course,” he says. Taking a chance, facing fears, then celebrating doing it, all before a lively group of supportive and caring friends.

So, feeling brave and adventurous? Shoot Arntz an email at john.arntz@gmail.com.

It’s way more fun than singing in the shower.