SoJam 2013- Rockin’ in Raleigh

On Nov. 8-10, Raleigh, North Carolina was pulsing with a cappella for the eleventh annual SoJam festival. This was my first year attending, and aside from some personal issues which forced me to miss the after party Saturday night and catch a super-early flight home on Sunday (more on that below), it was a tremendous experience.

I have been to BOSS twice and VoCALnation once, but neither quite matches up in size or scope to SoJam. The sheer number of people walking around and attending workshops on Saturday, as well as attending the Friday night concert, was impressive.

First, let me just note- I had intended for this weekend to be a series of announcements from Acatribe, with the revealing of a new logo (see above, and special thanks to Andrew Kirschner for his tireless work on the designs), a new visual approach to the blog, and most importantly, the brand new vocal editing service Acatribe Productions!

However, I faced obstacles with each of these rollouts, and the weeks leading up to SoJam were a constant series of headaches from technical problems to logistical/business problems, to personal issues. I printed business cards (how quaint!), some swag with the new logo, and then never got a chance to really promote. As you can see, the logo is now official, and the overhaul of the blog design is nearly complete. The Production company is very close to opening for business, and I’ll certainly do more promotion of that when the time is ready. My point in sharing all of this is that I had very high expectations and hopes for SoJam in a professional context, and many of them were dashed before I even arrived.

So, what about as a fan and festival attendee? A whole other story.

Friday night’s concert had just begun when I walked into the large Memorial “Auditorium” that evening, and it was loud inside. Eh440 was opening up with a tune before the competition began, and the energy in the room was high. UCD Mix, who won the 2013 BOSS collegiate competition with these sets, led off the competition. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any video from their set online yet, but I can tell you that they absolutely killed it. They brought the same high level of creativity, musicality, and storytelling (along with some props) which really just made the other groups look primitive by comparison. I could talk about the remaining groups, but frankly, they weren’t all that impressive. In fact, I think the overall caliber of the performances from the remaining 5 groups was lesser than at BOSS 2013 or BOSS 2012. FSU’s Reverb had some nice moments, and the crowd was definitely cheering them on, but I think part of it was the audience wanting to pull for someone else to challenge Mix, when it was so clear from the beginning that this would be a nearly impossible task. That’s just my opinion, and of course others may have felt differently. Also, in fairness to the other competitors, their performances were still at a far higher level than most college groups could achieve even 5 years ago, though some performers did struggle a bit with pitch. Also, it was apparently BELTING NIGHT!! because each group had at least one female lead who practically shrieked out a solo. I was really dying for more nuance and subtlety as the competition went along, but there wasn’t a whole lot to be found.

Mix thus won their second CASA festival competition in the past seven months. Pretty impressive, guys!

In fact, here’s their Sing Off audition video (it’s a shame they didn’t make it, I think they would have been very entertaining and competitive).

Eh440 entertained the crowd while the judges deliberated in between rounds, and they sounded great. It seems like they are still discovering or cementing their identity, something which they alluded to in this interview before SoJam.

I was exhausted and famished that night from 9 hours of travel, as was Pat (who worked his last day at his job before he begins working for Jean Georges at a new restaurant in Westchester, NY), so when the concert let out after 11 pm we went looking for food and ended up at a little bar called Woody’s which had decent burgers and beer. I was disappointed we missed the after party, but I figured (wrongly) that I’d be that much more ready to go Saturday night.

Saturday morning, we headed over to the NCSU campus for a morning of workshops and AcaBombs. When we arrived, I looked around and realized the difference between SoJam and the other festivals I’ve attended. There were not one or two, but four simultaneous AcaBombs during each break, which is CRAZY…and awesome. We saw Jaded perform, and then I had to decide on what workshops to attend: always a challenge. I decided to try something new and attend a workshop on Barbershop music called “What We Can Learn From Barbershop.” Run by Matt Woodward, Bill Adams, and Matt Gorman, this was one of the best workshops I’ve seen at a CASA festival. They talked about why barbershop music is important to contemporary a cappella performers, citing Deke Sharon’s article (here) which called it the “martial art” of a cappella. More specifically, they talked about the importance of tuning, vowels, phrasing, and so on.  Adams talked about the math and physics of tuning and why you should absolutely NOT be rehearsing around a piano. He has a Doctor of Musical Arts and probably knows what he’s talking about.  They talked about practice habits, including practicing unison singing (which I guarantee virtually no contemporary a cappella groups are doing on a regular basis). I thought it was great, and I truly hope they can offer a similar workshop at future festivals. Great workshop guys, you inspired me to check out the Barbershop Harmony Society.

Then, outside, FSU’s All Night Yahtzee did this

After lunch, I sat on the panel celebrating RARB‘s 20th anniversary, where we discussed older albums which have held up over time and some which have not. Mike Marcus (our technical director) revealed the much improved new format (“2.0”) which will be coming soon, and there was even cake! If you have read more than 5 album reviews from RARB over the years, you’ve proven that you value it as a resource (really, THE resource) for reviews on recorded a cappella music. And if this is true, you should really donate to help us make it a better resource. Here’s the link for the donation page- http://rarb.org/2for20.html -every little donation helps.

Ok, moving on, I next attended the workshop on listening and tuning with Avante, a vocal jazz septet from North Carolina. This was a perfect supplement to the barbershop workshop, as they also talked about and demonstrated specific types of problems you may encounter with your group’s blend and tuning, and how to fix them. It was pretty amazing to watch Kevin Badanes take some singers from the audience, have them shuffle around in configurations singing a short passage, and learn who was better off singing where in the group. It was informative and entertaining, with a cameo from Tom Anderson (singing an arrangement he prepared for Avante, with Avante).

The final workshop of the day for me had to be Essential Listening with Ben Stevens, which I have heard much about over the years but never yet attended.

Wow.

I can honestly say I haven’t thought or felt (in a communal sense) that much about music in a long time. The reality is that the things the “Professor” (as he is often called) pointed out are especially true for me, with a day job, a family, and a lot of extra-curricular responsibilities (including this blog, RARB, CASA, and this new editing business). I don’t have a lot of time to really sit and just listen to music, but I am going to make more of an effort after that experience. Bravo to the ladies of Jaded and the FSU Acabelles for their performances there as well.

Saturday evening was the professional showcase, which kicked off with Mix reprising part of their set from the night before. Despite the repetition, it was impressive and thrilling.

MICappella is a group I have been following for a long time, having featured them in an AcaVids segment before they had even appeared on The Sing Off China. I loved their EP and their album, and was really interested to see how they are in concert. They did not disappoint. From the beginning, they were entertaining, energetic, and they sounded great.

They were also funny, gracious, and versatile, even pulling off this Iron Maiden cover.

It was nice of the SoJam organizers to let MICappella do a long set considering the group flew halfway around the world to be there. In the past, some have suggested MICappella is similar to Pentatonix, what with the comparable Sing Off background and youth. I would suggest that MICappella has earned the right to be recognized for what they have accomplished, and for their own unique style which is not a mere carbon copy of Pentatonix’s sound. I thoroughly enjoyed their set, and I hope they make it back to the States soon with a performing stop in New York City.

If you want to learn more about MICappella, check out my interview with Peter Huang, the group’s excellent vocal percussionist, here.

Finally, it was time for the Swingle Singers. I’ve seen them perform twice before, and I am continually stunned at the level of precision, musicality, and intelligence in their sets. As with the last time I saw them, they began with the title track from their new album, “Weather to Fly,” which is a perfect introduction to what they do so well. Watch this video, note how they exchange parts and weave a colorful and warm tapestry from this Elbow tune.

I was pleased to see them do their unique cover of “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette, which is hugely entertaining.

And of course, as always, they bring class and cosmopolitan culture to each set.

I could write about their abundant skills (musicianship, stage presence, creativity, etc.) for several more paragraphs, but this post is getting (!) quite long, so let me just say- The Swingle Singers are one of the handful of groups in the world that can please all types of fans, all ages, in all venues. Simply put, they are the very best our performance style has to offer, and they earned each of the four standing ovations at SoJam. Also, from everything I have heard and seen, they are some of the most genuine, funny, and kind people in the business.

You can learn more about their recent experiences and what lies ahead for the Swingles in this interview I conducted with the lovely and talented Sara Brimer.

—-

Though I was very much looking forward to the after party Saturday night, I was starting to get concerned about my wife (who texted me that she was quite ill, and that she was not sure if she could care for the children in the morning) and ended up heading back to the hotel and working to book the earliest flight I could get, which took some time. I missed the after party, which is perhaps one of the most exciting parts about these festivals- socializing and celebrating with the other fans and the performers in a casual setting. (see my BOSS post for an example).

I was up at 5 am the next morning, on the road before 6 am, and on a plane before 7 am, so I missed the workshops on Sunday. I am very hopeful that this will be the first of many SoJams to come, and that future experiences will be healthy and untroubled by personal issues.

You can see another write-up of a first-time SoJammer Deborah Rosanwo right here at the Vocal Blog. She was also quite impressed by the whole experience. :-)

For now, I’m already getting excited for BOSS in April, and I hope to get reports from those who make it out to Los Angeles A Cappella Fest and the Texas A Cappella Celebration in March.

What were some of your favorite parts of SoJam 2013?

What do you think?