Sonos conquers NYC (Review)

Frequently, when I go see a professional or semi-professional a cappella group, I find myself spending a lot of time watching the individual singers carefully, trying to pick up tips on how they use their mics or make certain sounds, how they move or use their bodies, and how they interact with each other. It is rarely the case that I forget about this process and the potential opportunity to learn and simply sit back and let the music wash over me like a cool breeze on a hot summer day. I think it is therefore the highest form of praise I can offer that this was precisely what I did last night watching Sonos perform at the Triad Theater in Manhattan.

Last night was the first time that I have seen Sonos live, though I have been listening to their first CD for 2 years now. I think my earlier Sing Off posts demonstrate that I am a fan of their style and talent, but I was tentative going into the club. Many groups whose CD’s I loved turned out to be somewhat (if not very) disappointing as live performers, and there was a small part of me that worried the same would hold true of Sonos. SO glad that turned out to be an unwarranted fear.

While the group acknowledged early that Chris(topher) (Given Harrison) was not feeling well, there were virtually no moments where that was apparent or particularly harmful to the group’s sound. Sooo…. I guess he is superhuman, because I know when I am not feeling well, my voice sounds approximately like this

In any event, the group offered a relatively short set comprised of (arguably) their most popular songs (“I Want You Back” and “Wicked Game”) and a bunch of originals, which they indicated would be part of a new album to be released this coming Spring. The latter were a huge step for a group like this, as one thing which really brings a professional group to the next level is its ability to write and perform original material. A professional or semi-pro group can only survive and entertain for so long doing a set full of covers of Coldplay or Lady Gaga, and that’s why it was so exciting to hear the original material from Sonos last night. More importantly, the songs were actually quite good. They hewed to the group’s strengths, namely haunting, breathy, sexy vocals from the ladies while Ben McClain provides a solid and spectacular beat and Harrison covers one of the many different background parts he sings with or without an octave pedal.  I don’t think there is any question that Sonos has its own style of tight, intricate chords where the voices weave in and out like a champion boxer. Perhaps the most surprising thing last night was just how cleanly they can sing those spidery parts. Their voices sounded dead-on accurate and this allowed the tension created by those parts and the resolutions (where they appear) to really shine.

Ben McClain is also clearly not human. I have seen many a cappella groups perform in the past 15 years, and in terms of pure skill as a vocal percussionist, I have to put him in the top 3 or 4. His beats are solid and unwavering, his sounds are varied and compelling, and he transitions easily and flawlessly between styles, often within a song. While some vocal percussionists use their whole body or their movement to augment or help generate their sounds, he is generally a minimalist in this sense. Though he moves around to the beat on stage, it is independent of his creation of the beat, more a product of just feeling the groove which he has already created.

This brings me to another point: everyone in the group seems to really feel the music and their movements reflect as much. This might sound silly to comment on, but it is important. I sang in a college group where I was often the only person (of 12) actually moving with the music, and while I am not talking about choreographed movements, there is something which the audience gains from seeing a performer clearly feeling the music in his or her body. (Side note: it is indisputably hilarious to watch some of the vids of my college group where you fast forward and watch soloists appear to turn to stone with virtually no movement in the background, and my awkward VP-bop moving at hyper speed).

Finally, I have to comment on the ladies. Oh, the ladies. It seems unfair to the rest of the a cappella world for Sonos to have 3 ridiculously talented and sexy ladies with such killer voices, and there’s no question they are each stars in their own right.

Sonos may well be one of the best sounding a cappella groups I have heard live. Now, the big controversy on the Sing Off was their inability to use their effects pedals, and they did use those pedals last night. To which I say: So what?! When I walked out of the show, my reaction was that they do not rely upon their pedals as a crutch, but rather use them to augment what is already an amazing group sound. They use them for flourishes with effects in some spots, and they use them to have a woman sing bass with an octave pedal where the only other male part (Chris) is singing solo. But watching them work their way through their set, you just know that they could pull off any song they wanted to without the pedals. Instead, they use the pedals to great effect, enhancing an already good sound to create a fuller, more lush sound for the audience.

So, yes. Halfway through the first song, I gave up trying to learn from them. I sat back, relaxed with a drink in my hand, and enjoyed a terrific a cappella performance.

Check out Sonos at http://www.sonosings.com/home.cfm and they are on Twitter @sonosings.

–The Red States opened for Sonos last night, and I have only a few quick comments on their performance. First of all, they opened with a very strong rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” a song which is not on their album but which they do have available on iTunes. For those of you who do not know, the Red States is a Contemporary A Cappella League (CAL) group of about 12 members (at least, I believe that’s how many I counted last night). They won the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award (CARA) for Best CAL Album, and they have gotten their song featured on Perez Hilton’s website I believe. I have seen them before, approximately two years ago, and they have definitely improved since then. The problem with a group of 12 is that not everyone can have a microphone (without a far more complicated setup and far more intensive work at the sound board).  The Red States chose to mic their soloist, VP, and bass, and I can’t really disagree with this decision. However, the result was something of  wash of the background vocals. I was sitting a little more than halfway back in a very small venue, maybe no more than 50 feet from the stage, and I frequently was unable to hear any of the particulars of the background parts. The result, unfortunately, is that any possible blend or pitch problems actually jumped out a little bit. There’s also no question in my mind that a big part of the problem with the sound was related to the acoustics of the room and the stage itself, so I can’t really do a full or detailed critique of the sound.

The group is clearly talented and certainly has a number of really solid soloists, and I look forward to seeing them in a better space in the near future.

Check out The Red States at http://www.redacappella.com/TheRedStates/Welcome.html and they are on Twitter @redstates.

What do you think?