Blue Jupiter Has Serious Skills

Two weeks ago, I finally got a chance to see Blue Jupiter perform and I left with one overwhelming thought: THAT was a professional performance.

It was fun, energetic, and polished. It felt like a variation on the well-established, very successful formula employed by Rockapella. I know, there are those in the a cappella community who don’t want to talk about Rockapella anymore, and I can understand that. After seeing them perform more than 15 times between 1998 and maybe 2006, even opening for them with my Potsdam Pointercounts in 2000, I reached that point. I felt like I had seen everything Rockapella had to offer, and was ready to move on for new, different groups. That being said, Rockapella is a very successful touring group because they hit a number of different check-mark boxes in every performance, regardless of the venue or the audience.  What they do works for a large swath of America (not to mention Japan and other parts of the world where they are popular) and an equally large range of age groups.

In the years since I wandered away from Rockapella, I had seen only one group hit many if not all of the same successful performance techniques: The Swingles.  My love for their performances is well-documented on Twitter and probably throughout this blog as well, but I’ll just point out that they are immensely talented performers who are comfortable singing a broad range of often difficult repertoire and engaging an audience with equal success.

Take 6 hit many of the same marks when I saw them at The Blue Note, but I did feel that they lost me on some of the songs because they do a particular genre of music especially well, and may not appeal with the same efficacy to every audience member. I adore Pentatonix, and was really impressed with their concert in 2013, but they are clearly aiming for the under 50 crowd with all the lights and heavy bass. Their show is a different animal altogether. The same goes for Duwende, MICappella, and Postyr, among other favorites. I enjoy seeing all of these groups perform, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they hit on that broad appeal like Rockapella and The Swingles.

Then came Blue Jupiter.

You ever see a local theater production, where everyone on stage knows their lines and hits their marks, but you’re just not immersed until one individual walks onto the stage and just takes over the room? And immediately, you think “Oh, this is it. This is something different.” The same is true when you go to see a serious rock band and they come on after 2 or 3 less experienced opening acts.  They get on the stage with presence and purpose and immediately set the tone for the evening.

Here are the various keys to a successful, broad, professional performance, as exhibited by Blue Jupiter in Garden City, New York in mid-November.

First, Blue Jupiter jumped on stage and began singing background parts while…

1) introducing the band, each member taking a little flourish or solo upon being introduced. Yes, I’ve seen many groups do this kind of thing, but they often wait until late in the set or even a few songs in. I enjoyed the fast introduction, even though I know about each member of the group. They mixed in some humor, particularly with Mr. Minkoff’s introduction of lone female singer Diana Preisler (“You may know her from the streets of New York City…er…”).

And just like that, they were familiar. They were friendly, funny, and relatable. This was enhanced by the fact that…

2) they were smilingengaging each other and the audience at the same time. This sounds like an unimportant detail, but I assure you- it has a significant impact on the audience. I looked around and saw people smiling with them, and that is yet another way Blue Jupiter connected with their audience. I have performed in many different places, from street corners and plazas to concert halls, and I readily admit that smiling while singing was often more difficult than singing the notes for me. It seems like it should be easy, but when I think about many of the groups I have seen over the years, I realize that I was not alone with this obstacle.

As Blue Jupiter moved through their set, it also became clear that they would not have any problem with…

3) energy and movement.  It doesn’t take full-blown choreography like we saw from certain groups on The Sing Off or see annually at ICCAs or festivals to satisfy this performance requirement. You don’t need Thriller, you just need to have performers moving around to the music, occasionally in sync with each other and the music, and you need to look comfortable- like the stage is your living room. This sounds simple, but it is HUGE, because when you do it right, the audience relaxes and feels like they are in your living room with you. Yes, there are groups that can (and should) go crazy with the choreo, but you don’t need to hit that level to be effective.

Making smart use of onstage banter with each other (which probably should be its own performance check box), Blue Jupiter transitioned seamlessly (another one) between songs. I started to notice that they were…

4) making smart repertoire choices.  I didn’t take notes, but my recollection was that Blue Jupiter performed pop songs from four of the past five decades, which is always a good idea if your goal is to engage listeners from a diverse age range.  They did the obligatory “Let it Go” for some of the younger folks, but more surprising was the inclusion of 3 (!) show-tunes. Perhaps this shouldn’t be all that surprising since Diana Preisler has a resume that looks like this.  Regardless, they took an old dusty staple like “My Favorite Things” and turned it into this

 

They sang pop music from an era when showtunes were popular music, and did it well.  They also hit upon staples from other eras and translated them well for their size and did so in service to their performing strengths. This is professional performing, folks.

As they neared the end of their set, they gave beatbasser Marty Gasper (doing double duty on bass and beatbox) some room for the obligatory percussion solo. I leaned back as leery as only someone who has seen quite a few repetitive VP solos can be, but then he…

5) made the solo fun and amusing.  I’ve done my share of vocal percussion, and I know why so many folks take the solo as an opportunity to show off the fun range of sounds they can make that don’t often come up in the middle of a pop tune. It is particularly effective when the audience is composed of people who just cannot believe you are making those sounds with your voice, and yet…it can be a little bit boring. Especially for a cappella fans in the audience who have seen a lot of very similar solos.

So, I was pleasantly surprised when Marty began with some humor. I won’t give away the particulars, but he basically made a few non-percussive sounds as if to say: “Look. I’m making sounds with my mouth, and they don’t sound like they came from there. I know you didn’t believe it, but trust me…it isn’t pre-recorded and it isn’t a machine. I’ll even make some entirely irrelevant sounds just to prove it.”

It was funny, endearing, and very, very effective. You don’t always need to ram the percussion down their throats during a solo, and you certainly don’t need to start off with the fireworks. If you want to get to them, I can understand that, but the smart performer is gonna take the audience on a little story or path before getting there, and humor is a great way to do it.

Finally, the group came back out for one final tune, “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. This was an excellent closer, mainly because they…

6) sounded greatOk, I cheated a bit on this one. It should be a given that groups sound great before they get on stage, but the reality is that a lot of groups don’t. Before your group gets out there and performs, try recording a few videos with your phone and listen back. Are certain parts out of tune? Are phrases just vanishing? These kinds of problems did not happen once in Blue Jupiter’s show, which was carefully crafted to showcase all of their strengths. A group which has just four members, one of whom is committed to a solo and another committed to the rhythm section could easily, and often does, suffer from an empty sound. Blue Jupiter’s smart arrangements allow the group to sidestep that problem nicely.

But that’s not all. Once the show was over, the group…

7) met the audience.  Blue Jupiter was outside in the lobby just a few minutes after the show ended, making themselves available for autographs, photos, and even conversations.  This reinforced the accessible nature of the show, and put a nice bow on the evening.

I hope that groups both new and old take the time to consider these techniques and find ways to implement them, because while we all love going out to support our friends who sing in a group for fun, the a cappella community really needs some more professional looking and sounding groups.

Who are some other groups that you all think have the complete professional performance package?

3 Comments

  1. Aaron from Acaville   •  

    Dave, I think the pieces you hit on here are a great checklist for a truly polished, professional performance. Your point on the difference between energy/movement vs. choreo is huge, and is worth highlighting: There are groups at various levels whose performance feel like they had to choose between great singing and high-energy choreo, yet I think it’s a dangerous choice – while there are trade-offs between jumping around the stage and acute breath control, groups that master the energetic movement (vs. full-on aerobic choreo) know that you can at least achieve the illusion of both.

    Two other groups (one past, one present) fit into this rubric well, I think: From the past (sadly), the Manhattan Transfer, though only about 15% a cappella, had the same characteristics. They commanded the stage, choice good rep, sang and emoted with energy (but not in a maudlin way), and engaged the audience and each other. These days, another example of this, I think, is The Bobs. Not sure if you’ve seen them live, but it’s a really odd nonsequitur: the production values of a Bobs show, by all visual indications, are right around that of a middle school talent show – a stage, maybe a table, and the sound equipment. They come on, and from the first few minutes, you know that you’re in good hands.

    What’s the core of all of this, I think? They’re enjoying themselves. And it’s obvious. And their enjoyment is inclusive and not exclusive – they invite you to be a part of the good time that they are having with each other. (And when you take that last phrase out of context, it has a VERY different connotation; I encourage you to not think about that and move on.) The banter that you mention with Blue Jupiter is there; in smaller venues, they include the audience in the banter as well. Because the Bobs do mostly original music, the rep is great if you like their stuff; it’s perhaps less engaging if you don’t – but the sequencing and pacing is usually well-honed.

    I admit that these two examples are sort of jazz/adult contemporary-ish, and not the Pentatonix’es of the world – and like you, I think PTX puts on a great show. I think I’ve seen ’em live four or five times now, and it’s a remarkable conjunction of a cappella with modern live-show pyrotechnics. But while I’m not over 50, I’m not in my 20s, and like you, I sometimes feel near the edge of their demo during the show.

    In all, a great post!

    P.S. To bring it back to Blue Jupiter for a minute, one other thing they do really well: engage with fans through social media. Their Twitter feed, for instance, is well-managed and includes a nice mix of unintrusive details about the group, comments on the flotsam of life, and responses to others. It’s another way they’re an example, I think, of being engaging. For a group that has members who are as busy as they are (including with non-Blue-Jupiter activities), I think that’s all the more impressive.

  2. Dave Bernstein   •     Author

    Aaron- great points, though a few observations/comments. 1) I fit exactly in the middle between 20 and 50, so I guess I am still in a place where I can enjoy both performance styles. 😉 Of course I chose 50 as an arbitrary-ish number, but the last time I saw PTX I did see some folks closer to my parents’ age complaining about the volume. So maybe 60?
    2) Sadly, I have not seen The Bobs or Manhattan Transfer perform. I am particularly intrigued by The Bobs.
    3) I agree that enjoyment is a big part of it, but it’s also enjoyment without fear or insecurity. I think many of us who have performed enjoyed the experience very much, but perhaps always allowed the fear or insecurity to eclipse the enjoyment.
    4) Yes, Blue Jupiter are terrific with social media.

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