Best place to rock all the way up to Eleven
Everybody loves karaoke—in theory, anyway. All too often, you end up paying top dollar for a private room or jockeying for position amid sweaty hordes of over-serious American Idol wannabes, wondering why you even bothered.
But then there are those Sunday nights at 9 p.m., when Eleven (3519 El Cajon Blvd. in City Heights) passes the mic to Pants Karaoke.
Scotty Pants, the weekly event's emcee, has one mortal enemy: boredom. He combats it well, armed with a to-die-for songbook and an ever-changing boxful of props for weekly themes that keep regulars on their toes. One week's David Bowie tribute night dissolves into the next week's dance party. The week after that may require you to sing from behind the soundboard while your friend lip synchs on stage. But, through it all, there's one constant: that songbook. The average sign-up list might see Rancid and Pavement followed by Royksopp and Dead Milkmen.
Can you still belt out some classic Rocky Horror Picture Show? Of course. But you can also wear a cat mask and meow along to a Superdrag guitar solo in Auto-tune. (Oh yeah: Pants has Auto-tune.) That's the kind of choice every karaoke fan deserves.
Best new record shop in a tucked-away spot
Hats off to folks willing to open a retail store in this economy. Hats way off to folks willing to start a retail store outside an established retail corridor. And wave those hats high above your head for folks willing to start a retail store in the corner of a motel-turned-office-park with a strip club just across the street.
Way back in the corner of 3333 Midway Drive is The Vinyl Room. For now, it's just that—a room full of thousands of records, from rock to retro to Smiths picture discs and Dr. Seuss soundtracks. Though, on a recent Saturday, owner Christy Lynn was working on getting a second room ready where patrons can take a listen before they buy.
Being a new shop, there are plenty of gems here for vinyl junkies willing to do a little crate digging. The best part? Lynn makes sure that before you buy, you look at the record to check for scratches— and she insists that you bring it back should you get it home and realize it's defective. That kind of customer service is almost as rare as finding a cool little record shop in the middle of the Midway.
Best use of a voice, south-of-the-border division
At one point in "Venada," a song by Madame Ur y Sus Hombres, lead singer Azzul Monraz cups her hand over her mouth and makes a beautiful noise that sounds surprisingly close to a trumpet with a wah-wah mute. More so than most vocalists, Monraz uses her voice as an instrument, adding a gorgeous melodic layer to her quartet's atmospheric, melodramatic music. Toto Zuñiga, Joel Castillo and Carlos Maria make up the rest of this Tijuana-based band, which sells out most of their shows these days and recently made an appearance on MTV IGGY. Monraz is the charismatic leader of her indie band, and she dresses as confidently and colorfully as she performs. She's currently working on a new album with her Hombres and acting, singing and dancing in a new musical with composer Gabilondo Soler and director Luis Martin, which opens at Tijuana's CECUT on Oct. 23. As soon as the band finishes the time-consuming visa-renewal process, they'll start booking shows on this side of the border again, so keep your ears open. Hit up madameur.com for upcoming shows.
Best place to get an ax adjustment
Let's say you come across an old Fender guitar—a 1963 Duo Sonic. Since the previous owner had stripped and refinished the guitar to a color best described as "adult contemporary," you figure there's no harm in doing a little work on it, too. Only problem: You've never taken apart a guitar, let alone put one back together, but you give it a go anyhow.
Fast-forward 15 years. You take your now-green Duo Sonic, which has never sounded quite right, to Thom Beebe, owner of Guitar and Bass Land (172 East Main St. in El Cajon). Think of it as the guitar equivalent of a weekend trip to a really nice day spa. Or perhaps Beebe's more like a guitar chiropractor. He'll adjust the truss rod, work the buzz out of the frets and correct any flaws in the intonation. He'll make sure the pickups are wired properly and the toggle switch truly toggles. He's the guy serious guitarists trust to tune up their babies, but he'll do just as good a job on an almost-half-century-old little Fender.
(Fun bit o' trivia for long-time San Diego music fans: Beebe was in the '80s metal band Assassin.)
Best way to geek out on music
For someone like me, who's visited both the Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad (5790 Armada Drive) seems quaint in comparison. But that's a lot of the appeal. It may look like just another office building from the outside, but inside is a fantastic, chronological survey of the different eras of music. Every six months or so, they do special exhibitions on a particular instrument or era (the ones on the beginning of electric instrumentation and the Moog keyboard were both informative and entertaining).
They also have special concerts and classes (a four-part class to learn the ukulele for $80? Yes, please), and patrons can use one of the interactive music rooms to rock out or create weird electronic music that only Pitchfork could appreciate.
Best way to hear something you can't see
Do a Google search for an image of the term "wingtip vortex" and look for the photo of red smoke swirling behind an jet plane. It's a glimpse of the power of the vortex created in the plane's wake—so powerful it can spin a smaller plane that's flying too close behind.
A product of the low pressure that creates lift underneath the wings, a vortex hangs behind a plane for a few seconds or more, spinning, spinning, spinning, before it closes up as fast as it was created. How to describe that sound? Purse your mouth and suck in some air. Then, take that sound and amplify it by, like, 1,000 percent.
Even better, grab a picnic blanket, order up a couple of sandwiches from Marketplace Deli (2601 Fifth Ave. in Bankers Hill) and then head down Laurel Street and turn right on Balboa Drive. Drive past Juniper Street and find a spot on the grass, directly under the Lindbergh Field flight path, and, after a plane flies over, listen for the sound of a vortex closing up.
Best squeezebox with a smile
You can't miss Smilin' Jack—he's the skinny guy with the big, toothy grin and an accordion strapped to his chest. Smilin' Jack has been playing the accordion since he was 11, when some slick salesmen came by his Escondido home and tricked him into signing up for classes at a nearby music school. He'd always wanted to learn how to play drums, but before too long, he was hooked on the instrument's sexy keys and valves.
Smilin' Jack had to work day jobs at restaurants for a long time before finally figuring out a way to make music his fulltime gig; nowadays you can find him at the Little Italy Mercado twice a month and at Taste of Italy in Hillcrest (1013 University Ave.) on Saturday and Sunday nights. He's on YouTube and Facebook, too, so Google him if you're in the mood.
"Beer Barrel Polka" is one of Jack's specialties, but as he meets more young people interested in his accordion, he's getting serious about learning younger, hipper songs to fulfill his growing fan base's song requests. A ditty by The Beatles is first on his list.