For this week's cover story, the SF Weekly took a long look at Martuni's, the delightfully dark, drunk and oft-forgotten piano bar on the corner of Market and Valencia. The article goes at length talking about the personalities inside the bar, and what the last remaining piano bar in a city that used to be littered with them does to stay in business.
"Nothing ever changes," notes the Weekly's Joe Eskenazi. "A customer can sit at the same table and order the same drink from the same bartender, year in, year out. This is why [Martuni's] won't switch to plastic glasses or revamp décor regulars affectionately refer to as 'Disneyland's Haunted Mansion.'" (The bar even spends $200 a week replacing glassware as a consequence.)
But the real story here, in my not so humble opinion, is the contrast between piano bars and karaoke:
[The Great American Songbook] is now perceived as anachronistic, as are the piano bars where it was celebrated. And the market for anachronisms is limited. For all but a few souls, the only remaining outlet for public singing is karaoke, a musical drinking game. Karaoke patrons doing "My Way" are not actually doing it their way; they're singing along to whatever inflexible arrangement is programmed into the machine. There's a striking difference between following the bouncing ball for a machine and a professional musician following you, accentuating your strengths and covering up your weaknesses; it's painting vs. paint-by-numbers. But, for most people, the distinction between karaoke and piano bars is something they either don't see or don't care to. Karaoke bars, in this and every city, are plentiful. Piano bars are dinosaurs.
All that is probably true, but I couldn't help but think of DJ Purple's saxophone-infused karaoke shitshow. He may not be "a professional musician following you," but just one night listening to him light up the room with thundering sax solos between verses will make every other karaoke night in the city just seem... boring. It may not be as intimate as listening to a piano man and vocalist fill a candle-lit room--and I don't see Jack's tossing out their pool table in favor of a parlor grand anytime soon--but it's hard not to look at karaoke, a musical medium defined by its approachability, accompanied by live instrumentals as the future of bar entertainment.
Piano bars may be dinosaurs and karaoke might be an unworthy and rigid successor, but the hunger for the unpredictably and energy of a live musician is still there. They just need, as the article suggests, to adapt.