Sometime in the late 1990’s, I saw Rockapella in concert for the first time. I recall thinking “Wow, it’s hard to believe that they are all singing in tune and sound like a band despite no instrumental accompaniment. That Jeff Thacher guy is pretty cool, too.” It was an eye-opening experience for me, seeing a cappella like that.
Sometime the following year, I saw The House Jacks at the Bottom Line (yes, I’ve mentioned this before). This time, I can definitely remember thinking “Wow, this is rock music with no instruments. Plus, these guys are serious dudes” (for some reason I remember original bass Bert Bacco dressed kind of like a biker/rock star, complete with leather jacket and possibly boots). And they were loud, in a good way. This was a big moment for me, realizing that when The House Jacks called themselves a vocal band, they meant it and they owned it. The show proved to me that the future of a cappella was not just an updated version of doo wop, but rather a modified version of rock or pop music.
It was not until February 21, when I saw Pentatonix in concert in New York City, that I was able to see the next step in this evolution. As in, when Pentatonix came out on stage, I had this thought: “holy shit, this is like a real pop/rock show with professional lighting, professional sound, in a big ballroom with a pit and thousands of people crammed in (official capacity at the Best Buy Theater is 2,100). The bass and drums are shaking the place, and the energy here is electric.”
Now, while I have long been a fan of the live shows offered by Rockapella and The House Jacks, as well as a dozen other contemporary a cappella groups, I don’t believe there is even room for debate: this is a whole new animal of a cappella concert.
Setting aside the individuality of this particular group for just a moment, the atmosphere was unlike any I have seen at an a cappella concert, starting with this:
You can kind of make out the “P T X” separated by lights…there was also a series of platforms with a singer on each platform. The bass immediately kicked in, and the rumble was so fierce you could feel it in your bones. Welcome, Avi. (and Liquid 5th)
Now, the uniqueness of this particular group. First of all, individual components. At one point, the group pointed out bass Avi Kaplan’s rare ability to sing overtones. Here’s what that means:
The remainder of the group also enjoyed convincing Avi to sing the dwarf song from the recent movie “The Hobbit.” Like this:
So, the group has a multi-talented and funny bass singer. They also allowed their uber-talented beatboxer/VP Kevin Olusola to show off his array of skills, performing a beautiful cello solo and then performing his famous celloboxing on the Imagine Dragons song “Radioactive.” Here’s the group performing that song earlier in the tour.
Ok, Pentatonix showed that their rhythm section is comprised of two uniquely talented individuals.
What about the other three? Well, over the course of an approximately 90-minute set, the big 3 (Scott, Mitch, and Kirstie) offered one of the cleanest and most impressively tuned sets I’ve seen. They sounded a bit tired, having performed the previous night in Philadelphia, but their intonation was stellar. I’ve watched a lot of the group’s YouTube videos and thought “well, that sounds very tight without any production, but they also could have shot 15 takes before they got that one.” In New York City, it was truly remarkable how clear and solid their tuning was. This is important. I’ve seen a lot of groups who might be considered among the best in the world suffer from tuning problems onstage. There were very few such moments for Pentatonix on this night.
A few other thoughts about Pentatonix as a performing act. First, they have charisma. They are funny, humble, and authentic, all of which are appealing, and they are so young. The group has broad public appeal, as demonstrated by their appearances at all kinds of corporate locations and on all types of television shows.
Second, they are creative about their song selection. Yes, they performed the songs from their album, but they also performed a few from their YouTube videos, a new boy band medley (‘N Sync) and a new original (the Kaplan-penned “Peaceful World”[Ed.- the song is actually called “The Peaceful War”]).
Third, they enjoy getting the crowd engaged in the show. At one point, Kevin and Avi spent time teaching the audience 3 parts to a song, then had the crowd to sing back to them in 3-part harmony. I’ve seen Ben Folds do this numerous times onstage, and while not everyone in the crowd necessarily loves it, I think it’s great- especially for the type of crowd at a Pentatonix concert. In other words, a crowd of people who love vocal music.
As should be clear by now, I was very impressed. This is a group of young performers who are talented, entertaining, and the scariest part: getting better (according to Acatribe’s Tara Ahn, who saw them on their previous tour). In addition, they have a cappella professionals (Liquid 5th) running sound on this tour.
It seems to me that if they’re not selling out amphitheaters in 2 years or less, someone in their management or label isn’t doing their job.
Final conclusion: if you can catch Pentatonix live in concert this year, do it. Their show IS the bridge to mainstream pop culture that a cappella fans have been predicting for years, and it is being executed by young, charismatic, and immensely talented singers.