Sometimes you’re driving in your car, windows rolled up, belting out a tune as loudly as your lungs allow and it hits you—the world needs, nay, deserves, to hear you sing these words over accompanied music in the presence of strangers huddled in the corner of a dark bar. Up until the fall of 2014, you knew exactly where you could go to provide the world this service: The New Yorker. The beloved bar at 645 N. James Lovell St. was the only establishment in town dedicated to offering karaoke every night it was open. However, shortly after longtime owner Sal Monreal sold the bar to Shannon and Gina Stangel, it was announced The New Yorker would transform into a sports bar called the Mason Jar, and karaoke would be limited to Friday nights only. Amateur songstresses across the city wept.
After months of customers demanding the reinstatement of nightly karaoke, the Stangels retooled their operation and on September 4, reopened the Mason Jar under the name The High Note. Along with it came the promise of karaoke at least four nights a week and the opportunity for hordes of drunk people—and a handful of vocalists who have viable talent—to tell their story through song. Fancying ourselves tune-carriers in our own right, Milwaukee Record was there that opening weekend.
We arrived at just after 9 p.m., a few fashionably late minutes after karaoke festivities began for the evening. Although under normal circumstances The High Note runs operations Wednesday through Saturday, with some gentle nudging on Facebook the proprietors graciously agreed to open their stage to a gaggle of slightly inebriated souls on the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend. What followed was hours of joyful noise and a welcome return of the magic so sorely missed since the New Yorker closed its doors.
The space: The exterior of the High Note features new signage on the awning and a logo emblazoned on the front windows, but inside, not much has changed in the establishment since its transformation from the Mason Jar. It’s been cleaned up since its days as the New Yorker, and understandably gone is the New York City skyline mural that stretched across the bar’s back wall. New seating, including a small lounge area, has been added, as well as some updated glassware at the bar. A short stage, previously constructed to accommodate live music, rises up from the floor just high enough to allow karaoke crooners to bask in the spotlight, but not so high that they can’t do sweet jump moves onto the floor without fear of badly injuring an ankle.
Perhaps the biggest change, however, is the installment of fog machines at both front corners of the stage, which emit random puffs of smoke as the music plays, as well as lighting effects that cast a strobing, neon glow around the bar while karaoke superstars belt out their tunes. There are a half dozen wall-mounted TVs around the small room, some broadcasting whatever sporting events are being played that night and others displaying song lyrics, a welcome invitation to patrons around the bar to sing along with the soloist on stage.
The service: Erica was tending bar that night, serving a diverse crowd of roughly 20 patrons who sat perched on stools and stood gathered near the stage. Attentive, friendly, and happy to chat, she was quick to refill our New Glarus drafts ($5), High Life bottles ($4), and, as the night lingered, the occasional shots of whatever flavored vodka was generously gifted to us from fellow revelers across the U-shaped bar. What’s more, when called upon by the DJ to step out from the bar and take the mic, she delivered a dead-on rendition of Alicia Keys’ “In and Out of Love,” and kindly let some of us less-talented plebes gather around to join. Near the end of the night, she grabbed the mic once more and belted out her version of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” and unlike so many karaoke hopefuls before her, nailed every last note. She’d earned her right to drop the mic and walk straight out the door, but instead quietly went back to work slinging drinks like she hadn’t just blown the roof off the place.
The tunes: The High Note’s master of ceremonies is DJ Black Label, and that night, the affable Evan was playing DJ-in-residence. Dressed in a kilt without explanation, Evan the DJ happily—or dutifully, at the very least—queued up requests for Weezer, Miley Cyrus, the Billys (Joel, Ocean), Snoop Dogg, DMX, the Killers, Toby Keith, Lisa Loeb, Prince, and (sigh) Creed, among others. With a meager crowd that night, the wait to take the stage was never longer than 10 minutes after signing up for a song. A friendly tip: when scouring the songbook for your tune of choice, don’t be alarmed if you don’t find it. Just ask the DJ if Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag” is available and chances are he’ll have it for you upon request. DJ Black Label’s empty orchestra archive runs deep.
The verdict: It’s enough to know that on any given weekend you can traipse into the High Note, sign up for a ditty, and rest assured that the stage will soon be yours. It’s even better to step inside and find the stable of New Yorker royalty has returned. (If you haven’t shed a tear during one of karaoke queen “Texas’” heart-wrenching ballads, may your robot heart forever remain corroded.) The only disappointment was the curious pricing for domestic drafts: $4 for a PBR but $10 for a pitcher, but that’s easily overlooked when considering the attentive staff, friendly clientele, and the opportunity to perform on stage while basking in the glow of lasers and fog machines. Whether they’d trotted out the fog and laser show or not, the High Note excels at something no other place in the city does: providing a place to test your vocal chords nearly any night of the week in front of a horde of strangers who will become your biggest fans by the end of the night. Or at least stumble your way through the first two verses of “It’s The End Of The World,” slink back to your barstool, and bathe in a puddle of stress-sweat until the DJ calls you to the stage once again.