Boston Sings (and Swings)

As I referenced in this week’s AcaVids segment and on Twitter, I was lucky enough to attend the Boston Sings (“BOSS”) festival, sponsored by CASA and Sled Dog Studios, this past weekend.  I am not looking to do a critical analysis of the festival, nor am I interested in provided a detailed accounting of every workshop and event I attended. Instead, I just wanted to give you all a snapshot of what a festival like this offers, along with a few opinions dropped in for context.

This was my second CASA-sponsored a cappella festival, the first being last year’s VoCALnation in New York, New York. I enjoyed that festival, which was focused generally on the formation and sustenance of Contemporary A Cappella League (“CAL”) groups, despite the fact that I was not in such a group, because it gave me an opportunity to see a terrific arranging workshop (with Nick Girard, Tom Anderson, Clare Wheeler, Christopher Diaz, and Amanda Aldag) and an informal and interesting VP panel with Jeff Thacher (Rockapella) and Ed Chung (Duwende). And perhaps best of all, the Saturday night concert last year featured Euphonism, Duwende and the Swingle Singers, so it was one of the better a cappella concerts I’ve seen in many years.

Instead of focusing on CAL groups, BOSS had at least a nominal emphasis on engineering and sound production in a cappella music. Two of the workshops I attended were focused on one of those topics. The first, run by the guys from Plaid Productions, was called “Beyond Basic Engineering” and featured discussion on detailed techniques for using Pro Tools and Melodyne for recording and editing purposes. It was an informative and enjoyable workshop, made all the more so by the presence of producer/engineer Bill Hare, who chimed in on a few relevant topics. He was also part of the panel in a later workshop which I attended and which also featured many of the most accomplished and relevant producers and engineers in the American a cappella community (including the Alexes from Plaid Productions, Bill Hare, Dave Sperandio, James Cannon, James Gammon, Ed Boyer, Angela Ugolini…am I forgetting anyone?).  This workshop (“Back That Track Up”) featured discussions on how to get the best out of a group in the studio, how to record and edit vp tracks, and quite a few other interesting topics.

At BOSS, there were 4 simultaneous workshops occurring during each time slot throughout Saturday and part of Sunday, so I was clearly unable to attend the majority of the workshops offered. There were masterclasses (including one with Cadence), panels on VP, women in a cappella, business/fundraising practices, the future of arranging/learning music, the essentials of listening, and many others which looked interesting. The broad spectrum of topics is why I previously commented that the focus of the festival was “nominally” on recording and production techniques, because really there were workshops addressing a huge array of a cappella topics.

Another feature of the festival which kept things entertaining was the presence of “Acabombs,” a practice which I believe started with last Fall’s SoJam festival.  The idea was that the event organizers arranged for a cappella groups to perform during half-hour windows intentionally inserted between each period of workshops.  One of these groups was a pick-up group which featured volunteer singers comprised of festival attendees. The PickUps, a group first put together at the Los Angeles A Cappella Festival, was organized by House Jacks and Overboard singer Nick Girard. Girard did a great job coordinating the materials and rehearsal, all before hopping on a plane to California to perform at The House Jacks’ 20th Anniversary Concert: meaning he did not even intend to perform with the PickUps this time! We certainly appreciated his hard work enabling The PickUps to come together and perform. I was thrilled to participate with the group, which  included members of Overboard (Scott Cobban), Hookslide (Jon Pilat), The Red States (Jim Diego), Cut Off, and quite a few other college and CAL groups, as well as a number of producers/engineers, CASA-affiliated folks, and just random attendees (e.g. myself). After a rehearsal of less than two hours on Friday, we performed 5 songs on Saturday and had a great time doing so.

The Acabomb which received the most enthusiastic crowd response was a new group called Blueprint, which featured four members from Overboard (Alfredo Austin, Caleb Wheldon, Jeff Eames, and Scott Cobban (apparently filling in)) as well as Gary Gustavsen, Dustin Hyatt, and Mark Joseph. They had tight harmonies, excellent pitch, and powerful solos. The next night, they placed third at the Boston regional of the Harmony Sweepstakes competition, and Fredo won best soloist. I look forward to seeing more from them in the future.

As with all CASA-sponsored festivals, BOSS featured a scholastic competition on Friday night and then a professional showcase concert on Saturday night. The competition featured a new format, in which the best groups advanced and one group was eliminated each round. This allowed, as one organizer mentioned to me, the “better” groups to get more opportunities to show their versatility as each round had a different theme. It had been a few years since I last saw a collegiate competition (ICCA or otherwise) live, and what a difference! The final two groups, University of Chicago’s Voices in Your Head, and Northeastern University’s Nor’easters, were energetic, intense, very solid musically, and made excellent use of the entire stage. Voices in Your Head did a killer version of “Titanium,” made great use of dynamics, and did some really cool things with the microphones and with their movement generally. I actually thought the Nor’easters had better tuning and that their arrangements showed off their collective voice and withstood all the movement better, but both groups were top-notch and either group was entirely and unequivocally qualified to win.

While the judges deliberated, Ball in the House snapped off a grooving, funky mini-set of a few songs which was extended longer than expected while the winner was determined. The last time I saw them was almost ten years ago, and while two members from back then are the same (Dave and Jon), I was really impressed with two members who have not been around for quite that long: bass Ryan Chappelle and soloist/baritone Nels Urtel. Chappelle kept a very solid and consistent groove locked in with with VP Jon Ryan, and Urtel, who won last year’s CARA for Best Male Collegiate Solo on Fifth Element’s “Let’s Get it On,” offered a few scorching solos.

Saturday night’s “professional showcase” concert featured Voices in Your Head again (one of the rewards for winning the competition), Redline, Traces, and Cadence, whom I’ve always wanted to see live. Traces had the place rocking, and I felt a little nervous when Cadence took the stage, mainly because their style is not something you could categorize as “rocking” (unless you are a big fan of jazz). I was thus thrilled that they are unquestionably one of the best vocal groups I’ve ever seen live, and I think it comes down to 4 main observations: (1) their tuning is impeccable, and I do mean impeccable; (2) they are extremely polished and comfortable as entertainers, meaning their ability to work the crowd, transition, and move around, utilizing the entire room; (3) their vocal horns, as hoped, were stellar; and (4) they just sound great from top to bottom. The set wasn’t particularly long, and I would have loved a few more songs, but they certainly lived up to my high expectations. And while the crowd was generally very supportive and respectful, I’m not sure you would use the word “raucous” or “rocking” to describe the room during and after the set. That being said, I think everyone enjoyed the performance and I would recommend that any a cappella fan see them in concert if possible.

I was not feeling great for most of the weekend, so I didn’t get a chance to make it out to the afterparties both nights, which were open to  performers, presenters, and attendees. From the chatter I heard Saturday and Sunday mornings, it sounds like everyone had a great time. I look forward to hitting the afterparties next year.

Sunday morning there were a few more workshops, and then a collaborative recording session which allowed many of the performers from the weekend as well as those attendees who paid for a “VIP” pass to contribute to a track which was recorded, for the most part, in a single day and which will presumably be released via CASA in a few months. The collaborative tracks recorded at last year’s SMACC and SoJam are very good, and I hope and expect this track to be no less impressive.

My only constructive criticism for the event organizers, and I’m sure this is not news to them, had to do with the logistical difficulties created by offering concerts that were not held in close proximity to the workshops. The workshops, held on MIT’s campus in Cambridge, were about 6 miles away from the Regent Theater in Arlington. By car, in traffic, this took about 30 minutes on Saturday afternoon. It also might have confused the issue for those coming from out of town about where, geographically, was the most convenient location to book a hotel room. This was not a major problem, I just think having everything in the same or adjacent facilities make the process easier and more relaxing for attendees. I would also note that having a pamphlet or a few pages with descriptions of the workshops for attendees would have made it easier to decide on the spot whether to attend workshop A, B, C, or D at a particular time. Simply having the names and presenters on the back of the ID badge was not particularly helpful towards that decision, and there were probably a few choices I would have made differently had I been able to review the workshop summaries before each panel.

I have two general thoughts to sum up my feelings about this festival, and really about these a cappella festivals in general. First, it was (and they can offer) a tremendous value. I think the cost for an all-access past here ran somewhere in the range of $60-65, and it included two highly entertaining concerts, a full day of workshops on Saturday, a half-day of workshops Sunday, a number of additional performances (the “Acabombs”), and the afterparties. Keep in mind that the ICCA finals run between $45 and $75 per ticket for one evening.  It costs far more for me to go to a baseball game, to a Philharmonic or Broadway performance, or any of a number of other limited-duration, limited-experience activities than it did for me to attend this festival, which filled an entire weekend. I really appreciate the event organizers packing this much entertainment into that price point.

My second general thought is simply this: a cappella people are generally very nice and supportive, which makes attending a festival like this, even by yourself, a worthwhile venture. I had invited a few friends who were unable to attend, and my wife had to stay home with the kids, so I was flying solo for this weekend. It was a little intimidating, but I was quite pleased to find nearly everyone, from the attendees to the organizers to the performers, very accessible and sociable. So, even if you can’t get your whole group to go, or if you aren’t in a group and are just looking for a fun a cappella-saturated weekend, I recommend attending one of these festivals. I’m assuming/hoping BOSS will be around next year, but there are other festivals out there (just see my Festivals page) including a few sponsored by CASA (VoCALnation is next in July in Washington D.C. and then Acappellafest sometime this Fall in Chicago) and plenty of other localized ones (I may or may not be working towards the creation of one #supersecretlocalfestival) as well.

Thanks to CASA and the BOSS organizers for putting together a fun, informative, exhilarating weekend!


  1. Shams Ahmed   •  

    Thanks for your kind word about our group! You have a wonderful blog! – Shams Ahmed (Music Director, Nor’easters)

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What do you think?