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King of Karaoke - OSU graduate specializes in making you a star through other people's music

By Adam Scoppa

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10:00 pm: Your reporter walks into the bar, primed and ready for a night of unpredictable entertainment. It's a bit early. "Karaoke Dave" Casto is almost finished rigging up his own sound system, a quality unit with high-end speakers, wireless microphones and an LCD monitor. At this point, he could probably do it blindfolded.

You may not have realized it, but Columbus is a karaoke town. Casto's Excesss Karaoke is the best the city has to offer, and it's the best by a wide margin. Recently, the enterprise has been booked seven nights a week.

"I've just always tried to help people have a good time," said Casto, an amiable, and sometimes lewd, 30-something with a shaggy mop of curls atop a perpetually smiling face. He began hosting karaoke about seven years ago, booked for every other Sunday at Cafe Bourbon Street.

"It kept on growing and growing, and one gig led to another," he said, which meant he eventually had to yield some of the responsibility to his partner, "Karaoke Pat" Roach. The duo now offers karaoke at campus haunts Ravari Room, both Oldfield's locations, The Thirsty Scholar, and the aforementioned east campus dive Cafe Bourbon. The newest venues include north campus Indian restaurant Taj Mahal and Ana Moly's in the German Village. That's a lot of evenings spent closing down bars, but Casto doesn't mind.

"I've always been a night owl and I love people," he said.

10:26 pm: Casto sets down his cocktail and kicks off Round 1 with Harry Belafonte's "Jump In the Line" to an audience of patrons beginning to trickle in steadily. He nails it like a pro, not so much as glancing at lyrics scrolling on the monitor in front of him. Already, people are grabbing drinks, dutifully filling out song slips and turning them in.

Dave Casto is the party shark with the plan - the kind of guy who keeps the music going and the beer cold. He's the kind of guy with enough smarts to throw a good time without letting it careen out of control. The kind of guy who actually makes Hawaiian shirts look awesome. His attitude and dedication take karaoke out of the realm of just "something to do," and transform it into an evening's drinking destination.

Still, he keeps a professional demeanor about the whole thing. It is, after all, a sizable chunk of his income. A graduate of Ohio State in graphic design, Casto relishes putting his skill for presentation and passion for music together. Rounding out a truly unique livelihood, he designs websites, plans wedding receptions, and produces a cat entertainment video called CatDVD.

"I don't think anyone approaches [karaoke] as much like a business as I do," he said, citing that some karaoke joints in the city lack the essential atmosphere and have hosts who seem indifferent. Casto wants to keep people coming back. He understands that the three things that make karaoke habit-forming are quality sound, expansive song selection and attention to patrons. Three of Casto's venues showcase live music on a regular basis. His gigantic song books contain more than 30,000 "100 percent legal" titles - more than a few radio stations' playlists put together - which means you can find everything from Hank to Kanye. Perhaps most importantly, he knows how to keep it moving along in a tidy manner amidst the spilled drinks and rambunctious patrons. Song after song, Casto emcees like a ringleader with sincere enthusiasm, announcing who's up next and who's on deck. Rotating the newbies equally with the seasoned veterans who show up every week, he tries his best to let everyone sing.

"I try to be really fair about [rotation]," he said. "I take that seriously. Everyone's got the same shot at getting up, you know, this is their three minutes to be a rock star. I want it to sound good and I want them to look good."

11:33 pm: By now clusters of people are hunching over the song books, tossing back shots - works like a charm, particularly tequila - and hyping themselves and their friends with pep talks. Meanwhile, someone puts the finishing touches on Wall of Voodoo's weirdo hit "Mexican Radio." Nice.

Karaoke is often misunderstood as cheesy. Well, alright, let's call a spade a spade. But it's cheesy in the best way possible. This is why no one should be afraid to try it: it's hard to look foolish when karaoke is inherently a little absurd. You get to try a song on for size just to see what happens. You can revel in the glory of one of your favorite tunes or mine, or an obnoxious one for all the laughs it's worth. From any angle, karaoke is a fun, cathartic experiment. The regulars understand this. They have their routines, their old chestnuts, and they'll try a new one every week.

"It's funny you should ask that," responded Casto when asked about his favorite songs to perform. He fished out two pieces of paper from his wallet, each covered front and back with golden oldies, forgotten gems and modern hits. "I had to start making a list," he said.

"I probably sing more country than I should," admitted student Joe Mollica before stepping up to the mic for R.E.M.'s non-country "Losing My Religion."

Honey-voiced bartender Peggy Timmer blew the crowd away with Aladdin's "A Whole New World," done as a duet with the equally talented Chris Oden.

"It's fun. Sometimes I sing with Dave," she said, adding that "Summer Nights" from Grease is another favorite.

12:40 am: We've got a quartet of ladies approaching the stage now, and they appear more than a little tipsy. One girl is celebrating her birthday with an endless stream of Long Island Iced Teas. She's never sung karaoke before, and it looks like ... yep, it's going to be Journey. Your reporter decides to step outside.

So what is it that makes karaoke so popular in Columbus? The biggest college in the nation probably has something to do with it, but Casto attributes it to the city's rich live music scene.

Columbus has kind of redefined what karaoke means," he said. "A lot of the people that come in are musicians on their nights off. Even if they're a guitarist and not a singer, they know music."

Casto's song books are indeed a music lover's karaoke dream. Sourcing his tracks from four different providers, he makes sure to stay on top of the newest hits while steadily building a back catalogue of classics and rarities. There's a giddy thrill in perusing the pages, trying to dig up something you bet no one's attempted before, or rediscovering a song you happen to know every word to. You can pretty much count on old-school hip-hop to slay a crowd, same with certain '80s power ballads. Timing the audience is part of the fun.

1:12 am: Someone's getting into Black Sabbath's "Warpigs." The song is executed well, but the three-plus minutes of instrumental jamming at the end results in "Ozzy" standing awkwardly onstage just sipping his beer. When there's nothing left to sing, either you'd better start dancing wildly or else just step down.

Each of Casto's venues bring in a different scene. The Thirsty Scholar crowd is, of course, predominantly students singing chant-along numbers like "Hang On Sloopy" and "We Are the Champions." Ravari Room hosts a fair share of the punk rock and metal crowd, singing what you'd expect - "Master of Puppets," "Anarchy in the UK" - to things you wouldn't. One spike-haired girl is fond of the old-timey "St. Louis Blues."

Wherever you find yourself, you'll laugh, you'll cringe, and sometimes, you'll get to witness the "perfect storm." This is typically someone who, unbeknownst to themselves, is going to sing the right song at the right time to an audience at the zenith of their intoxication. At that point, you may be surprised to find yourself thinking, "I know it's only karaoke, but I like it."

2:09 am: As people stagger out of the bar and the lights come on, Bad Company's "Feel Like Makin' Love" is being performed by a guy who really seems to mean it. Your reporter pays his tab, tips his hat to Karaoke Dave, and wanders home with a warm, fuzzy feeling all over. It's time for some rest - there's another long night of karaoke tomorrow.

Originally Published: Issue 847 - October 7, 2009