The Caroline Tavern in Jackson Park has been serving drinks since Prohibition (it opened the year the golf course did, 1928), but they've only offered karaoke since last year. That's ironic when you consider the place shares its name with one of the most popular karaoke anthems of all time, Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."
Though I was by myself, it was a Monday, and I'd never been there before, I was confident it would be a good time. North-end karaoke bars have never let me down, and I'm always inspired to come through with my best stuff whenever I sing along 15th Avenue Northeast. I arrived around 10 p.m., and a lot of people were there that night. All the seats in the bar section were taken, but the area just outside of there, where the stage was set up, was wide open. I grabbed a songbook and took a seat between the two areas. It's a very casual setup. The KJs were two gals named Diane and Monique, who called themselves "DiMo." Diane handled changing the discs and Monique announced the singers. Judging by the way they interacted with the crowd, they were clearly friends of the bar and were doing this purely out of fun.
There wasn't much of a song selection, but the regulars had no problem finding numbers to sing. During my first half-hour there, no one really stuck out until Barry, a guy in his late 30s who'd won their karaoke contest a couple of weeks back. He sang "Apologize" by OneRepublic, and I am not exaggerating when I say he was on the same vocal level as Clay Aiken. He was incredible, and everyone at the bar gave him a huge ovation. I was the sorry sack who had to follow that, but fortunately I had a good Lynyrd Skynyrd number picked, "Tuesday's Gone," and I nailed it. The hits kept coming when KJ Diane absolutely crushed Mariah Carey's version of Harry Nilsson's gut-wrenching classic, "Without You." As soon as she was done, I was convinced I had just witnessed the best one-two-three punch of karaoke performances delivered anywhere that night.
Everyone else stepped up their games after that. This guy named Warfield sang an inspired rendition of "Zero" by Smashing Pumpkins. Then Jessica, the bartender, got in the mix with a solid performance of Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know." She was followed by a big, burly dude named Derrick who sang the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" the only way it should be sung: in full falsetto. A guy named Joe who acted as a one-man cheering section for everyone all night sang "Slide" by the Goo Goo Dolls. It's a number I perform very well, but don't have the balls to sing in public. I got up and shook his hand after he was done.
The night ends before you know it here. They only go until midnight, but that cutoff time works for them because singers stick around and keep turning in slips until no time is left. Barry's second and final number was Gary Jules' version of "Mad World" from the Donnie Darko soundtrack. It was brilliant. I was able to get in two more songs, Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Melissa" by the Allman Brothers, and both songs got me high fives as I made my way back to my seat. This is the best crowd I've encountered in a very long time.