If you've ever been inside Martuni's, that dark-walled bar on the corner of Valencia and Market, you know it's a special place: As SF Weekly staff writer Joe Eskenazi describes in this week's cover story, Martuni's is a piano bar thriving in a karaoke world. It's the last remaining example of what used to be dozens of similar joints around the city, where professional accompanists would back novice-to-pro singers in renditions of classics from Broadway or the Great American Songbook.
Its competition has withered away, but Martuni's remains, even in a world where younger crowds favor the mechanized renditions offered by karaoke lounges. Though both ostensibly involve singing in public and drinking, what happens at a piano bar is very different from karaoke, Eskenazi writes:
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.
Eskenazi links the slow decline of piano bars to broader changes in how people consume culture:
In an era when society has grown wary of "gatekeepers" -- the mainstream media, publishers, certified experts of all sorts -- the piano bar is anachronistic in ways that have nothing to do with a roomful of men singing "The Trolley Song." The pianist here is most certainly a gatekeeper, an expert, and a professional -- and bar patrons are expected to hand over the keys. Certain rooms need certain songs at certain times, and longtime patrons understand this: "What are we singing tonight?" is a common refrain among regulars approaching the keyboard. The flipside to this pact is that it's the pianist's job to make a singer sound as good as he or she possibly can. Novice singers may not even realize the amount of attention lavished on them by accompanists who switch keys and tempos to match quavering voices, hum the melody, cue lyrics, and turn pages -- often simultaneously.