Arts and CultureColumnsSF Bay Area

Why I Love Karaoke At The Catalyst In Santa Cruz

Updated: Dec 07, 2022 18:17
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Written By: Saraah Dickens

I am not a karaoke person. Getting up and singing in front of a crowd is not my idea of a good time. But I’m not exactly karaoke adverse. I’ve been dragged to my fair share of karaoke bars, the captive audience for my karaoke loving friends. Still, it can be fun to watch people warble their way through “I Love Rock and Roll” and occasionally you’ll see someone who is either actually talented or at least fun and theatrical. So when I heard that The Catalyst in Santa Cruz had started doing karaoke on Friday and Saturday nights, I was intrigued. As a poor college kid in Santa Cruz in the early 2000’s, The Catalyst always seemed incredibly cool. I came from an even smaller town in even farther Northern California so having a nightclub/concert venue downtown was basically the most college sophisticated thing ever. I never actually got to go to a show there as a college student and have only been twice since. Consequently, The Catalyst has retained its allure for me.

I had visions of people getting to live out their rock star fantasies on the same stages that actual rock stars performed on.

Hearing that they were doing karaoke there made me think it would be like getting to do karaoke at CBGB’s. I had visions of people getting to live out their rockstar fantasies on the same stages that actual rockstars perform on. I thought for sure they would do it in the Atrium (the smaller stage), and it would be a crowded house every night. After all, it’s free and it’s at a concert venue! I definitely thought people would be lining up to sing their hearts out in the seedy nightclub of my dreams.

It was not that. I asked around, trying to gauge general opinion about The Catalyst. And it turns out, The Catalyst is not on a lot of people’s minds in 2022. No one really knew of it and if they did, they did not think it was a very cool iconic part of the Bay Area music scene. I was dismayed but not put off. I talked to a friend who works there about my idea to write about their new karaoke nights. “I would encourage you to find a new idea,” he said.

But I was undeterred. I went! I’m a single mom who works and goes to school, so the only time I could actually go was at 11 on a Friday night. I got to The Catalyst and there were tons of people milling around outside, a good sign. Karaoke is free so I walked in after showing my ID and getting my hand stamped. Right away, I was disabused of my notion that karaoke would be on the main stage or even the Atrium. There were shows happening on both stages.

I was directed up a staircase that I hadn’t noticed on my first two visits. I ascended with giddy anticipation, turned a corner and there it was in all its glory: 8 people and a DJ in a cavernous nightclub space that could have held 50 people. The room is painted all black and has good acoustics. It’s a great space. The vibe, however, was not. The people singing were enjoying themselves, but sitting in the audience would have been too awkward. I headed for the bar to the right of the microphone.

The bar is small but well-appointed and the actual bar itself is an impressive carved wood affair. The back of the bar is covered in windows and long vinyl benches. The windows look down into the common space of The Catalyst and there’s a run-off room that overlooks the Atrium. The bartender was very friendly and into the lore of the building. She told me that sometimes people come up and watch the show from the run-off room when it gets too loud and crowded below. The drinks are about what you’d expect from any dive bar, cheap and strong. I sat through 2 cycles of all the singers, then idly texted my friend that he was right about the karaoke.

He texted back and asked if I would want to come down and see the end of the main stage show. I went downstairs and into the show. I’d never been in there before, it was much larger than I’d guessed. It wasn’t packed but there was a good turn out. The headliner was Opiuo, whom I had never heard of, and he had a pretty cool laser show. EDM isn’t really my thing but I like to dance so it was at least less awkward than the karaoke.

Observations about Opiuo:

  • The laser show is exactly like what we thought hacking was in the 90’s.
  • I think my astigmatism is helping make the visuals truly amazing.
  • EDM is designed for the laziest type of dancing. Most people are reduced to a sort of languid sway. I am impressed with anyone innovating in their dance moves.
  • Many of the transitions feel like you’re waiting for a street fighter game to start. You’re stuck in the idling body jostle while you wait for the other player to choose their fighter.
  • Wow, they do an encore? Like the whole “Leave the stage and come back after the audience begs a little” thing? Really? Wow. Admittedly the encore really gets me (and the crowd) going. It’s the best part of his set.
  • I appreciate how he ends after building up a towering inferno of dance energy and leaving us all wanting release. Is the whole audience feeling EDM blue balls?

After Opiuo finished, I went back upstairs to karaoke limbo. The “crowd” had thinned out, now there were only 4 remaining singers and the DJ. After the loud dance party downstairs, the quiet upstairs felt like a welcome respite, just a cavern full of weirdos who love karaoke. And honestly, sometimes that’s all you want at 12:14 a.m. on a Friday. I came full circle on the whole karaoke thing and started to enjoy myself sitting in the little bar listening to these karaoke devotees singing their hearts out.

I watched all 4 patrons and the DJ sing. These people clearly love to sing more than most. The song choices were classic karaoke fodder. Some John Lennon and Joan Jett, with some Nirvana thrown in for taste. The girl who did an excellent impression of Jack Black doing Wonder Boy has a special place in my heart.

There was a man and woman sitting behind me in the bar on the window benches. The woman was talking about how her mom told her she was allergic to codeine, so she spent her whole life not getting the good painkillers. I actually am allergic to codeine, coincidently, so I had a vested interest in the conversation. Apparently, she grew and sold opium poppies but never used herself because of her allergy. I didn’t hear the end of the story but I know she had LSD that she hadn’t taken yet.

As it neared 1 a.m. and bar close, I chatted with the bartender a little more. She told me that The Catalyst used to be a bowling alley, the run-off room used to be an open air balcony that looked down on Pacific Avenue, and that all the pictures of performers are from their shows at the venue. Notable standouts among them are Iggy Pop, Tina Turner, and David Bowie.

So hear me out: the karaoke could be very cool. If you’re a karaoke diehard, it’s perfect already. If not, I suggest bringing your own party. I could see having a birthday party or bachelorette party there and having a blast. There’s tons of space and since it’s only a few regulars, you’ll get up to sing more than at other popular karaoke bars.

Overall, The Catalyst is even cooler than I previously thought. It might not be karaoke at CBGB’s, but it’s fresh music (and karaoke) every week at a Bay Area institution. In a lot of ways, it resembles Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco in that it is often a first stop for bands just starting out and gaining popularity. They just had Remi Wolf there a few weeks ago and FIDLAR is scheduled for February. It’s an iconic venue of the Bay Area music scene where old meets new. So don’t sleep on The Catalyst, it’s exactly the kind of funky idiosyncratic club we need more of in the Bay.

Editor’s Note: Shut up. Santa Cruz is basically the Bay Area. Craigslist says so.

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  1. Carlos Becerra
    December 7, 2022 at 7:49 pm — Reply

    That’s my night to host karaoke there! Lol must shave even a night I took off , come give it another try I promise a better musical experience lol

  2. Carlos Becerra
    December 7, 2022 at 7:50 pm — Reply

    I should have proof read that lol

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