Yup, it's the Next Big Thing. By Natalie Meddings
It's a funny old world. A year ago Saturday night meant the Ministry for Mark Taylor: party beats; hands in the air; smile on stun. Now he prefers to be on a stage, between fairylit cacti, hands around a mike, belting out how hard it is to be a woman. For him and the rammed room of seasoned funseekers for whom he is singing, an assisted night no longer satisfies. A boozy night out does - and Country and Western karaoke delivers nicely.

In its eight-month run, Tequila Willies' cult cabaret in London's Stoke Newington has attracted an inexplicable mix of talent, from designer Paul Smith to popster Mike Flowers. In fact, with Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow set to star in Duets, a new film about C&W karaoke hustlers, it seems that Sonnie Mann, the rhinestone-studded promoter of this saloon night, might have a point. "The secret is in the theme," Sonnie explains. "With ordinary karaoke, there's so much chopping and changing of genres, it's singalong chaos. On top of that, tunes today are really long. Some drunken prat squawking chorus after chorus of 'Wonderwall' is just boring. But by sticking to the one theme - Country classics and Vegas tunes - we've got ourselves a show. A Country song is three minutes tops, so there's no room for self-indulgence."

Best loved are the heart bleeders with the lyin' and cheatin' lyrics. "I'm in a quandary," Sarah confides. "My head's saying stick with something simple like 'Crazy', but my heart's saying 'Nine-to-Five'." With her plaid shirt, ruby-red mouth and rayon hair, Sarah looks like she'd pull a Parton song off with ease. "Not that one," she says. "Sonnie tends to discourage it. Dolly makes it sound easy, but it's a roller-coaster ride."

Next on is Glenn, and after two bars of "Jolene", he's got the room rapt. As he reflates his lungs for a fourth chorus, it's obvious that he's done this before. "Well, yes, I'm a musician," he admits and confesses to sessioning with, among others, The Young Disciples and Chaka Khan. "But this is very different. To get up unprepared and just go with it - it's a challenge."

Glenn's polished performance has left the audience anxious. "This always happens when someone good gets up, but it's easily put right," says Sonnie, and he takes to the stage. With his cooking-oil quiff, plum velvet suit and mike lead hanging limply from his hand, he looks every inch the Vegas entertainer. Until he starts singing. In one surreal, unwavering note, he kills "Love Me Tender" stone dead - and the crowd are ecstatic. "Once they see how crap I am, they can't wait to get up."

By the last hour, the beer has put the boot in and the requests are too many to mention. It's a clear-cut case for forgetting the quality and feeling the width. But what width. And then it's all over, time to say goodbye with an all-time anthem. Sonnie sanctions a free-for-all, and they're away - producing a "Stand By Your Man" that pulls plaster from the ceiling. "I'm filling up," says Sonnie. "It's like a tribute."

Tequila Willies, 201-203 Stoke Newington Church Street, London N16.

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