*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: ♦
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.
♦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…
Soundengineer: please put a prober compressor on the soloist. You’re killing me (and the group..) #boss2013
— Kristoffer Thorning (@StofferT) April 6, 2013
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.
— OooImSoExcited (@OooImSoExcited) April 6, 2013
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.
♦ 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:
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:
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…
The other song featured what the group cheekily referred to as the “Danish Discount Disco Dice”. Watch and listen:
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:
Finally- if you were at the festival and have additional thoughts or experiences to share, please do so in the comments section.