The Bitter End in New York City bills itself as “Greenwich Village’s most famous nightclub” and its owners claim it “has been the showcase for every major musical and comedic talent in the United States.” You can read more about it here and here. It is true that a lot of very influential and innovative musical and comedic talents have performed in the relatively small space, and you can feel that history when you walk through the place. The walls, the floors, the stage all emanate an intangible feeling, a sense that pioneers of rock and roll, blues, jazz, comedy, and other genres walked the same dark, cluttered room. I thought about this as I sat waiting for the House Jacks to start their set on Friday night, staring at the wall behind the right side of the bar where numerous artists’ names are handwritten in sloppy cursive. I’ve seen the House Jacks here before, along with quite a few other less memorable artists, but on this night I was thinking about music history and journeys.
I heard about the House Jacks in 1997, when I ordered their second album “Funkwich” from the Primarily A Cappella (or was it Mainely A Cappella?) catalog. When I first played the CD, it blew my mind. I was a freshman in college, and was just learning about some of the better college groups out there from the BOCA compilation and a few Beelzebubs albums I had ordered, but this was a whole new level. It was, as they identify themselves, a real vocal band. In some ways, that album changed my life: I would say that after listening to it hundreds of times in 1997-98, I knew that a cappella music was more than just a hobby for me- it was a serious passion. I saw the group perform in New York that same year, I believe at the now-defunct Bottom Line, and they did, as their first album (“Naked Noise”) suggested, “Tear Down the Walls.”
This is a long way of saying that I have been a big fan of the group for a long time, and am certainly a little biased. I have seen them 6 times in total, which featured 3 different configurations of members. This past Friday was the first time I saw them with new members Nick Girard and John Pointer, and the group seemed to have a fresh energy along with some new flexibility onstage. In their press release last November which introduced Nick and John, the group indicated that both men sing both tenor and vocal percussion. In Friday’s set, they did in fact split the VP duties and alternate on tenor and solo parts as well. (I think I also saw Nick singing bass on a tune where Troy Horne, the bass, was singing lead.)
Here’s another example of the group’s current flexibility. By the time the group had finished its first 6 songs, each of the 5 members of the group had already sung a lead. So, you have a group with not only 5 singers, but 5 soloists. Many groups announce that they are looking for precisely this when they publicize auditions, but there are few groups who succeed and actually get a legitimate front-man in each singer. With the current iteration of the House Jacks, however, any one of these guys could and would be a legitimate lead singer in a rock band or vocal band. That is flexibility and talent.
It was also surprising and exciting to note that a few of the early songs were originals that are not on any current House Jacks albums. The songs were quite good, so let’s hope they end up on a new HJ album soon.
As I mentioned, the group seemed to have a different energy onstage from the last time I saw them back in 2009 or 2010. Specifically, they seemed to be enjoying themselves more, offering more smiles to both the audience and each other than they were a few years ago. More importantly (and perhaps related to that), they sounded great. Intonation and blend were actually a lot better than the last time I saw them, and maybe even one or two times before that. If you have not seen the House Jacks, they are, for all intents and purposes, a vocal rock band. They get loud, they distort their syllables and singing to simulate instruments, most notably guitars, and it is only natural for this style combined with the adrenaline and energy to create pitch problems. It has never been particularly disturbing because they offer so much else in terms of stage presence and rhythm section groove, but it was nevertheless something which nibbled at the edges of their sound the last 2 times I saw them. Not so on Friday, however. There were very few moments where I even thought about pitch for a second. Whether this improvement was related to the new members, a different sound tech, or something else, it was notable and impressive.
The group seemed very comfortable onstage with each other, and they went off-mic quite early in the set to do a nice original which I think Troy wrote. A lot of groups wait, offering their off-mic tune much later in the set, but the group seemed eager to show off their harmonizing chops and the roots of the genre early on, which I took to be a good sign for the show ahead. Here’s them performing that same song earlier this year:
Before I go on, I also have to mention John Pointer. The man is not so much a singer as a force of nature. He has energy, charisma, a scorching rock tenor (he absolutely destroyed Led Zep’s “Kashmir,” a song from the aforementioned Funkwich album which I swore they could never pull off live and which I had never seen them do in 5 prior shows I attended). He is also a very impressive beatboxer. Here’s a recent solo he ripped off at a concert in PA:
It must seem more than a little unfair to other professional a cappella groups and vocal bands in the U.S. that the House Jacks have had such an incredible lineup of VP’s, with prior members Andrew Chaikin, Wes Carroll, and Jake Moulton. But to have a guy who has significant skills in that department and can also shred Robert Plant seems downright obnoxious.
And to be thorough, I should note that Nick did a terrific job with the challenging VP on that same song (“Kashmir”) and similarly crushed his own solo on Cee Lo’s “Crazy.”
The group offered a nice mixture of originals and covers early in the set before turning to a staple of any House Jacks performance- the segment in which they take audience requests. In and of itself, the audience request is not a particularly impressive thing for some bands to pull off. What the House Jacks do that most other groups do not, however, is invite the audience to request songs that the band has never sung before. This is not only impressive, but requires what my friend calls huevos gigantes. Let’s just say it means chutzpah. Guts?
In any event, the group will sing almost any song requested for 20 seconds to a minute so long as at least one person in the group seems to know the song. The result is often high comedy, as resulted when an audience member Friday requested “A Natural Woman,” made famous by Aretha Franklin and for those of us there Friday, now by Troy Horne. I was sitting at the bar, and the waitress who had been mostly uninterested in the set started to pay attention at this point. By the end of the audience request section she was shouting out requests, laughing, and cheering wildly after each tune. While the group as an entity is always funny during this section, it seemed clear that a good sense of humor is another trait that all of the current members share.
Later, someone requested “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a song which the group normally refuses to perform unless the request also specifies that the song be done in a unique style. The request was for a reggae version, and the group honored their rule with Austin Willacy on lead. Other songs included “Eye of the Tiger,” “The Greatest Love of All,” “Man or Muppet” (from the recent Muppet movie, a song which they turned into some kind of rap), a few others, and then the big mashup where they took another 9 or 10 requests and squeezed them all into one (including, among others, the theme song from Mr. Rogers “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” “The Rainbow Connection,” “Thriller,” “Moon River,” “Dynamite,” “If I Had a Million Dollars” (mashed up with “Bills Bills Bills”), and “Back in Black”). As always, this part of the show was a huge success.
The only thing I wondered about the group’s stage setup, and it was probably related to the rotation of VPists, was that the VP and bass were on opposite sides of the stage. I would think, and I do have a little experience performing each (at a far inferior level), that the rhythm section might feel more locked in if they were standing together or at least near each other. This is simply my own curiosity, however, as I did not notice any deficiencies in the groove and in fact, the quality was fairly consistent (high, though stylistically different) between John and Nick. Of course Troy kept things locked down on the bassline, just as he did on Season 3 of the Sing Off with Urban Method, regardless of who was doing VP here.
As always, I was stupefied by Deke’s vocal trumpet on “Summertime,” and when I play that section of the track from their live album, I am always quick to point out to whomever will listen that it is even more impressive in person because there are clearly no tricks, no pedals, and no comprehension in the audience as to how he does that.
The Bitter End is a club which typically books 3-4 acts per night, allowing each to do an hourlong set (approximately). The House Jacks were on first, and by the time they were wrapping up their set, a bunch of people were standing by the door waiting to see the next band. I heard at least a few of those people commenting about how cool the group was, asking their name, etc. The House Jacks were clearly at the top of their game Friday night, and they likely accomplished the difficult task of impressing longtime fans (such as myself) while simultaneously drawing in brand new fans, some of whom may not know or appreciate anything about contemporary a cappella music. I heard one guy say, with obvious surprise in his voice, “These guys rock!”
And that is why the House Jacks are one of the only contemporary a cappella groups in the world that has been around for 20 years, endured 3 (or more?) lineup changes, and yet somehow keeps elevating their game to new heights.
The House Jacks may have been the first of four bands playing at The Bitter End on Friday night, and the place may have been only half full when they started their set, but there is no question in my mind that they are to contemporary a cappella music what Woody Allen and George Carlin were to comedy, what Neil Diamond, Peter, Paul and Mary, and countless others were to their respective genres- revolutionaries and leaders.
For more about the House Jacks, check out their website here.