3 Minutes of Fame: Columbus Karaoke Fans live out their rock-star dreams one song at a time
By Chris DeVille
Just after 10 on a wintry Wednesday night, a burly, charismatic thirty-something with an unkempt mop of black curls down his neck and a scrappy beard on his chin steps on stage. As people trickle into Oldfield's on High, he launches into the evening's first song, a bang-up rendition of They Might Be Giants' "Birdhouse In Your Soul."
Having broken the ice, "Karaoke Dave" Casto cedes the stage to a steady stream of amateur rock stars, announcing each singer with zeal and interjecting between tracks with zany videos and friendly barbs. At one point, during a stranger's shockingly solid take on "At Last," Casto stands and lifts his lighter to the sky in tribute.
Casto is a natural at this stuff, a contagious party animal who knows how to have a good time under any circumstances. But he's also well practiced. He's been hosting karaoke nights around Columbus since seven years ago, when Cafe Bourbon Street hired him to work every other Sunday. Those shows were a hit, and when Ravari Room opened two years later, Casto convinced owner Jeff Stewart to let him set up shop there too.
As Casto's reputation grew, more and more bars began requesting his services. Now his Excesss Karaoke puts on shows between six and seven nights a week in mostly Campus-area bars. He's so inundated with business that he had to bring on a partner, Pat Roach, to handle some of the nights.
This Oldfield's gig is the latest to stick, and though it hasn't yet developed a distinct identity like some of his more established nights, tonight the bar is packed and Casto's queue is filled with requests.
"A night will develop," Casto later explains. "It's like there's an unspoken consensus. Last night I had three separate people request Scorpions songs."
This evening, momentum seems to be building for '90s pop-rock and alternative: Oldfield's manager Drew Sherrick tackles Soul Asylum's "Somebody to Shove"; a shy guy comes out of his shell for Eve 6's "Inside Out"; people take cracks at Oasis, Pearl Jam, Alanis Morissette and even Hootie and the Blowfish before last call.
Some people slay, like Wednesday-night regular Bobby Taylor, who gives a bravura performance of the Dead Milkmen's "Punk Rock Girl." Others bumble their way through songs new (a tone-deaf reading of Fall Out Boy's "This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race") and old (a girl in an oversized "Morrison Hotel" hoodie massacres Pink Floyd's "Hey You").
"You never know what's going to happen," Casto says. "That's what makes the show so great."
In 1971, jazz drummer Daisuke Inoue constructed the first karaoke box, called the "Juke 8," and began leasing it to bars in Kobe, Japan. The practice, which translates to "empty orchestra" in Japanese, spread rapidly through Asia and soon took root in Europe, but it carried a stigma in the States. Even Casto said he "used to hate the idea of it."
"For years karaoke was this thing that mostly was done by drunks," said Brian Raftery, a correspondent for Wired magazine and author of Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life.
Raftery cited Bill Murray's cheesy lounge lizard character on Saturday Night Live as indicative of the old-school American view of karaoke - lame, irreverent, socially awkward and by no means the province of serious music fans - that made it such a hard sell at first.
"It felt like a mockery of pop music, not something I wanted to be a part of," said VH1 World Series of Pop Culture champion Andrew Unterberger, a self-proclaimed karaoke junkie who gave an interview over e-mail after blowing out his voice with a five-hour session the previous night.
These days, the stigma has subsided, and karaoke's popularity has exploded. Pull into any major U.S. city and you can find karaoke every night of the week. Sometimes the market is so saturated that you'll find competing events in the same neighborhood, Raftery said.
What changed to allow karaoke to become such a Stateside sensation? The factors are almost too numerous to count.
For one, Raftery cites the rise of home karaoke machines marketed to kids in the late '90s. A generation of young folks got hooked on karaoke before they bought into the cultural stereotypes about it - essentially, they tried it before they knocked it. And as they grew up, they began spilling into karaoke bars.
Another cultural shift to consider: Although humans have been singing together since the beginning of history, the 20th-century advent of the entertainment industry made Americans' relationship with music more passive, Raftery said. In a decade dominated by Facebook, Guitar Hero and reality TV, that mindset is going the way of the buffalo. Interactive entertainment now rules, and karaoke has reaped the spoils. Type the phrase "me singing" into YouTube and see what comes up.
"This decade has been very much about people wanting to put themselves back in the limelight," said Maura Johnston, a freelance journalist and, like Raftery, a former editor of pop music blog Idolator. "One of the biggest factors is the allure of being a star on whatever level."
Such sentiments ring true in the era of American Idol.
"Idol opened the floodgates," Raftery said, warming Americans to the idea of average Joes singing in front of an audience and making celebrity seem like something attainable, if fleeting.
"Everybody's a star, for not even 15 minutes. It's more like three now," Johnston said.
There are differences, of course: Johnston and Unterberger noted that Idol contestants are encouraged to put their own spin on a song, whereas karaoke singers usually aim for exact duplication. Simon Cowell even disparages Idol contestants by calling their performances mere karaoke. Nonetheless, there's a clear connection between the show's popularity and karaoke's rise - enough so that Unterberger recalls a competition night called "Karaoke Idol."
A week after the Oldfield's encounter, I interview Casto at Ravari Room, where he'd overseen more karaoke madness the night before featuring Santa beards and a bag full of ugly Christmas sweaters. Casto feeds off these crazy evenings, and he works to make every outing wild.
"It's not your typical karaoke night," Casto says. "I try to make it a party."
He's just the man for the job, a people-person who goes with the flow, puts others at ease and inspires them to act as wacky as he does.
"Dave is definitely that sort of guy that keeps everybody happy," said karaoke regular Taylor.
Sometimes Casto doesn't even seek revelry - it just seems to spring up around him. Two nights before our interview, he dressed up like Elvis and married two Ravari employees in the walk-in freezer during the bar's holiday party, per their request.
If "ordained minister" seems like a strange title for a karaoke host, it's just one of Casto's many professions. He does freelance graphic and web design. He and his wife sell greeting cards printed on Frisbees. He created a DVD for cats, available at CatDVD.com, and he's working on a children's album.
Before any of those pursuits, Casto was a DJ. That practice dates back to his childhood in Marietta, when he built up his collection by signing up for the Columbia House music club under six different names to get all the free CDs. By the time he enrolled at Ohio State, his productions featured high-end speakers and fog machines.
Casto's DJ career led to the offer to run Bourbon Street karaoke, and slowly but surely, being a "KJ" became his most profitable gig. So he threw in his lot with karaoke, mortgaging his house to build his prized custom rig and acquire as many officially licensed songs as possible. He's become quite good at it, making sure to announce every performer before and after they sing.
"Dave is always the first one to be clapping and cheering," Taylor said.
He aims to avoid faux pas like spending too much time on stage or letting a privileged group of friends dominate the queue, and he always stays engaged with the crowd all night. For him, it's a rock show, and the singers are the stars.
"I was not a karaoke fan before Dave, said Mary Hall, a Sunday-night karaoke staple. "I've never experienced another karaoke person that made the same kind of environment."
Casto sums up his KJ appeal succinctly: "I'm just a cheesy son of a bitch."
"I love basketball," Unterberger said, "but there's no way for me to ever find out what it feels like to play in the Lakers' starting lineup. Karaoke allows me to literally become a part of my favorite songs, to at least sort of understand what it's like to be Billy Idol singing 'Cradle of Love,' and there's really no comparison to that in the rest of pop culture."
That ecstasy that comes from submerging yourself in a song and delivering a knockout performance is a familiar high for karaoke addicts. Whether in the privacy of a karaoke room at Momo2 or on Ravari's sizable stage, grabbing the microphone - and the crowd's attention - can be quite the thrill.
In Columbus, Casto has attracted an array of local followers, some of whom sing at his karaoke shows two, three or even four nights a week. The regulars identify with that rush that comes with knocking a song out of the park.
"You get up there once, and then all of the sudden everybody seems to know your name," Taylor said. "People will buy you a drink."
Hall agreed: "Some nights when I go there I feel like a goddamn rock star, and it's wonderful."
For some, the experience has become more than a cheap thrill.
"Karaoke has changed my life," Hall said. "It works as my own method of therapy."
Raftery can relate. The Don't Stop Believin' author spent a good chunk of his young adult life belting out hits at a Manhattan karaoke bar called Village Karaoke. Unkempt, overweight and paralyzingly shy, he used karaoke to develop the swagger to take control of his life.
"The more I sang karaoke, the more confident I got in my general day-to-day life," Raftery said. "Eventually I started trying to live like that."
Casto gets something out of this too. For one, he's starting to make a good living doing it, and he's eager to continue expanding his empire. He hopes to start hosting happy-hour karaoke - "There's only so many nights from 10 to 2" - and is always on the lookout for more weekend gigs and daytime corporate events.
Then there's his biggest ambition: If a casino goes in Downtown, Casto envisions running a daily karaoke lounge during happy hour and continuing to work his nightly bar shows.
Considering his good fortune so far, the casino plan doesn't seem like a pipe dream. Yet, as profitable as karaoke has been for Casto professionally, working so many nights has been somewhat restrictive socially. Thankfully, the bonds forged over Journey and Toto run deep.
"The people I consider my friends," Casto says, "are the ones who come here and hand me song slips night after night."