The Sing Off has always been a carefully choreographed opportunity for the world to see what a cappella music can do, both stylistically and in a more meaningful sense. It is a show which offers a glimpse into and an invitation to join the tribe of people who enjoy all vocal music to an almost irrational degree. While the dwindling ratings with each progressive season might seem paltry to network executives, the several million people around the country who tuned in to the most recent “season” still exponentially outnumber the highest estimate of the proud members of our little tribe.
The Sing Off Live Tour which is now working its way across the United States is also carefully choreographed, though with less age and gender diversity than its television counterpart. Instead, the tour offers a 100-120 minute show featuring three all-male headlining groups of varying styles. Sort of. Ok, they are all male groups performing pop/rock music, and the singers are generally between the ages of 24 and 40. However, their performing styles are indeed quite different, and we will have accept that this was the extent of the headlining diversity on the tour. Yes, each city features a different opening group, and many of those groups include women or groups with members that aren’t in the 24-40 age demographic, but the opening groups tend to get only 10-15 minutes. Regardless, the three headlining groups are exceedingly talented, so it would be impossible to argue that any one did not deserve to be included.*
I was pleased to catch the show in New York City last Thursday, February 19, at the Best Buy Theater. Though I can only guess that the frigid temperatures were to blame, there was a noticeable lack of energy in the crowd leading up to the show and during the performance by opening group Traces.
Luckily, The Exchange kicked off the show with a ton of noise and energy, and things started to pick up shortly into their set. Though they are technically the group with the least experience singing together (certainly in temporal terms, possibly in terms of total number of performances), one would never know it. This “super-group” of former contestants, arrangers, etc. from the show put out a set of modern, edgy, aggressive, polished music. The Exchange is the rarest of commodities in vocal music, a group in which nearly every member could carry them or another group as a lead soloist. I have never heard Richard Steighner sing a solo (gauntlet: thrown), but Aaron Sperber and Jamal Moore showed off their powerful solo voices in season 3 of the show, Christopher Diaz has won solo awards at ICCAs, and Alfredo Austin appeared several times on The Daily Show singing soulfully behind Jon Stewart and has been featured in solos for groups like Hyannis Sound and Overboard. Any one of those 4 could carry a group, but they all took turns showing off (and I mean that in a good way) Thursday night.
What is more impressive to me and probably to the people who read this blog is how their arrangements tend to twist and turn, adding and dropping voices to feature different combinations and different memorable moments. I loved various points where Diaz dropped off his otherwise grooving bass lines to sing in 2 or 3 part harmonies with other backing voices while the drums and/or solo kept going. The arrangements were engaging from start to finish, never allowing the audience to get bored or letting a song sag. Simply put, The Exchange are a deeply talented group of arrangers, singers, and performers. They also did a pretty good job with the difficult task of interacting with an audience. Sperber and Diaz in particular brought the crowd into the conversation, a huge and daunting task with an audience of several thousand.
Next up was the veteran group VoicePlay, a group which has existed in some form (42Five originally) or another since approximately 2000. Placing them in the heart of the set was a brilliant move by the producers because they are the most purely entertaining of the three groups. This is a group, not unlike Blue Jupiter (who I wrote about last November), who uses a little bit of everything to put on a show. They bring props (television screens with pre-recorded video, portable chalkboards), humor (deriving from banter and the props), and an interactive, musical skit involving an unsuspecting audience member. This approach, which has been used for years by groups like Rockapella, requires the whole proverbial toolkit. The group has to be comfortable in its own skin, comfortable interacting with the audience on an incredibly profound level (not just bringing someone up on stage, but getting them to join the party), and yet still has to sound good doing so. VoicePlay did this as well as any group I have ever seen, and the crowd was eating it all up.
Aside from the visual and comedic aspects of their set, VoicePlay was also quite successful musically. They offered a pair of medleys, one of recent pop hits and one of Top 10 Broadway songs, which should have satisfied virtually anyone between the ages of 5 and 65. What’s more, they did so with a musical style that was simple, fresh, and digestible. Nothing too heavy here, just good old fashioned bite-sized popular music. Given the crunchy, tight arrangements from The Exchange, and the darker, looser set which would follow, VoicePlay offered a perfect bridge and really a perfect anchor for grounding the show (to mix metaphors). Bravo, fellas.
After VoicePlay and Street Corner Symphony recreated their collaboration of Ed Sheeran’s “Don’t,” it was up to the boys from Nashville (and Season 2) to bring it home. Now, I am on record as having loved the last SCS album, “Southern Autumn Nostalgia” and I was convinced that they deserved to win Season 2 of the Sing Off, but this was my first time seeing them perform live and I won’t make any broad generalizations based on one performance. As I alluded to before, Street Corner Symphony offered a set which was notably different from their colleagues. Kicking things off with “Down on the Corner/Hard to Handle,” Symphony was tight musically but their opener ran a little long at nearly five uninterrupted minutes. I don’t know if the audience was sagging from the cold or coming down from the fervor of VoicePlay’s set, but there was a definitely drop in the energy of the room after this tune. SCS tried to get the crowd engaged again with their catchy, sultry original “Voodoo” by first teaching us the hook, but then they never cued the audience to sing along with them during the song.
At this point, I have to mention choreography. I don’t need a group to be doing complicated formations or dance moves while they are singing, but there is something to be said for some movement and energy flow on stage. The Exchange did not pull out any crazy Backstreet Boy moves during their set, but there was coordinated movement to different sections of the stage, and even in and out amongst each other. VoicePlay offered similarly minimal but effective movements. This kind of motion creates a visual energy component which Street Corner Symphony was lacking. Though they did move around a little, it seemed more disorganized and/or less natural than the other groups. If they feel that more movement hurts their ability to perform the music, then avoiding it is probably the right call. The result, however, was a dip in energy from the prior two groups. A group can sing with all the raw emotion and power in the world, but without exuding at least a little bodily energy, the audience is going to feel like something is missing, even if they can’t articulate what.
The other element which goes along with this, and which also felt a little underwhelming (particularly compared to the first two groups), was the group’s interaction with the crowd. There was a discomfort which leaked out a little in some of the song introductions and once or twice bordered on edginess, perhaps a natural reaction to a somewhat deflated energy in the room. Regardless, the combination of less visual energy and less engaging conversational energy did not help revive the crowd.
All of this being said, Street Corner Symphony sounded fantastic. Their singing had a raw, dirty, dangerous quality that was different from the prior groups and very intriguing. I love this aspect of their trademark sound, and I enjoyed how much fun they had with the instrumental solos (e.g. McLemore on trumpets, Richie Lister on fuzzy guitar). Their arrangements are a little closer to The Exchange than to VoicePlay in that they have some really tight, dissonant moments. Their overall vibe feels more like that edgy rock band that pops up in your local bar late on Friday nights after the more polished band has finished their set. They play the shit out of their music and they don’t necessarily feel the need to make friends with the audience. I don’t know if this latter part is true of them generally or just on this evening, and I don’t know if it in any way harms what is ostensibly a family show, but either way their set was musically exciting, which is ultimately the most important thing to me as an audience member.
Finally, the three groups closed things out with a big group number- U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” This gave us one last chance to hear the powerful and piercing solo voices of Jeremy Lister (SCS), Earl Elkins, Jr. (VoicePlay), and Alfredo Austin (The Exchange), and it was a real treat. I was particularly excited because this arrangement of the song referenced the gospel-tinged version from U2’s live album “Rattle and Hum,” a version which I arranged for my first collegiate group (NYU’s Mass Transit), and one which we performed in very underwhelming fashion. The big group version Thursday night was propulsive, soaring, and thrilling, making it an excellent closing number. In fact, it was so good that I kind of wish the groups had not come back out to do one final big number afterwards, the acoustic (off-microphone) version of Coldplay’s “Fix You.” Yes, I understand why they did it, and yes it had some nice moments, but I didn’t need it.
Considering how close a cappella music continues to skate towards mainstream acceptance, how close a group like The Exchange could be to breaking through to join Pentatonix at that next level, I would have preferred if the groups ended with the hunger, the drive, the power of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Why should they, or we, settle in to comfort when there’s more to accomplish?
If the tour is coming to a city near you and you haven’t bought tickets, click here and do it now, and remember- this show was carefully crafted to appeal not only to you, but to your non-aca-obsessed family and friends too. Check it out, and let us know your thoughts afterwards!
If you can’t make it to a show on the tour or just can’t wait to see what it all looks like, check out this playlist from a subsequent show in New Jersey.
*After the Tour lineup was announced, I recall seeing some outrage on social media regarding the lack of female singer representation among the headlining groups. I’m not looking to jump into that discussion, though I will note that the explanation Deke Sharon offered for this absence was that the producers sought groups who were battle-tested and had demonstrated a prior ability to perform a professional-quality set night in and night out over a long period of time. There can be no question that The Exchange, VoicePlay, and Street Corner Symphony fit those criteria, leaving only the question of whether any of the mixed or female groups from the Sing Off television shows who were also qualified were in any way overlooked. I can’t speak to this with any certainty, but my unofficial observation would be that I don’t believe any mixed or co-ed non-scholastic groups in the show’s history have that kind of depth of performing experience as a group. In other words, I’m sure members of Delilah perform frequently, but I don’t know if they’ve done more than 15 performances together as a group in a single year, which would be far less than the 50+ in several months allotted to this tour. I’m sure (and Deke even confirmed) that producers would have been happy to find more established or tested groups with female performers, and if there is ever a Season 6 of the show, perhaps they will get an opportunity to find just such a group. It’s a lot of “ifs,” but we as a community shouldn’t accept the possibility that mixed or female groups are incapable of touring professionally. The answer will only come when the mixed or co-ed groups in the U.S. exploit that hunger to perform and get out there. Look at Duwende, Blue Jupiter, Overboard, and of course the many (many!) European groups that are out there gigging several times a month or more. That is the kind of experience that could get groups booked on a tour like this. I am sure it takes fierce dedication, a ton of work, significant sacrifice, and probably a little luck too. Let’s hope there’s another season of the show, another tour, and that both feature more groups with female singers.