From as far north as Fort Fairfield to as far south as Kennebunk, Mainers of all stripes love to sing karaoke.
They go to American Legion halls and VFWs, and they go to clubs full of gussied-up folks drinking martinis. They go to restaurants that set up a PA and let patrons give it a shot, and they go to local bars to kick back, drink a beer and watch their friends sing.
They like classic rock. They like pop songs. They even like to try their hand at rapping (though Lord help me if I ever have to hear another karaoke rendition of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”). And they really, really love country – Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, as well as Trace Adkins and Gretchen Wilson.
Your votes for the best karaoke in Maine started rolling in the last week of July, and continued for several weeks after. All told, we got just under 100 votes for 20 different locations. The winner? By a huge margin, with 21 votes – 14 more than its closest runners up, Cap’s Tavern in Brewer and the American Legion in Millinocket – the Lounge Down Under in Houlton swept the competition.
Now what was so special about karaoke at the Lounge that so many of its patrons wrote in to vote?
“It’s the crowd here,” said Lynn Rouse, a Weston resident who comes to the Lounge most Fridays to check out the scene. “Everyone is so fun. They come here to relax. Lots of different folks, too. Young and old alike.”
Rouse e-mailed a few Lounge patrons about the BDN karaoke contest, who forwarded that e-mail to more people, until a whole bunch of e-mails had rolled in and the Lounge had secured its title. She and several friends were sipping drinks and watching one vocalist after another clamber up on stage and sing one Friday in August, egged on by karaoke MC Lonnie Little, a 46-year-old lifetime County resident and consummate showman.
“Hey there! How’s everybody doin’?” said Little as he stood in front of the microphone, dressed in black jeans, a cutoff T-shirt and a black cowboy hat. The crowd roared back and clapped in response.
“I just started singing six years ago,” he said, after stepping offstage. “Nobody in my family was very musical. I didn’t even want to read a paper in front of the class. I was a shy kid.”
The shy kid in class doesn’t describe Little anymore, though, and his musically deficient roots haven’t prevented him from belting out Billy Idol, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Big & Rich on a weekly basis.
“I just love to see people dance,” he said. “They’re all friends, even if they’ve never met before. You can hear them singing along and everything. It’s like what a real entertainer means when he said he’s feeding on energy.”
“He’s awesome at it,” said Erica Soucy, 26, who drove all the way up from Caribou with her husband Dan, and who later on tried her hand at Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” “I started singing when Lonnie first did it, at his first show. A couple years ago at karaoke I couldn’t hear myself onstage, so he brought another two monitors. He’s a good guy.”
Erica and Dan Soucy were sitting with Kimberly and Eric Guston, also down from Caribou. Eric sings for local band Scapegoat, so of course he had to get on stage a few times, most notably for a rendition of James Taylor’s “Steamroller Blues.”
Sheila Hovy, a Houlton resident, just sat back and watched the proceedings. When asked if she ever got up and sang, she laughed.
“I couldn’t carry a tune if I had it in a suitcase,” she said. “I’m definitely a people watcher. I like the music and the crowd.”
Bar manager Garth LaRosa said attendance varies week to week, with more people generally coming during the winter.
“Everyone’s up to camp in the summer, but sometimes they come out,” he said. “It’s seasonal. Winter is the best time, just because it’s something that’ll get you out of the house.”
“We started three years ago because people kept asking for karaoke,” said LaRosa’s wife, Debbie, who bartends on karaoke nights. “It’s been a huge success so far. We even get church groups in here. They come in and they drink soda.”
Marie Hanson, a longtime Houlton resident, said she thinks the real reason is just that people like to feel like they’re at home and can let loose.
“We’re all friends, and it’s a very welcoming atmosphere,” she said. “If you’re not from here, you’re always welcome. That’s the way we do it in the Shiretown.”