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.

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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?

Gettin’ Swingle Wit It. AcaVids 7-15

On Friday CASA announced the headliner for SoJam 2013, and I was like ^^. I Carlton’d so hard because it’s the Swingle Singers from the UK! You have no idea how lucky we are that they’re bringing their beautiful euphonies to us, filling our souls to the brim with happiness.

You think I’m joking, but I’m being 100% serious.

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Let’s go into some history, shall we? The original group was created in the 1960s by Ward Swingle. (Pause and recognize how cool his name was.) Until 2011, the group consisted of two sopranos, two altos, two tenors, and two basses. The ever-changing group has collected several Grammy awards and nominations throughout the years. The Swingle repertoire is just as impressive, as they cover not only popular songs, but also classical pieces written by composers like Mozart and Bach. They really manage to cover every audience in some way. Despite having only seven people today, the Swingles manage to mesmerize with their jazzy arrangements, singing every beautiful note with purpose.

…but you don’t have to take my word for it. Check out some of the amazing music the Swingles have performed over the past few years:

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Okay, so this technically isn’t just the Swingles, but it was a cool way to open up the vid section. Note Jo’s crazy-good violin in the opening, Tobias’ impressive trumpet, and Sara’s wailing guitar. Ten points to you if you recognized The Boxette’s Bellatrix and Mo5aic’s Jake Moulton. Really a great move on T-Mobile’s part, especially now that the media has warmed up to a cappella, and how heart-warming was that? C’mon.

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I feel like this is the first time I heard the Swingle Singers, and I was completely in awe. This video truly personifies the Swingles’ ability to take a piece written for instruments and turn it into a compelling vocal production. They invigorate the music and really make it their own. Aside from the music, this video is pretty awesome. I love a good tango.

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Another well-known name in the world of a cappella, Peter Hollens and the Swingles collaborate to cover the classic Poor Wayfaring Stranger, with brilliant arrangement, vp, and baritone line provided by Tom Anderson. This is a cover that could bring your high school choir teacher to tears. The Swingles just redefined the word soprano for you. You’re welcome.

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Those sneaky Swingles. Here they are with Soul Bossa Nova on the Tube, laying down a tune on the subway. (I hope that guy turned his iPod off.) I’m always impressed by Tobias’ use of cup, so…nice one, guy. If this could happen on every public transportation ride, maybe people would grumble less. Just a thought.

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Finally, a song that could move the hardest of hearts. Björk is not an artist that people normally jump to cover because her music is so unique, using various sounds and instruments difficult to replicate with the voice, but the Swingles don’t shy away. This song really pushes them as musicians and vocalists. Just listen to all of the different noises they make on top of those beautiful chords to set the tone. The string section? It’s unreal. I cry every time I hear this piece just because it stirs so many emotions. How could your heart not feel something after such a performance, especially realizing that this was live? It’s inspiring in every way.

Hoo. Okay. Wipe those tears.

Did you fall in love at first click? Good. Then you should check out and support their 50th Anniversary Album project! Just click here to learn more about what these master musicians have up their sleeves and how you can help to get the ball rolling.

Oh, and don’t forget to come to SoJam to see them live!! Or to see me do this at their concert:

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(I just really like Will Smith, guys.)

Cheers!

– Heather

Much Respect- Take 6 and Straight No Chaser

May was an interesting month for a cappella, for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the two biggest reasons may have been overlooked by the a cappella community to some extent.

It may be just me, but my experience participating in the a cappella community over the past few years, particularly on Twitter and Facebook, has suggested that groups like Take 6 and Straight No Chaser are taken for granted, if not outright overlooked, by many in our little world. Of course I exclude the Chasers (SNC die-hards) from this, and it is certainly true that many of them have come into our otherwise insulated community in recent years and joined the rest of us in praising or enjoying groups that lack the mainstream power of SNC or Take 6, groups like Duwende or The House Jacks, or a few dozen other groups.

However, excluding those fans, I often get the sense that many in our community are far more invested or interested in the new Arora (formerly Sonos) album or The Boxettes than SNC or Take 6. In May, both of these groups reminded us why they are not only relevant, they are (excluding Pentatonix) the best hope we all have for a cappella mainstreaming, and they’ve been working towards it for years.

First, we have to talk about Take 6. This is a group which spent a week headlining the Blue Note in New York City in May while they celebrated their 25th anniversary as a group. Let’s break that sentence down for a second- an a cappella group headlined at the Blue Note, one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world. For a full week. That’s huge! Also, that group has been celebrating 25 years together- they existed before Deke Sharon invented a cappella! The same week, Take 6 appeared on a number of television morning shows in the area, including Good Day NY. Did you know they’ve won 10 Grammy awards? 10! And a slew of other awards too. Oh, and they’ve toured all over the world.

If you ever attended a CASA festival workshop on arranging, I would bet a significant amount of money that Tom Anderson, Deke Sharon, or one of the other panelists mentioned Mark Kibble’s skills or Take 6’s arrangements.

When I first started listening to a cappella music in the early 90’s, Take 6 were still frequently mentioned or discussed among people listening to vocal music. Now, it seems they’ve become less relevant. I happened to attend one of their shows at the Blue Note, and I can tell you it was one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen. They are not only talented singers, they’re tremendously entertaining performers.

I couldn’t speculate about the reasons we don’t acknowledge them more often; maybe it’s their eclectic style (gospel, R&B, jazz, motown, so much more). Maybe it’s the fact that they occasionally use instrumental tracks. I don’t know. Either way, my advice is for you to take a moment sometime in the near future and play one of their albums on Spotify or better yet, buy one. Listen to what they’re doing; if you’re reading this blog, I guarantee you’ll appreciate and respect it.

The other group which gets overlooked in some ways (to a lesser extent) is Straight No Chaser. Yes, I know they have a huge following of Chasers, I know that they tour and frequently sell out all around the country. But like Rockapella, I think they’ve built a large audience of casual fans who don’t go out and buy a ton of a cappella music. There’s nothing wrong with this- it’s admirable, impressive, and the biggest sign that they can continue to help a cappella grow in the mainstream. I was a little surprised, however, that when they released their new album in May, I saw few mentions of it on Twitter outside the Chaser community. Setting aside for a moment that the group was on the Today Show and did a flurry of other publicity for the album, there’s one huge reason that our community should have made a bigger deal out of this album. The collaborations.

This is an album which features appearances/collaborations/solos with some of the top-selling pop artists of ALL TIME.  Stevie Wonder?! Phil Collins?! Elton John?! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! This is not them performing as the backing band on a single track on a Phil Collins album- this is Phil Collins performing on THEIR ALBUM! HOW was this not bigger news?

Perhaps it was because they are…a little…safe? I was not a big fan of their debut feature length non-holiday album, “With a Twist.” I felt it was a little too standardized, clean, safe. There was nothing bad about it, just nothing that really grabbed me, or made me want to listen more than once. I could see how it was a good introduction to vocal music for the non-a cappella fan, but it also didn’t seem representative of the changing dynamics of a cappella music, like the Sonos album which had come out the prior year (as one example).

With “Under the Influence,” it’s true that SNC has kept things on the safe side. There’s not much vocal processing or effects, not much grit, and the vocal percussion is very…vocal. In other words, it’s not beatboxing, it’s not edgy or processed. Still, the album is actually quite good. The arrangements are solid, the production is great, and the soloists are…Stevie Wonder?! Phil Collins?! Elton John?! (plus more recent phenoms like Rob Thomas, Jason Mraz, and our favorite, Sara Bareilles).

***Incidentally, I know Chasers were actually outraged that many of these songs featured solos from people other than SNC singers. All I can say to that is…Stevie Wonder?! Phil Collins?! Elton John?! Relax. There will be more albums without all the guest stars. This is an incredible moment in the crossover between a cappella and mainstream pop…enjoy it***

Let me just note that I’m not at all a SNC-hater. In fact, I was in college when these guys were in the original Straight No Chaser, and I own their first two albums, purchased through the mail (!) with a check back in 1997 or 1998. I LOVED those albums, though even then they were a little bit less edgy than the stuff the Beelzebubs or Off the Beat were doing. “Hi-De-Ho” was one of my favorite a cappella songs for years.

If you are someone who really enjoys the latest cutting edge a cappella, your Postyr Projects or Musae, or a dozen other groups, let me suggest you take a moment to listen to or buy that new SNC album. It’s better than you might think, and it’s a pretty remarkable achievement too.

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What’s the point of this post? In thinking about these groups recently, I was questioning why I can listen to Duwende or the House Jacks or Postyr Project or Club for Five a few times a month, but haven’t put on a Take 6 or SNC album in years. I know we’re always looking for the next exciting big thing, and there’s no doubt that Pentatonix have seized that mantle for good reasons. What they have accomplished is also stunning, but we all know about it. We share their every video on Twitter/Facebook, we buy everything they release, we talk about them a lot. And yes, they are the strongest representative we have for crossover success. But we shouldn’t forget about the groups that have been doing it longer (Take 6) or bigger (SNC). Show them a little respect, maybe take a listen or buy a ticket to see them the next time they’re in your area. They’ve earned it.

Please feel free to share some thoughts on these groups, and if you agree that they get overlooked sometimes, why?

BOSS 2013- Beats in Beantown

*This post was intended to go up prior to the horrific bombing in Boston on Monday. While it may seem trivial to post about a music festival now, I prefer to look at it the way Leonard Bernstein (no relation) was quoted… “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” On that note…*

This year’s Boston Sings festival exceeded last year’s inaugural edition in a number of ways, though it was not without flaws.

As with last year’s summary of BOSS 2012, it is not my intention to do a critical analysis of the festival (though I will share my opinions on many things). Instead, my goal is share what is valuable, interesting, or worthwhile about attending a festival like this, as seen through the eyes of a former a cappella singer who is currently unaffiliated with any groups and unaffiliated with the “business” of a cappella. In other words, I’m going to tell you what the pure a cappella fan, without any specific financial or personal ties, gets out of a festival like this. After attending the festival solo last year, this year I was accompanied by two of my oldest and best friends, Pat Holden and Joe Owens, both of whom I met singing a cappella in college. Neither currently sings with a group, so their thoughts and observations were similarly relevant to the viewpoint of this recap.

Please note- I realize this is more of a novella than a “recap” in the traditional sense. I’m a lawyer, and I write for a living. So, just be happy I don’t use words or phrases like “Heretofore,” “forthwith,” and “ab initio” and stop reading if you get bored. Lastly, I will mark what I consider to be the highlights, or selling points for these festivals (or this festival in particular), with this: ♦

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Unlike any other festival, BOSS comes with a red carpet awards ceremony. On Friday night, BOSS hosted the 2nd annual Contemporary A cappella Recording Awards ceremony as part of a very busy evening. At Northeastern University’s Blackman Auditorium, the Friday night event was part awards ceremony, part collegiate competition, and part professional performance. As with last year, the organizers wove the presentation of 6 top awards in between rounds of the collegiate competition. The rest of the awards were presented at an earlier banquet dinner, available to festival VIP’s and others (add-in) and on Twitter throughout the afternoon/evening.

This year’s collegiate competition featured a new group from Syracuse University called Volta Vocals, the University of Vermont Cat’s Meow, Divisi of Central Connecticut State University, University of Colorado: Denver’s Mix, Pitch Please! from the hosting Northeastern University, and last year’s winners Voices In Your Head from the University of Chicago. The groups were challenged with categories for their performances such as “Battle!,” “One if by Land, Two if by C,” and “The Patriot & a Declaration of Independence.” Having placed second at SoJam in November, 2012, UCD’s Mix was hardly a surprising newcomer, but they were a powerhouse of vocal control and nuance. Instead, the unheralded upstarts were the fellas from Divisi, who got around the competition’s challenging theme “One if by land, two if by C” in the second round with this entertaining and amusing number. Despite the creative/gimmicky (depending on the audience member) use of lights and a killer opening to their final number (“Bad Moon Rising“), Voices in Your Head lost the audience in their original “Life of the Mind” which closed out their final round performance. In the end, Mix’s consistency and engaging performances won the day and the competition. You can watch their whole set here.

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♦The general format for all American a cappella festivals is now to include a scholastic competition on Friday night, and what the event organizers have been pretty effective at in recent festivals is finding talented groups that might not be well-known. Last year at BOSS, the NU Nor’easters were not as well-known as a group like their competitors Ithacappella, but they offered a scorching performance and proved their bona fides by placing as runners-up to Voices in Your Head before winning the SoJam competition in November. As I mentioned, UCD’s Mix was relatively unknown before their strong set at SoJam and then they came in and blew the audience away at BOSS. At the Los Angeles A Cappella Festival in January, there were 2 high school groups and four college groups competing, and a high school group (OSA’s Vocal Rush) won the competition, with another high school group taking second place (Calabases High School’s Unstrumental). So, the scholastic competitions have been surprising and thoroughly entertaining at many recent festivals.

Back to BOSS, I do have two general comments/criticisms. First, Friday night was simply too long. The concert/ceremony began at 7:30 p.m., and ended around 11:00 p.m., and it felt every bit of that 3.5 hours. I think they just squeezed too much into one evening, and yet somehow I felt that The House Jacks were not given enough time to perform. This is a group that was just in Hong Kong 30 hours earlier, and Texas 5 days before that; they have been busy touring, writing new songs, working on a new album, and everyone in the audience could have learned something from watching them perform, yet there was only enough time for them to do a handful of tunes. Regarding the length of the evening, I’m not sure I have a solution for organizers: perhaps shorter sets for each group in rounds 1 and 2, one less group in the competition, perhaps they should split the CARA awards presentations into half Friday night, half Saturday night (that concert was significantly shorter, perhaps too short), or maybe there is some other way to deal with the issue. Overall, I felt the concert was about 30-45 minutes too long, which means I still would have been fine with a nearly 3-hour concert!

My other observation/criticism was that the sound reinforcement just didn’t lock for many of the groups in the beginning, and for some of the groups at all. I know there are a lot of challenges to running live sound for a cappella groups with a bunch of members that you don’t know, when you aren’t very familiar with their set, and I thought the sound improved after the intermission, but I think a more extensive soundcheck would have been to the benefit of the groups and the audience. I was not the only one thinking this way…

Overall, though, it was a fun evening and well worth the price of admission.

Despite the admirable attempt by BOSS organizers to help us all get to the afterparty at Boston BeerWorks with a local taxi app, the company had no rides available when we left the concert, and we were forced to walk around for 30 minutes before we finally found a cab to get us over there. It still surprises me (a New Yorker) that Boston’s mass transit system shuts down at 11:45 on weekend nights.

The next morning, working on a mere 2.5 hours of sleep, we made our way over for a full day of workshops, and here’s one minor comment I have about the organization of the festival. Last year’s festival featured name badges which were laminated with a copy of the full workshop schedule on the back. This was outstanding, because all you had to in between workshops was flip your badge over to see your options for the next workshop timeslot. This year, there was no such luxury. More annoyingly, there were no printed lists of the workshops anywhere, and we were all directed to check the BOSS website from our phones to see the list of workshops and presenters. While I realize we are in a cell phone/smartphone age, and I was able to do this without any issues, I still think it is necessary for a festival where there are 4-7 different workshops plus 3 different “acabombs” each hour to have something tangible either on the walls or available to pick up and carry with you. I know we’re all attached to our cell phones, but I’d still prefer not to have to squint my eyes and zoom in 3 times and shift around to read the syllabus of a workshop from a tiny phone screen. All of that being said, the mobile website (m.bostonsings.com) was easy to navigate.

♦ One thing I like about these festivals is that the workshop topics are pretty broad, and the BOSS organizers did an excellent job of making sure that each timeslot had a variety of subjects for festivalgoers. Each hour, there was a choice of an arranging/songwriting workshop (“create” category), a workshop about managing and elevating your group, a workshop about a cappella culture/history/theory, one about performing techniques, or one about sound production or reinforcement, PLUS there were a number of open masterclasses as well. Last year I spent a lot of time in the recording/production workshops, so I tried to see some different topics this year.

First up, I could not miss an opportunity to see Deke Sharon, Line Groth, Paul Pampinella, and Tom Anderson talk about arranging. It was interesting to hear each of these panelists talk about a different approach or aspect of the process, from abstract and conceptual comments to specific techniques and even music theory. While I have been reading (and loving) Deke’s book, I came away from the workshop with a few new ideas and a clear understanding that there are a lot of different skills which go into good arranging, and a big part of the process relies on who you are and how you think about what it is you are doing.

♦ After this workshop, we headed over to see an “Acabomb” from Fermata Town. This is another aspect of these festivals which I really enjoy. The main reason you go to a festival like this is because you love the music, and at BOSS you were generally able to see any one (or all) of three different groups performing between each workshop timeslot on Saturday. In other words, you had access to a steady stream of music throughout the course of the day on Saturday.  Fermata Town, whose album I had recently reviewed for RARB, really impressed us with their live performing chops. It is often true now that your experience with a recorded work from an a cappella group is vastly superior to the experience you have when you see that same group live, but they were smooth (especially for 10 am!), in tune, jazzy, and energetic. Well done, guys!

Next, I had the pleasure of sitting on the panel for the RARB discussion, “Been There, Heard That.” The focus of our discussion was trends in modern a cappella recordings, and you can check out the powerpoint our technical director Mike Marcus put together right here. It was my first time on one of these panels, and I enjoyed being able to weigh in with folks like Elie Landau (nearly 250 reviews published!), Rob Dietz, and Chris Tess, each of whom has a vast wealth of knowledge to tap into and share at these events.

After lunch, we sat in on the Advanced VP discussion with Dave Baumgartner and John Pointer, which was engaging despite the fact that it is really hard to teach someone how to beatbox. As Pointer noted a few times, a big part of learning how to do it is figuring out your own physiology and how your body works to create various sounds.

♦ Next, I decided to check out a masterclass, something I missed at my prior festival experiences. This one involved headliners Postyr Project working with Chicago’s Voices in your Head, and I found it fascinating. The members of Postyr Project each have a background in choral singing, something most college groups lack, and I enjoyed seeing Tine and Line talk to the singers a little about vocal technique and how the singers could reduce the strain and tension in their voices. They also talked a little about technology and performing techniques, and to make things fair, Postyr performed a song for Voices as well (the beautifully subtle “Broken”).

The last event I attended Saturday afternoon was the open discussion with Deke Sharon, Executive Producer of The Sing Off Sam Weisman, and various members of past seasons of The Sing Off (Hannah Juliano, Alex Koutzoukis, etc.) talking about the audition process for the upcoming season of the show. While I have no plans to audition, it was interesting to hear them discuss what types of mistakes group make in the process, how groups should try to sell themselves to the producers, and how much work goes into competing on the show.

I had planned to see the always lauded “Essential Listening” workshop with Ben Stevens, but I needed a break and had made plans to meet up with an old friend who lives in Boston, so I’m hoping to catch that workshop next year.

After dinner, we headed back to Blackman Auditorium to get ready to perform with The PickUps, another fun option at these festivals.

BOSS db ph jo

Three former Pointercounts getting ready to sing with The PickUps

♦ Nick Girard, of The House Jacks and Overboard, organized this iteration of The PickUps, a group which performs at every CASA festival (related to the Single Singers who perform at European festivals and SingStrong). As someone who is not currently singing with any group, this was my first opportunity to sing a cappella since last year’s PickUps and I loved it. Unfortunately, I was really starting to crash from my 2.5 hours of sleep the night before, and we didn’t have a lot of bass support (just me and Gooch from KeyStone), but it was still a lot of fun.  Here’s one of the songs we performed:

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ANY CHARACTER HERE

The Saturday evening concert began with an encore performance by collegiate competition winners Mix, and I was disappointed that they only got to perform one song. In order to get a different sense of the sound in the room, we sat in an entirely different location for this concert, nabbing a few seats directly behind the sound board. Next up was the major festival return of Five O’Clock Shadow. For more of what they have been up to, check out my interview with member Caleb Whelden.  The last time I saw FOCS live was sometime back in 2001 or 2002, when they were touring with The Nylons and I caught them in my hometown of Huntington. It was an interesting show, and I remember being surprised that The Nylons used a backing track of percussion (and “sweeteners,” I’m told) while FOCS had a single guy (Stack) doing bass and VP.

The current formation of the group is very different from that roster, but they do have a lot of energy and some great new songs. They were releasing their new EP, called “Six,” at the festival and it has four really solid new originals and a cover of “Hip to be Square,” by Huey Lewis and the News (a song Pat Holden has been telling me would be a good a cappella tune for almost the entirety of our friendship). The sound during the FOCS performance was still not great, with a lot of the inner fuzz (guitar) parts drowning out other parts, and I know Caleb mentioned something about the engineer only getting a few days’ notice, so there was an explanation for the muddiness. At the end of the set, the group invited The PickUps onto the stage to sing the end of “Something to Believe In”, which was pretty cool. You can check that out here.

♦ After intermission was the headlining act, making their American debut, Denmark’s Postyr Project. I think it is great when CASA tries to get international acts like them, Fork, and Cluster to sing at these festivals because these groups are often very different from the groups here in the U.S. I was very curious to see Postyr Project perform at this festival, as I enjoy their debut album and enjoyed their live webstreamed concert, but didn’t know how the group’s use of electronic drums and looping machines would all translate into a room of hard-core vocal fans. The shortest way I can answer this question is three letters: awe. The group came out with a staggered entrance singing a slower tune featuring lots of reverb and a big wash of sound, all sung richly and precisely:

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ANY CHARACTER HERE

A few things were immediately clear: this group can  sing, they have pacing and spacing, and they are extremely confident performers. On the next tune, the group started using their toys on stage and the crowd had no qualms whatsoever. I honestly considered writing an entire review of their performance for several reasons. First, I think it was very unlike what most people were expecting or had seen before. Second, the sheer quality of the performance was remarkable, from the singing to the technical execution to the banter with the crowd. The group was captivating- that’s the best way I can put it. Sitting around me were several members of various longstanding professional a cappella groups and a couple of sound engineers, and they were as enraptured by what they were seeing/hearing as the lay people were. They were using their cell phones to capture distant, grainy footage just like we were. It was definitely a memorable performance from start to finish. I will note, some older folks and people with kids did get up to leave when the drum loops/machines were really bangin’, but that was a miniscule percentage of the crowd.

I have to include 2 of the group’s songs for their unique components. The first featured just the lovely ladies, Tine and Line, each wielding 2 microphones. This was gorgeous…

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ANY CHARACTER HERE

The other song featured what the group cheekily referred to as the “Danish Discount Disco Dice”. Watch and listen:

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ANY CHARACTER HERE

Saturday night’s concert ended at a far more reasonable time than Friday, and whether it was this or the fact that it was Saturday night, we had a far easier time getting a taxi to the afterparty. The party was on the second floor of an Irish pub, and we got there fairly early and set up camp by the bar.

♦ Another aspect of these festivals which I really love- the headliners actually show up to the afterparties and are accessible to the fans. How accessible? Well, when the members of Postyr Project arrived at the party, the bass/tech wizard Kristoffer Thorning was greeted with congratulations and immediately turned, with a big smile on his face, grabbed my friend Joe’s beer, and drained half of it. He laughed, somewhat apologetically, and said “I never do that! I’m so tired!” and then proceeded to finish the rest of it. He promised to get Joe another beer, but excused himself to catch up with the rest of the group and we chalked it up as a funny, memorable moment but did not expect to see him again. A few minutes later, he was back (I don’t remember if he bought Joe another beer) and he stood with us for at least a half hour answering our questions about the equipment the group uses on stage, their performance and rehearsal techniques, and how risky it is to rely on the looping machines (he said it had worked out well in their performance that evening, but sometimes he doesn’t lock a drum beat in right on his 4-beat sample, and it makes the entire song a challenge).

While Kristoffer was entertaining our questions on my right, Tine was talking to Pat on my left. The three of us had been talking about the performance the moment the concert ended, and now here we were an hour later getting to know 2 members of the group! THIS is another major attraction to these festivals.

Eventually, we left to get some food and went back to the hotel to crash in anticipation for one last morning of workshops.

Sunday morning we sat in on the House Jacks’ masterclass with Divisi, and it was great. The HJ guys were funny and relaxed, but extremely effective at taking Divisi’s somewhat predictable version of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” into something mysterious, evolving, and very different. In the span of about an hour, they turned it into something 300% more interesting to the audience. (seriously)

Finally, there was a workshop run by Deke Sharon, Nick Girard, Lisa Forkish, and Trist Curless on the “Future of A Cappella” which featured some interesting and engaging discussions about the differences between American and European groups, things that all groups needs to focus on to be successful, and a smattering of other topics.

So, for less than $90 (all-access pass), you get 2 evening concerts which are great in different ways, a number of daytime performances, a slew of workshops taught by experienced and knowledgeable clinicians, and a chance to meet a lot of different people who are involved with and share your love of a cappella (including the headlining performers!). That’s a ridiculous value. If you can get to one of these festivals and you really love a cappella music, you should find a way to make it happen.

Let me just say that despite aside any nitpicky criticisms I may have suggested here, this year’s BOSS was very well-planned and executed. The concerts were great, the workshops were better than last year, and for the most part everything ran smoothly. Congratulations to the team from Alex Koutzoukis, Executive Producer, all the way down to the volunteers who helped out.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival, guys!

VERY special thanks to Acatribe’s own resident videographer Tara Marie Ahn for getting so many great videos, several of which were included here. You can check out all of her videos on her YouTube channel here.

If you are somehow not tired of reading about the festival at this point, there are 2 additional BOSS recaps which you can check out featuring different perspectives:

http://www.casa.org/content/bosswrapup13

http://fermatatown.com/boss-boston-sings/

Finally- if you were at the festival and have additional thoughts or experiences to share, please do so in the comments section.

2013- Get Excited

After last week’s recap of all things a cappella in 2012, I started getting excited about things to come in the a cappella world for 2013. I’ve done a little research, some secret conversations, and yes, a little speculating, to put together your very early guide to 2013.

To begin with, let’s talk about albums. For many/most of us, the vast majority of our a cappella consumerism occurs through purchasing and listening to recorded music, with occasional attendance at a live concert or festival (see below).  2013 is going to be chock full of new music for us to get our grubby little hands on.  Check out some of the artists who plan to release EPs or albums this year:

Straight No Chaser– If you didn’t know this already, SNC fans (“Chasers”) are rabid, excitable, and supportive (see the comments for my 2012 recap post). They are also incredibly helpful and generous of spirit. They have informed me that SNC has a new album, called “Under the Influence,” which is due to be released on May 7. Oh, and the group worked with Mervyn Warren and Mark Kibble (Take 6) on it. No big deal. #WHATISHAPPENING

Street Corner Symphony– The runners-up from Season 2 of The Sing Off are getting ready to release their second album, one which features all (or mostly) original songs written by group members, and which featured heavy involvement from Deke Sharon and Bill Hare. This was the first video released from this album. Count me in. Announcement on a release date coming soon.

The House Jacks– Since they released “Level” in 2010, the group has replaced everyone other than Deke Sharon and Austin Willacy. New album with the new lineup coming this year. I have been told there will be an EP released in China this spring (hopefully) followed by a full album for release everywhere else.

Sonos– The a cappella world has been anxiously awaiting a new Sonos album for more than 2 years. That wait is about to end. The new album, currently untitled (or at least title unknown) is going to feature all original music from the group, possibly as many as 15 songs. They will preview/premier tracks from this album at the Essential Listening workshop at Los Angeles A Cappella Festival in a few weeks, so if you are in the same time zone (give or take a time zone), you know where to be on Saturday, Feb. 2.

Transit– Back in 2007, Transit released a 7-song album which won a few awards (Best Pop/Rock Album CARA, for example) and which is still one of the best contemporary albums released in the past 10 years. Well, they’ve been working long and hard on a new album, and it’s coming in 2013. The album is in post-production now, and we’ll likely be hearing a lot more about it soon. The group has some other exciting plans for 2013 as well.

Blue Jupiter– Last year, Blue Jupiter released this promo video. This year, they’re a bit more ambitious. In fact, they will be releasing “something” which could range anywhere from a single album, double album, two separate albums, or even an all-digital collection of 20-30 songs. Wow.

The Exchange– Remember this? Yeah, these guys have been hard at work on their debut album, which is scheduled as of now to be released at The London A Cappella Festival on January 24-26. For now, you can listen to a few of the tracks here.

Rockapella– One of the longest-standing contemporary a cappella groups, Rockapella changed it up recently with their “Motown and More” show. The new album is coming in early 2013- will it follow the format of the new show? We’ll find out soon enough.

MICappella– The runners up to The Sing Off China are in the studio working on a new full-length album to follow their EP released in 2011. They have been working with Tom Anderson on arrangements, and Bill Hare, Tat Tong, Dave Sperandio, Freddie Feldman as well as Plaid Productions. It is tentatively scheduled to be released in March.

The Swingle Singers– Rumor has it the Swingles are getting close to releasing a brand new album. Perhaps they worked with Bill Hare last summer?

The Boxettes– Though it is still a work in progress, The Boxettes have been in the studio to work on a new EP. They’re raising money here (go ahead, kick in a few bucks…you know you want to) and we can all hope they get a release out in 2013.

The Edge Effect– These guys “neither refuse, nor require instruments” according to the video on their successfully-funded Kickstarter video.  Basically, they are a vocal band but are including some instruments on their new album, which should be released this year. The project will include a contribution from Marc Broussard. You know, like you do when you release a new album…

Voices Only Forte II– Last year, Voices Only released the first compilation of all non-scholastic, global a cappella music that I’ve seen, and it was good. I served as a nominator for this sequel, which is due to be announced and released very soon, and I can tell you- there’s some music on here that will blow your mind, and a lot of it comes from groups/performers you’ve probably never heard of.

I’m sure there are more releases planned, but this was the best I could come up with after a few days of research and communications. If you know of another exciting album coming out, drop it in the comments section or send me an email at dave@acatribe.com.

Festivals: There are a few new festivals and changes to existing festivals worth mentioning-

Texas A Cappella Celebration– In case you hadn’t heard, CASA is expanding its festival range to the Lone Star State. Not much info on this yet other than that it’s happening on March 9, 2013, in San Antonio.

SingStrong– This annual festival, the proceeds of which largely benefit Alzheimer’s research and local choral programs, has reproduced! In 2013, there will be 2 festivals, including the regular one in Reston, VA (near D.C.) on March 1-3 and the new one in Chicago, IL on March 22-24. No other details yet.

Camp A Cappella– What do you think about spending a week with The House Jacks, learning about a cappella music, singing, performing, recording, all on a college campus in OH? Hold on, it’s not for everybody. This new camp, put together by Deke Sharon and Brody McDonald is only for teens this year, but if it goes well, who knows what the future could hold.

Festival of Voices-this longstanding choral festival in Tasmania (!) is introducing a new contemporary a cappella track headed by Mr. Deke Sharon. The festival will be July 7-14.

Mile High Vocal Jam– This Rocky mountain festival returns after a 2012 hiatus on Feb. 15-16 with Urban Method and Musae performing, and members of Take 6 judging and running clinics.

* I have been involved in the very early stages of planning with Marc Silverberg for a possible a cappella festival devoted to vocal music in schools in Long Island, New York. We are looking for help with planning and logistics, as well as talent and volunteers, so please email us at liacappellafestival@gmail.com.

And for updated info on all the regular festivals, check back at the global Festival List very soon.

Other:

***Mouth Off– Ok, this is arguably BREAKING NEWS, so I could probably have placed it a lot higher in the post. I have confirmed with Christopher Diaz that Mouth Off will be returning in 2013! We can all look for some public announcements in the next month or so, and then a gradual build-up towards a full return sometime this spring. There may be some changes, and we’ll all have to wait and see what those are, but still- Mouth Off will be back!

Vocal Blog– Florian Städtler has started a very interesting new series of “Big Questions” about a cappella music. The first two posts are here and here.  He hopes/plans to get a lot of the questions answered by spring 2013. He also hopes/plans to make Acappellazone the primary resource for all things a cappella in the EU.

RARB– I can’t tell you much, but I think Mr. Dietz teased some suggestions about changes coming to  the Recorded A Cappella Review Board here.

Ben Spalding is working on a new book about Varsity Vocals which will be released late in the year. There will be chapters about all aspects of the competition process, from application videos to what to wear in performance and how to use sound reinforcement equipment, and a few chapters will be written by some very well known people in the a cappella community.

The Tufts Beelzebubs are celebrating 50 years of existence with a concert February 7 featuring alums including Guster, Peter Gallagher, and The House Jacks.

This is not strictly a cappella, but Claude McKnight (again from Take 6) has a new Kickstarter campaign to create a DVD or show dealing with how groups handle working together over time, and the pilot episode will feature Take 6 as the subjects.

Rumors:

Did you hear that they are making another season of The Sing Off in the U.S.? Another one somewhere outside the U.S.? Did you hear that they’re working on Pitch Perfect 2? Yeah, I heard all of these rumors as well. None is confirmed, and that’s coming from someone who would be connected to all such projects (if you can’t guess who, your contemporary a cappella card is hereby revoked).

Pentatonix is working on a new EP/album! Or not. This has been suggested all over social media, but is not confirmed by anyone. Considering they put out TWO last year, it would not be surprising. Also, they seem to be constantly working on touring, YouTube vids, etc., so they clearly have a lot of energy and desire to continually make music. We can certainly keep our fingers crossed.

So…looks to me like 2013 is gonna be another leap forward for a cappella. What else is coming our way? If you have some news, drop it in the comments or send me an email. I’ll be doing an update next week on some changes coming to the blog in 2013, but for now- get back to work so you can save some money for these new albums!

—-UPDATES (1/13/13)

Traces are close to releasing their debut album, which includes collaborations with Tom Anderson, Marty Gasper, Alex Green, and James Cannon.

Postyr Project will be releasing a new single next week, and a “reloaded album with 5 new songs” hopefully in March.

Texas A Cappella Celebration has launched a new website and announced headliners Delilah and Overboard.

Rockapella’s new album will feature music from their Motown and More show, as well as related music such as the Jackson 5 and others.