The Swingles Take Manhattan

The purest musical moments one can experience, as performer or audience member, involve joy, exhilaration, wonder, and a bevy of similar emotions. When The Swingles perform, the audience is pretty much guaranteed to experience a generous collection of such moments. This septet of international singers (now 4 Brits, 2 Americans, and 1 Canadian) recently finished a tour of the United States which included performances at the National A Cappella Convention, an appearance at the Boston Sings festival, and a number of shows in the south and eastern seaboard. The final show, Saturday in New York City, was heavily attended by family and friends of the group’s newest member, tenor Jon Smith, who hails from Long Island (the home of Acatribe). An interview with Jon will be coming here soon, but for now I will just note that he received a raucous hometown reception at Subculture on Saturday night.

This was my fifth time seeing the Swingles over the past few years, and I walked out believing, as usual, that this was their best performance to date. It is a rare and remarkable set of qualities The Swingles possess, a stunning combination of raw vocal talent, ambitious and effective arranging skills, and incredibly adept stage presence. The group uses these characteristics to great effect across a chasm of musical styles, from classical fugues to Turkish ballads, Brit rock covers (and I do love Elbow) to tangos, with original compositions mixed in too. Saturday’s performance was no exception, as the group offered songs from its two most recent albums as well as group staples such as its famous interpretation of Bach’s Fugue in G minor (go ahead, Google it- you’ll find versions of the group performing it literally decades ago) and the Beatles’ “Blackbird” (ditto).

My wife joined me to see the group for the first time, and she (a music teacher) was impressed by the group’s intonation, phrasing, and range. Indeed, it is precisely these types of unique musical traits which bring me back to see The Swingles again and again. I have seen close to one hundred professional a cappella performances over the years, and there are few if any groups who can match The Swingles in these categories of heightened musicality.  I am always floored by Sara Brimer’s pure, unwavering descants and the exquisite control exhibited by soloists like Oliver Griffiths in “After the Storm.” One interesting development was the new (to my recollection) use of vocal looping in the set. The group did the audience a service by explaining that this was not a traditional backing track and then making light of how it can go horribly wrong where the unexpected happens as they record the loop onstage. It is exciting that a group which already does  so many things well in performance is actively looking for new ways to express its sound.

A few other details about a typical Swingles performance, all used to great effect on Saturday, which bear mentioning. The group makes excellent use of staging and pairings of singers, a technique which is visually engaging even if it is not attributable to musical necessity. The singers are also particularly good at expressing emotional investment for each song, without regard for the part they are singing. Solos and duets are powerful both musically and visually. Unlike many groups, The Swingles have seven soloists, each of whom would earn star status in any nearly other group. Smartly, the group does not abuse or exploit this obvious strength, instead giving each only one or two full solos and sprinkling the rest of the set with duets and ensemble pieces.

On Saturday night, the crowd hungered for more solos from the local Smith but were hardly disappointed with what they got instead.  I heard many audience members, from a wide range of ages, discuss afterwards how much they enjoyed various songs. The collective feeling in the room was one of elation, triumph, and satisfaction. If you’ve ever seen The Swingles perform, you know it well.

What do you think?