By Mason Johnson
"People may not know this, but I'm really a nice guy."
Fred, the KJ (karaoke jock) at Alice's Lounge (3556 West Belmont Avenue), mentioned this to me near the end of our conversation.
"I'm the sheriff in town," he'd said earlier. "There's laws and rules and regulations and you gotta follow 'em."
Fred has a reputation for being intense. This shouldn't turn you off from karaoke at Alice's. In fact, it should do the opposite. In the words of The Wire superstar Omar, "A man's got to have a code."
Alice's, located in Avondale a couple blocks away from the Belmont Blue Line, is a long, thin bar that's comfortable. The drinks are cheap, and it ain't fancy (a plus in my book), but it's always clean and taken care of. The bartenders are no-nonsense nice. Alice's is open till 4 am and has karaoke every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 pm until close — what's not to love?
Fred's karaoke is one of Alice's best features. Partly because Fred, Like Omar, has a code. Fred's code revolves around fun.
"I care about what happens on stage, and I don't want things to go badly -- I want people to have a good time. Sometimes YOUR good time is not a good time for someone else. Sometimes you have to know where to draw the line. That's the hardest part of doing this job."
Some KJs go mostly unseen, only concerned with making sure the songs start and occasionally kicking the random drunk out. Fred is different.
"A lot of karaoke guys just sorta call people up. I try to keep people entertained. "
How? First thing's first, he cares about how everything sounds.
"My job when I'm up there is to make sure singers sound as good as they possibly can. So I'm always doing a lot of tweaking with the soundboard. Everybody's voice is different, every instrumental track is different."
Personally, I've never gone to a karaoke bar in Chicago where the KJ was this attentive to the soundboard and the singers. Combine this with the fact that his equipment is always in good shape, and add in the sweet smoke machine that comes down from the ceiling (no, it doesn't make you sound better, but it does make you feel more like a rock star) and you're liable to have a pretty good time.
Fred's best quality is his charisma. He doesn't hide behind the mixing board -- he's part of the show. Sure, he might keep his head down for one song, but during the next song you might see him playing a prop guitar, the one after that he might be playing a solo on an inflatable saxophone while wearing glasses lit up by LED lights. Sometimes, he even sings backup for people. He's not reckless with any of this though, he's always mindful of what the singer is open for.
"It takes some thought on when to use the props--when it's cool to use them and when it's not. You don't necessarily want to take too much from a good singer, their whole ego is in the performance, and if you do something that's too distracting to them they won't like it. "
Fred's ability to immediately get a feel for the crowd and his karaoke singers--to know who he can and can't joke with--makes Alice's a great place for karaoke first timers because it engenders a comfortable, playful crowd.
"We're a very forgiving crowd here. We treat everybody like they're part of the family. And I think it's a good place to be if you've never tried it before and you want to give it a shot, cause you know it's not going to end up being a bad experience – not here."
I've taken a lot of people to Alice's, and they've all gone back. Part of it is that you're getting a fair shake from Fred. Even if your song takes hours to come up, you know he didn't screw you over because your song sucked, or because someone bribed him. Yes, that's right. He doesn't take bribes.
"I've been offered 100 bucks to let someone sing. And I think this offer was legitimate, not just some drunk guy in the bar, cause he had brought two beautiful women with him. They came in with fifteen minutes to go and the girls wanted to sing and he was intent on making a good impression."
Flabbergasted he passed up a hundo, I asked Fred what his price was.
"There isn't one."
"Even if he went up to 200?" I asked.
"Absolutely not," he said. "People are just generous and kind enough here anyway."
Are there any downsides to karaoke at Alice's?
Well, it's small. The stage is a few feet in front of the bar, and not a stage at all, but mike stands on the floor. The bar's long, but thin, so if it's even remotely busy, it's nigh impossible to walk through the place without having to swim through a sea of people. Thankfully, most of these people are in a good mood, so they don't mind when you bump into them.
On a Tuesday or Thursday night, this isn't much of a problem. But if you get a hankering for karaoke at 2 am on Friday, expect a huge crowd and a slim chance of singing. And for those of you who want to celebrate your birthday there on the weekend, I have one thing to say: you are insane. You'll end up waiting forever to sing, especially if you have a large group. You're better off showing up at 11 on a Tuesday, or booking Alice's from 9 – 11 for a private party (which, yes, you can do).
Ultimately, a lack of space doesn't change the truth: Alice's is the best karaoke in the city. Fred's funny and in control, completely devoted to making sure as many people have fun as possible.
So if you do decide to have your birthday at Alice's, don't forget to invite me.
Mason Johnson, CBS Chicago
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