That time when I spent an epic night searching for karaoke in Montreal

The Notre-Dame Basilica (Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal) has nothing to do with its namesake cathedral in Paris to which it bears a slight resemblance. It is, however, a beautiful and historically significant house of worship in its own right.

This post will differ from most others on this blog, in that it’s more in the style of a memoir telling a story – a story involving events that occurred all the way back in August 2010. I was making a weekend visit to Montreal, partly because I was interested to see that city for the first time but also partly because I had (to that point) sung in 17 countries and I felt it was about time that I karaoked in Canada. In fact, upon arriving at Montreal’s Pierre Trudeau International Airport, I joyfully declared to the immigration agent that the purpose of my trip was to add Canada to my World Karaoke Tour. 🙂 (He seemed a little confused, but allowed me to enter the country.) So this story is about whether, that weekend, I would succeed in my quest to karaoke in Canada for the first time.

By the time I got checked into my hotel in Montreal, it was late on Friday night (about 11 pm) and I was too tired to go out. So I took it easy. While I thought about looking for karaoke immediately, I decided that I could wait one more night for my initial singing appearance in the land of maple leaves. But would that initial appearance end up happening?

Pre-karaoke sightseeing

On Saturday, I started the day by riding the Metro to Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal), a historic district with some buildings dating back to the city’s early days in the 17th century. My first stop in Old Montreal was the Notre-Dame basilica, a beautiful church that looks a little like its Parisian namesake (although the two churches have nothing to do with each other). I wanted to have a look at the interior, but during that afternoon it was closed to the public because several weddings were being held inside. However, an employee told me that a son et lumière (sound and light) show was being offered inside the church in the evening. I bought a ticket for the 7 pm show; since the show was to last about 35 minutes, it would let out early enough to still allow me plenty of time to make it to karaoke later on that night.

Next on this very warm day, I wandered some more around Old Montreal, which is very European in feel with its narrow, pedestrian-only streets; and I ended up at Place Jacques Cartier, a plaza that’s fronted by a plethora of restaurants with outdoor seating, and which also features all kind of performances from street musicians, jugglers, balloon animal artists, and the like. I grabbed an alfresco lunch at a French restaurant on the plaza.

A view of Place Jacques-Cartier in Old Montreal.

A classic motorcar in a classic city: a 1960 Rolls-Royce in front of Place Jacques-Cartier in Old Montreal.

After my repast, I walked around for a while in the area of the nearby port and stumbled into a Japanese festival that I briefly checked out. Then I rode the Metro to Île Notre-Dame (no relation to the church), an artificial island where the Casino de Montréal is located. The casino is gigantic and is open 24-7. It lacks the lavish decor or high-concept themes of Las Vegas’s casinos, but what it’s missing in personality it makes up for in its sheer immensity. I had a hard time finding the $15 minimum blackjack tables because I kept getting lost in the casino’s vastness. When I did eventually locate the desired tables, I played some blackjack and, as usual, had fun playing my favourite card game. I walked away from my table when I was up $145 (yes, it was in Canadian dollars; but given then-current exchange rates, my winnings were worth almost as much in my native currency), being loath to risk frittering away all my winnings at that point.

Habitat 67, a housing complex built for Expo ’67, has been called one of the ugliest buildings in the world. It can be found on Île Notre-Dame, not far from the Casino de Montréal where I won $145 Canadian playing blackjack.

After stopping at my hotel to change, I returned to Old Montreal, did some more walking around the ancient precincts, then made my way back to the Notre-Dame basilica for the sound and light show. The show was really fascinating and well-done. Patrons sat in the pews and watched a movie on wraparound screens that dramatized the history not only of the church, but of Marie-Ville (the name of Montreal when it was first settled). Then, at the end, shifting lights dramatically highlighted many of the architectural features of the church. After the show ended, attendees were permitted to remain inside the church for a while and take photographs.

Inside the Notre-Dame basilica, after the sound and light show.

Next, I strolled over to an Old Montreal institution, Montreal Poutine, to sample the controversial Québécois dish that it’s named after. (Poutine’s basic ingredients are French fries, cheese curds, and gravy. I ordered mine with bacon.)

The establishment where I got my dinner!

Searching for karaoke: the struggle was real

After the poutine, the time had come for karaoke! I hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take me to Bar Zoé, a venue that I’d found on the internet a month or two earlier while researching my trip. Bar Zoé is actually a karaoke and fondue bar; but they only serve fondue until 8 pm, so I wasn’t going to be able to make it there early enough for the fondue. But my perusal of Bar Zoe’s website as well as some write-ups on the internet had convinced me that karaoke would be a more than adequate reason to go there. The place seemed to have a great vibe and I even found a song list online and planned out, ahead of time, the songs I would perform. It would be an ideal location for the introduction of the H-Bomb to Canada.

Shocking plot twist no. 1

It turned out to be quite a long (and expensive) cab ride. That ride involved passing through residential districts; so I was definitely getting off the beaten path. One of the things I’ve always liked about seeking karaoke while travelling is that, due to the locations of some of the karaoke establishments I end up at, I’m frequently exposed to parts of the city that I wouldn’t get to if I confined myself to visiting more conventional attractions.

When we reached the address for Bar Zoé, it was immediately apparent that something was wrong. The building was dark and quiet. Although prominent signs identified the building as Bar Zoé, it had the look of a place that had been deserted for days. I asked the cabdriver to wait while I disembarked from his vehicle and walked over to the building to investigate. There was a handwritten note on the front door, and I knew enough French to realize that the sign was telling me that Bar Zoé was closed until September. 😦

I was so glad that the bar’s website had warned me that it would be closed for the summer. My already-pricey taxi ride was about to get even more expensive, as I began desperately to search for a way to salvage my Canadian karaoke debut.

Calling an audible

Immediately I got on my Motorola Droid (the smartphone I was using in those days), heedless of the international roaming charges, and began to google for an alternate karaoke bar. (Back in the summer of 2010, I hadn’t yet heard of international unlimited data plans – if they even existed yet – or swapping local SIM cards into phones when travelling.) A promising candidate emerged: La Boîte à Karaoké. It was an all-karaoke, all the time place, which is always a plus for me. And the name sounded cool, too. When I called ahead to verify that the online information was still valid (basically, I was confirming that the place still existed and wasn’t, say, closed until September), the bartender who fielded my call told me that there would indeed be karaoke tonight. Score! However, he added that tonight’s show would be delayed, and wouldn’t start until after the conclusion of some unspecified boxing match. He estimated that the singing would get underway around 11:00 or 11:30 pm.

Since it was still only about 9:30, I was suddenly left with some time on my hands. So I decided to first swing by another venue that my googling had uncovered: Club Karaoke. According to multiple online descriptions that I’d found, Club Karaoke featured both private rooms and a bar. (As you may recall, I’m not a fan of private karaoke rooms, because to me the whole point is to perform in front of an audience. Thus, it was fortunate that Club Karaoke seemingly offered a choice.)

Club Karaoke was downtown, so I asked the taxi to essentially reverse the route we had just taken to Bar Zoé. Once again, the driver navigated through residential neighbourhoods that most tourists in Montreal never see. (It was kind of interesting to see them, but not sufficiently intriguing to justify the still-escalating fare that was showing on the taxi’s meter.) Finally we arrived downtown, and I disembarked at the building where Club Karaoke was located. I entered the otherwise empty-for-the-weekend commercial building and followed the signs to the karaoke establishment in the basement.

Sadly, contrary to what the internet had led me to believe, Club Karaoke only contained private rooms. (One lounge-type room in the facility housed a bar, but it was merely an area where one could purchase drinks. There was nowhere to sing at the bar, and the only people hanging out at the bar were two Club Karaoke managers.) That would not do. The managers kept imploring me to stay, but I explained that I was looking for a karaoke bar, and that they lacked what I was looking for.

So I jumped in another cab to convey me to La Boîte à Karaoké. Reading the address off of the listing on my Droid’s screen, I asked the cabbie to transport me to 2071 St. Catherine Street East.

It turned out that much of St. Catherine Street East was closed to automotive traffic for the summer. The cabbie dropped me off as far east as he could get me, but told me it would still be about a 10-minute walk from that drop-off point to the bar. In actuality, even for a spry young man like myself (which I was in 2010, anyway), the pedestrian segment of my journey took more like 20 minutes. The walk was a pleasant one, however, on streets teeming with people; and my prolonged stroll afforded the opportunity for me to pass through some additional neighborhoods, including the Village, which is Montreal’s gay district. I was continuing to see many different parts of the city – a nice bonus given the brevity of my stay.

Finally, with mounting excitement, I reached the 2000 block.

Shocking plot twist no. 2

. . . and I was dismayed to discover that the street address that I sought – 2071 – didn’t exist. After the building bearing number 2005, the street passed under a large bridge, and then resumed with the 2100 block. How could that be? I had even spoken to the bar staff on the telephone, and had been assured that the place not only existed, but was open. Had I conversed with . . . ghosts?


A non-paranormal explanation

Although I was dead certain that I had attempted to walk to the correct address for my destination (2071), I got back on my Droid just to double-check. I navigated onto La Boîte à Karaoké’s Facebook page, and re-read the address: 2071 Ste-Catherine Ouest.

Dammit all to hell! Now I realized my error: I had mistranslated the French word “Ouest” as “East.” Suddenly I remembered that in fact it means “West.” So I found myself about 40 blocks away from the bar’s correct location (2071 Ste-Catherine St. WEST). 😦

I turned around and circled back in the other direction (remember, the eastern portion of Rue Ste-Catherine was devoid of motor vehicles for many blocks). Fortunately, automotive traffic was flowing on the side streets that intersected this pedestrian-only corridor; and just a few blocks after having embarked on my reverse journey, I found an available cab on one of those side streets, and I jumped into it. And finally I made it to La Boîte à Karaoké.

Is this a karaoke bar or a sports bar?

It was now about 10:30 or 10:45. Of course, as I’d been warned would be the case, the boxing match was being proudly shown in La Boîte à Karaoké; all the video screens in the bar were tuned to Canadian HBO, which was broadcasting the pugilistic competition. I hate boxing; I think it’s barbaric and and not even remotely interesting. And when I arrived at the bar, the match (which ironically was taking place at the Casino de Montréal, from which I’d departed with such fond memories and a nice stash of cash just a few hours earlier) was only in about the third round. I was thus demoralized to learn from one of the other imbibers at the bar that boxing matches last 12 rounds. It was excruciating waiting for this one to end. But I had no choice; the bar that I was now in was the only suitable place I’d been able to come up with. It did help that I had the Kindle app on my Droid, so while the interminable boxing match proceeded I read from an e-book. And because I was using an app on my phone, the people around me probably assumed I was doing something cool like texting my peeps. 🙂

At last, karaoke

By the time the boxing match ended and the KJ’s finally got the karaoke revved up, it was after midnight and decent folk were already in bed. I wasn’t happy about the extremely late start. After all, as evidenced by its very name, La Boîte à Karaoké was supposed to be a karaoke joint.

At least I was the first singer. (I’d submitted my song slips while all the other customers were concentrating on the boxing match.) My opened song was “New York State of Mind” – which I’d resolved just before this trip to henceforth sing in every city I added to my World Karaoke Tour. That was a resolution that I would abandon the following month in the very next city I visited, Rio de Janeiro. 🙂 In the ensuing years, I would occasionally perform “New York State of Mind” in other cities on my World Karaoke Tour, such as New Delhi, India in 2014 and Geneva, Switzerland in 2018.

Back to Montreal in 2010: even once the karaoke finally got underway late at night at La Boîte à Karaoké, things didn’t quite go smoothly for me. Not too far into my song, the lyrics started going haywire on the video monitor. Sometimes the lyrics would freeze up, and sometimes they would just dissolve into a garbled mess of characters. Obviously the CD that was the source of the karaoke track was having technical difficulties. Fortunately, however, the music itself didn’t skip. And “New York State of Mind” just happened to be one of the few songs in my repertoire to which I’d memorized all the words. (That remains true of that song today.) So I ignored the hiccups on the screen and continued singing the song as if nothing had gone wrong. I didn’t miss a beat. The World Karaoke Tour wouldn’t be denied. 🙂 Canada thus became the 18th country in which I had performed! (And it feels quaint writing that in February 2019, since the count of countries on my World Karaoke Tour currently stands at 60. 🙂 )

I’d been concerned that maybe a Canadian audience wouldn’t be as familiar as the crowds back in U.S. venues were with such a New York-centric song as “New York State of Mind.” But I received a good reception from the crowd. 🙂 For good measure, a little later on, I returned to the stage for another of my signature tunes, “At This Moment.” (Regrettably, I don’t have any video footage or even still photos of either of my performances from that night in Montreal. I was well over a year away from starting this blog, and hadn’t yet begun recording my international karaoke appearances for posterity.)

And bonus: when I decided to call it a night, I discovered that La Boîte à Karaoké was quite nearby to my hotel – less than a 10 minute walk. So that helped compensate for the exorbitant taxi fares I had incurred earlier in the evening.

Further exploration on Sunday

Montreal is one of many cities in which I’ve witnessed a reproduction of Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture.

On Sunday morning I checked out of my hotel. Then I headed to Mount Royal Park and hiked up its eponymous mountain. I really liked the park; there aren’t too many big cities in which you can hike up a wooded mountain without leaving the city (although admittedly, at a modest 764 feet in height, Mount Royal is really more of a hill than a mountain.) And when you reach the summit, there’s a lookout point with nice views of downtown Montreal.

After enjoying those views, I wandered around the mountain a little more. Then, after descending, I visited St. Joseph’s Oratory, another beautiful church just on the outskirts of Mount Royal Park that’s dramatically situated on a hill; you have to climb a plethora of stairs to enter (although there are elevators for those who need them). And then my weekend in Montreal was over.

The takeaway

As mentioned in my previous post, there are now 9 countries that I’ve been to and exited without singing karaoke within their borders. As my experience in Montreal demonstrates, even when I do end up karaokeing in a new country (which does occur most of the time), sometimes this only happens after I’ve faced great challenges in finding a venue to sing in. But those hurdles make it all the more rewarding when I do manage to add another country to my World Karaoke Tour.

A postscript to this tale: Bar Zoé still exists, and still serves up both fondue and karaoke, as of the publication of this blog post in 2019. If I ever return to Montreal, perhaps I’ll finally sing at Bar Zoé.

St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal (Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal) is a basilica on the outskirts of Mount Royal Park. Reaching the main sanctuary requires the ascent of hundreds of steps, although an elevator and escalator are available.

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Categories: North America, travel, World Karaoke Tour | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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