by Michael Jermyn
MONTPELIER — I now know what it feels like to be Mick Jagger singing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” with the Rolling Stones behind me. I know how it feels to be David Bowie singing “Ziggy Stardust.” I know what it feels like to be Elton John singing Bennie, Bennie… “Bennie and the Jets!” The excitement, the nerves, the satisfaction of pulling off a great song in front of the public, is absolutely unparalleled. And you can too. All you have to do is go down to Sweet Melissa’s (4 Langdon St.) on Sunday nights for live-band karaoke and sign up, jump onstage and sing your heart out.
This is not your grandmother’s karaoke. This is the real deal. You get to perform with a full band composed of some of the finest musicians in Vermont, with a repertoire of some 300 songs under their belt. On any Sunday night you will hear a varied selection of music: from Willie Nelson to Otis Redding, Janis Joplin to Frank Sinatra, Amy Winehouse to Nirvana. Anything goes, and anyone can be a rock star here. All you have to do is bring the love and the band will provide the rest. Recently I heard Marissa Mattogno perform a blistering version of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” that even Joan would be proud of. Melissa Merrihew, part owner and bartender of the cafe, sang a spirited version of “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. For a few moments, I felt like I was back in the Swingin’ Sixties, hanging out in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.
Beside the excellent music and the all-night food (the homemade smoked Gouda poppers are amazing!), the main draw of this cozy bar is the relaxed vibe. There is no competition; all the singers are encouraged and congratulated equally. Newcomers are welcome to jump onstage and belt something out. It’s like one big family, with Melissa making everyone — regulars and strangers alike — feel like they’re in their own living room. This friendly and inviting atmosphere is what keeps me coming back week after week.
It’s an opinion shared by Howard Coffin, local writer and Civil War historian, and a regular at the bar. “I walked into Sweet Melissa’s one year ago, and here I am still,” Coffin said. “I always found standard karaoke a bore, but this is different. Live-band karaoke at Sweet Melissa’s is superstar soloists, and one of the best bands in the northeast. Vermont is talent-deep and it shows here.” I asked Cobalt Tolbert, 23, the house band’s energetic guitarist, why live-band karaoke appeals to him. “This is a community here,” he said. “We noticed when it first got started how quickly people took to it, but what was really apparent is how everyone started mingling over a shared activity: the songs. Every Sunday night, fun is definitely had.”
Then it’s my turn to sing. Ever since Bowie died in January 2016, I make it a point of doing at least one of his songs at karaoke. Tolbert looks at me and starts softly strumming the C major to E minor intro of Bowie’s classic 1969 song, “Space Oddity.” A few minutes later we’re full-blown rocking. “This is Major Tom to Ground Control, I’m stepping through the door, and I’m floating in a most peculiar way, and the stars look very different todayyyyyyyyy!” At this moment, there is nowhere else in the world where I would rather be than right here, right now, in this magical little bar on the corner of Elm and Langdon streets in the capital city.
Looking out at the smiling faces in the crowd, all merrily singing along, it seems like the feeling is mutual.
Karaoke is outdoors at 6 p.m. this Saturday, May 6, on Langdon Street, for the Montbeerlier fest, part of Three Penny Taproom’s 8th birthday bash.