Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Perverse and Often Baffling World of Martuni's

4 Valencia St. (@ Market) [Map]
Drinks consumed: 2 perfectly made Beefeater martinis (dirty, of course)

I enjoy karaoke, but what I enjoy more than karaoke is a good piano bar—and not even in an ironic way. My brain contains the melodies and lyrics to tons of show tunes and jazz standards, a secret I have kept from most people for years. Karaoke doesn't really satisfy this inner cheese; I'm not about to follow up someone's drunken, off-key rendition of Richard Marx's "Right Here Waiting For You" with a semi-serious rendition of something accompanied by a MIDI track. Karaoke is for George Michael, Pat Benatar, and other ridiculous pop staples of my youth. Thus, the only place I can really satisfy my need to belt out a Cole Porter or Harold Arlen tune is a good, old-fashioned piano bar. Fortunately, there is one very close to me: Martuni's.

Martuni's mixes amazing cocktails with a variety of vocal performances. There are no slips of paper, mini-golf scorecard pencils, or earnest KJs here. Only a man, a piano, an over-sized martini glass stuffed with dollar bills, a Spencer's Gifts disco light, and a songbook I've never touched. And the weirdest crowd this side of Market Street. The pianist is actually very talented, and in addition to accompanying the wide range of musical talents who sidle up to the Martuni's piano, he sings and plays trumpet.

I make my request to the pianist.

This particular night, we were subject to a couple of girls singing something so badly the song was unrecognizable. Later in the evening, a sonorous tenor, dressed from the neck down like Cap'n Crunch, sang a couple standards and almost popped my ear drums. As he crooned, my friends and I became obsessed with a woman sitting at the piano. She was over 40 but has had enough Botox shot into her face to take out a small Indian village. A string of over-sized gold beads complemented her frozen joker expression and long black hair. She sported a very short "little black dress" and had both legs stretched out on the stool next to her. Upon making an appalling discovery, Koshi leaned over to say that he was sure she had left her panties in the drawer that morning.

Between guest (read: drunk) vocalists, the pianist performs for the eager crowd who, this evening, were hungry for disco. For disco tunes, he plays some karaoke-type accompaniment on his iPod and whips out the incredibly silly disco lights while people dance to his watered-down renditions of already soggy disco classics. My special lady at the piano really liked to dance, and stumbled around the dance floor with a strange group of people who had clearly been there since after work. (It was around 11pm by now.)

For whatever reason, my friends seem to like it when I sing, and urged me to sing something. So after killing the last drop of martini #1, and after the scary middle-aged ladies finished dancing to "Copacabana," I approached the piano and made my request. Then I sat down at the piano and signaled to the group for another drink. It was clear it might be a bit of a wait.

The timid and slightly off-key performance.

Several songs later, the pianist called Claudia to the piano, who sang a lovely rendition of "Killing Me Softly" as her friends added Fugees-esque embellishments from the back of the room. I was intimidated, so I mustered some more liquid courage from my martini glass. (It was at this point that Botox-face left the bar.) When Claudia and her friends finished, it was my turn. I sang "Stormy Weather," which I haven't done for a long time. Of course I fucked up here and there but nobody really noticed because everyone was drunk. My friends applauded warmly, I replaced the mic and apologized to the pianist for screwing up, and we got the hell out of Martuni's before the next round of disco began.

In summary, Martuni's is weird and wonderful, a bastion of kitsch whitewashed in class. If you want to sing, be prepared to suffer while waiting your turn, and note that the pianist may take off for the night before you get your chance. If you do get to sing, be ready to recall those standards you pretend you don't know and love. And, of course, tip your pianist.