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.

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

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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.

BOSS Spotlight: Caleb Whelden of Five O’Clock Shadow

In our continuing excitement for the upcoming Boston Sings festival, we’ve been interviewing a member of each professional group that will be performing in Boston this weekend. First, we talked to Tine Fris of Postyr Project. You can find that interview here.  Next, we spoke with Austin Willacy of The House Jacks.  The last interview before BOSS is with Caleb Whelden of Five O’Clock Shadow. Read, enjoy, and hopefully we’ll see many of you in Boston this weekend!

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Caleb Whelden sings with a lot of a cappella groups. After graduating from Ithaca College, where he performed with the renowned male group Ithacappella, he joined Five O’Clock Shadow in Boston and later played a role in founding Slapdash Graduate and Blueprint.

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He is also a member of Overboard, who recently completed an international tour across the United States and the UK (and will be performing Sunday afternoon after BOSS officially ends at 3:00 in Somerville, MA). He will be teaching a workshop at BOSS on “Building Group Sound” and of course performing with Five O’Clock Shadow on Saturday night. You can learn more about the group at www.focs.com.

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First, the news. Rumor has it Five O’Clock Shadow [“FOCS”] has completed a new EP which might just be released very soon. Anything you can tell me about that?

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The rumors are true. We just received 1000 copies of our new EP, “Six.” It’s been 13 years since FOCS has released a new recording and we are very excited about this one. We produced and recorded the album ourselves. This EP is the first step towards recording a full-length album.

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The biggest albums from FOCS (“So There,” “Wonders of the World”) generally featured original songs. Will the new EP follow this tradition, or feature more cover tunes?

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The EP is comprised of five songs; four originals and one cover. Some songs will be familiar to fans who have come to see us recently, but there’s one original song on the EP that has never been heard before. We wrote it specifically for the EP.

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Now, the history. FOCS has been around for a long time. In fact, the group celebrated its 20th anniversary with a concert back in 2011. Did any former members show up or participate in any way?

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We had all but a handful of the former members come back for the show. We had all of them perform, beginning with the first iteration of Five O’Clock Shadow. In fact, I think the anniversary show was the first time the original five members had sung together since 1991. It was pretty amazing to see and hear. We had members leave the stage in the order they left the group and the “new” members went up to perform…all the way up until the current membership. This is the third time the group has done a reunion show of that type and we’re all looking forward to the next one (25th anniversary show, anyone?)

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Late last year, one of the longest tenured (original?) members, “Stack” (David Stackhouse) left the group. How difficult a transition was it for you guys to lose someone whow as so clearly a part of the group’s fabric?

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Actually, Stack was not an original member. Stack didn’t join the group until 1998, when the group was already 6 years old. When Stack announced to us that he was leaving, it was extremely difficult for all of us. That iteration of the band had been performing together for just about 10 years, which is the longest any iteration of the group had been together. Additionally, Stack had been the primary songwriter and arranger for the group during that time, as well as the business manager. To say he was the “driving force” of the group would be an understatement. Most importantly, Stack is like a brother to us and to not have him as part of the group was a difficult thing to swallow.

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Having said that, when Stack announced his departure, none of us wanted the group to end. We found two very talented musicians to replace him (Stack did bass and percussion at the same time…difficult to find someone who can do both) and picked up the pieces. We are all very excited about the current membership and have had a blast performing together.

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For awhile, back in the late ’90’s and early 2000’s, FOCS was at the forefront of a cappella with recording techniques and performing techniques. The group then seemed to disappear a bit, at least from the larger a cappella community (outside of the Boston area). What happened? Is the group, with the performance at BOSS and the new EP, gearing up to reclaim its reputation in the national (or international) a cappella community?

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To be honest, Five O’Clock Shadow disbanded in December of 2003. We were a full time act at the time and I think the road just got to be too much for us, especially two of the guys who were preparing to start families with their wives. We had our “FOCS Farewell tour” in the Fall/Winter of ’03 and our “last performance” was on December 21, 2003. Less than a year after the show, we were getting tons of calls to do shows. We decided to get together over Thai food and discuss the possibility of getting back together as a part-time band. We all missed it and decided that if the gigs were there, we’d keep going. We never announced anything to either our fans or the a cappella community and to some extent, were forgotten.

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We all see BOSS as an opportunity to re-introduce Five O’Clock Shadow to the a cappella community. Some of our own fans will be there, but for the most part, much of the younger crowd has no idea who we are. I’m not sure about “reclaiming our reputation,” but with two new members and a brand new EP, we’re excited to get the group’s name out there once again.

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Speaking of Boston, there are obviously quite a few a cappella groups out there, a few of which include some guy named Caleb Whelden. Do all of these groups (your various groups, Ball in the House, Redline, etc.) support each other or is it very competitive (or both)?

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There was a time when there was competition among the local a cappella groups. That was well before I joined the band, and I’ve only heard stories about it. To be honest, there seems to be nothing but respect for other groups these days. Contemporary a cappella music has grown so much over the years. Back when the group first started, it was very difficult to catch people’s interest in what we do. At this point, with shows such as “The Sing Off” and movies like “Pitch Perfect,” it’s obvious that a cappella is making a giant splash. No one appreciates that more than groups such as ours, or Ball in the House, who have been struggling for years to make a living doing this. It’s still not easy to make this kind of a living, but with a larger audience base, there is much less competition.

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Let’s follow up with some smack talk: what do you think Five O’Clock Shadow does that no (or few) other groups out there can do?

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Five O’Clock Shadow has always been able to rock, and have a lot of fun doing it. I don’t know a log of groups out there (except of course, Fork) who can sell rock tunes convincingly. We use guitar effects pedals to bolster our sound and we bring a ton of energy and experience to the stage. More importantly, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, which helps the audience relax and really enjoy the show.

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Five O’Clock Shadow has a history of performing clinics or workshops, other various types of educational outreach. You were a music education major in college. What do you think a cappella music, or Five O’Clock Shadow, can do for young musicians?

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What I like about our art form is that it is extremely accessible to everyone. For years, we’ve been touring the country, teaching about what we do to all ages (elementary-college). We teach the same techniques any choir teacher teaches, and do it in a way that is a ton of fun. We help reinforce what teachers are already saying, and at the same time, we are proof that music can continue after school is finished. Inspiring young artists is truly one of the most rewarding things we do.

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You guys have performed on television, at sporting events, at corporate events, etc. What’s next for Five O’Clock Shadow after BOSS?

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We are finally getting settled into this new membership and we haven’t had a ton of time in the past few months to develop repertoire that is “ours.” I think we’re going to continue developing our set with both new originals and covers and perhaps start talking about recording a full length album. We are also talking about putting together a fall tour for this new EP.

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Caleb, thank you for taking the time to provide a little more insight into the history of the group and the changes taking place in recent months. We’re all looking forward to getting our hands on the new EP (streaming now at focs.com) and seeing you guys on Saturday night. Best of luck at the festival and in all of the new exciting things to come for Five O’Clock Shadow!

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AcaVids: SingStrong Chicago

Hey everyone!  In grand ‘Tara’ tradition, this post is late. (I’m quite possibly THE WORST procrastinator EVER…in fact, what I *should* be doing is writing report cards, but shhhh, no one needs to know that!)  Anyway, back to the real reason you’re here…

On March 15th, I went to see Ball in the House and posted a video of Nels singing ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ in the aca room on facebook.  (Little did I know that that simple post would lead me to SingStrong Chicago!)  Some girl named ‘Amy’ (who is AWESOME, btw) commented, asking if I was ‘close to Chicago, I should come see them.’  I live in New Jersey-not close to Chicago at all, which I promptly explained.  However, she seemed adamant and told me that she was going to send me a private message.  I was intrigued.  She explained that she knows what an a cappella fan I am and that she really thought I should attend.  After a few days and a few back and forth messages, it was all worked out and I was on my way to Chicago. :-) (…and my ‘I travel for a cappella’ mantra continued…)

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SingStrong is similar in structure to the CASA festivals that I have attended, so although it started on Friday, I would  not be arriving until Saturday morning.  Classes were scheduled throughout the day, with a matinee showcase and two evening showcases.  Check out two of the three beatboxers featured, MC Beats of Stiletta and Kurt Zimmerman of Street Corner Symphony.

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I was excited to see Traces, winners of the 2012 New York Harmony Sweepstakes, take the stage as well.  Their track ‘Mas Que Nada’ was recently released on iTunes.  (The rest of their set is available on my youtube channel. )

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Nota, winners of Season 1 of The Sing-Off, was set to perform on both Saturday and Sunday evening.  After loving them on TSO, I could not wait to see them perform live.

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The highlight of the weekend was seeing The Swingle Singers again.  I.LOVE.THEM.  In my opinion, what they do vocally is in a completely different category of a cappella.  I have been lucky to see them a few times and always enjoy their performance of songs like ‘Libertango’, but their take on Alanis Morisette’s, ‘You Oughta Know’ was such a surprise! (I’m convinced I could NEVER see The Swingles enough! More, more, more please!)

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In addition, they performed one of their latest originals, ‘Piper’, led by the lovely and uber talented, Clare!

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My String Strong Chicago playlist is still not complete though! Stay tuned for additional videos from The Swingle Singers, and also from  Blue Jupiter and THUMMp.  Overall, it was a FANTASTIC a cappella-filled weekend that I am SO thankful to have attended.  Now it’s off to BOSS!!! :-)

Much #acalove,

Tara :-)

@OooImSoExcited

(***Dave, please feel free to lie to me about when my next AcaVids post is due…perhaps then it will be on time!)

[Ed.- Tara, your next post is due on April 29.  Now everyone knows! ;-0]

BOSS Spotlight: Austin Willacy of The House Jacks

In our continuing excitement for the upcoming Boston Sings festival, we’ve been interviewing a member of each professional group that will be performing in Boston next week. First, we talked to Tine Fris of Postyr Project. You can find that interview here.  Now, to stoke your excitement for the festival, here’s our interview with Austin Willacy of The House Jacks.

Austin Willacy is a longstanding member of The House Jacks.  He has written (or co-written) more than three dozen of the group’s songs. He is also an acclaimed singer/songwriter apart from the group, having released three solo albums and performed with Bonnie Raitt, Rachael Yamagata, Jem, and Amos Lee, among others.

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His compositions have been featured on television (“The Sing-Off” and MTV’s “Road Rules”) and on the soundtrack for three documentaries, “Thrive,” “Word Wars,” and “A Lawyer Walks Into a Bar…”.  Austin has contributed dozens of sound-alike vocals to video games including Guitar Hero, Karaoke Revolution, and Just Dance Kids.  He is the director of ‘Til Dawn, Youth in Arts’ award-winning teen a cappella group and served on the board of Rainforest Action Network. You can learn a lot more about him at his website http://www.austinwillacy.com.

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INTERVIEW

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Austin, thanks for taking a few minutes to answer some questions an anticipation of the Boston Sings festival.

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My pleasure!

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You’ve been with The House Jacks for most of the group’s 21-year history. What is it about the group that allows it to sustain creativity and popularity in the a cappella community over such a long period of time?

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I think that the main reason The House Jacks have continued to thrive is that we evolve. If you identify the primary characteristics that distinguish one contemporary a cappella group from another, they break down into the following categories (in no particular order): Arranging, Songwriting, VP, Live Performance, Soloists, Engineering. We have, and have had, many incredible people in the group who have excelled in one, or more, of the aforementioned areas. We do our best to highlight the strengths of the individual members of the group in a way that showcases the strength of the group, as a whole. We embrace change and understand and know that through it, we find new strengths we are able to emphasize.

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What you do is pretty specialized. If you were looking for a new House Jack, what would you be looking for?

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We look for someone who’s exceptional in their own right. In addition to exceptional ability in any/all of the above categories (Arranging, Songwriting, VP, Live Performance, Soloist, Engineering), we look for a man who: is a self-starter; really understands how to be part of a team; is a grownup; has a flexible lifestyle; writes great music; is truthful and communicative; and is willing to make mistakes with a smile on his face.

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The House Jacks have been intimately involved with many of the recent a cappella events which crossed over into mainstream pop culture such as The Sing-Off, the Monday Night Football theme, and Pitch Perfect. Does the group have the desire or intention to produce an album which could hit the Billboard charts? What would it take to achieve this?

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Yes. We had the desire to produce an album that would hit the Billboard charts when we were signed to Warner Brothers/Tommy Boy from 1994-97 and we still have the desire. :-) However, we aren’t trying to write, arrange, and produce an album to chart on Billboard. We write, arrange, and produce our songs to the best of our ability. We are aware of, and influenced by, all sorts of music; the good and the bad, the famous and the infamous, but at the end of the day, there’s no formula that guarantees anything will chart on Billboard.

In order for us to hit the Billboard charts, I think we’d either need a viral video to blow up, a la “Gangnam Style” or “Thrift Shop” or receive a large-scale push from a corporate media entity.

On a related front, part of the challenge with a cappella charting is that though there is a new awareness of what a cappella is and isn’t, the general public does not expect a cappella to chart because the vast majority of it involves performing music that was popularized by other artists, and cover bands are not something that most people care about…until they’re planning a wedding. “Gangnam Style” and “Thrift Shop” were popularized by the artists who wrote them. So, I think another thing that would pave the way for more a cappella to chart on Billboard is a sea change wherein a cappella developed a reputation for leading, not following, for writing, not reworking.

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[Editor: Totally agree on this last point, and if you the reader didn’t already know this, The House Jacks have been writing tremendous original material for nearly their entire existence, and their original music has been at a consistently high level for years. Sadly, they are one of the only American vocal groups to write really good original music.]

You guys are known for your audience request improvisation section at your shows. What one song was either the worst disaster or the most impressive and surprising success for you?

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The first one. “I Got You (I Feel Good),” by James Brown, was the most surprising success for us because it was a total accident. We ad-libbed the whole song without any parts being doubled or dropped. When we finished, we looked at each other like “What the FU*K?! Did that just happen?!”

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Rumor has it you guys are working on a new album. When can we expect to hear it?

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We’re working on a new album which has a target release date of Fall, 2013.

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You are different from many professional a cappella performers in that you have also released 3 (soon to be 4!) solo albums of original music that include instruments. When you have ideas for songs, how do you decide whether something would be more appropriate for your solo career or for The House Jacks?

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Usually, when I write songs, I write without thinking about whether or not the song would be better for me as a solo artist or as a House Jack. A handful of songs have worked well in both iterations. As a singer/songwriter, I write what I write. But sometimes in recent years, if The House Jacks have a need for a certain type of song, I write a song with that in mind and work out a 5-part arrangement in tandem.

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When you perform with The House Jacks, you are extremely expressive both vocally and physically. Who are some of your performing influences? 

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Thanks! I cast a pretty wide net. I’m influenced by anyone I see who I think is good, from Macklemore at SXSW to U2 at a stadium show to a singer/songwriter at a cafe. Connecting with an audience and getting a message across is a gift. I’m influenced by anyone who does that well…I’m also influenced by anyone I see who’s not so good.  :-)  That said, I’m vocally influenced by Stevie Wonder, Sting, Marvin Gaye, Peter Gabriel, Aretha Franklin, Prince, Michael Jackson, Mark Kibble, and Robert Plant. As a performer, I’m influenced by Wayne Brady, Christopher Guest, Dave Chappelle, and many others.

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Music is clearly a huge part of your life. What are some of the most meaningful musical experiences of your career?

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I did a trio performance (upright bass, lead guitar, & me) at a launch party/fundraiser for a non-profit organization that was marrying social justice and music. Bonnie Raitt was on the bill too. After my set, she said “Man! You can really f*cking SING!” That floored me! I’ll never forget it.

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What musical projects to you and/or the group have coming up after BOSS?

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I have a solo show at Emmanuel College in Boston on Sunday, April 7. I have a show at The Freight & Salvage April 12 with The House Jacks. 5 days later, we leave for China. I’ll be mastering my 4th solo CD in April and releasing it sometime in Fall, 2013. We’ll be heading to Camp A Cappella in June and I’ll be flying from there to Alaska to teach at a Fine Arts camp for two weeks! The next few months are gonna be busy!

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Austin, thank you so much for your time. We are all looking forward to seeing The House Jacks both onstage and in the workshops at BOSS, and to hearing both new recordings (your solo album and a new House Jacks album) this Fall.

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BOSS Spotlight: Tine Fris of Postyr Project

Next week is the Boston Sings (BOSS) festival, which will feature performances from 3 of the best professional a cappella groups in the world (Postyr Project, The House Jacks, and Five O’Clock Shadow). In an effort to provide a little insight and context leading up to that festival, I decided to ask one member of each group a few questions. First in the series will be our international guests, Postyr Project. Tine Fris was kind enough to answer a few questions for Acatribe.

Tine Fris is a soprano and arranger/songwriter for Postyr Project, a unique vocal group from Denmark with 5 singers and a tendency to fuse electronic or acoustic instruments with their voices. She holds a degree from the Royal Academy of Music in Denmark and is a music teacher who has written about vocal technique and songwriting for the Vocal Blog.

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Postyr Project will be performing at the famous Bitter End in New York City on April 4 and then headlining the Professional Showcase concert at the Boston Sings festival on Saturday, April 6.

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INTERVIEW

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Postyr Project grew out of two terrific Danish ensembles, Vocal Line and Vox 11. What kinds of different things were you all looking to do with Postyr Project?

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We wanted to explore the border between the natural softness of the human voices and the more rough and edgy sounds of electronic music. We also wanted to sing our own songs and to try to write new songs and arrange them in a way so they were bringing out the best in the voices – I think it is called voice idiomatic…? We want to explore. We want to tell stories. We want to feel. We want to change the perspective. We want to show all the colors, the pretty ones AND the not so pretty ones.

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Postyr Project is certainly something original in the vocal community. Do you see the group continuing to push forward in new, unexplored directions musically?

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We are still very much in the process of developing the group’s sound. We do that in the rehearsal room, but also very much in the studio. I think the focus more and more will be on the details and how we can refine the sound. Also, we can really feel that the new songs we write are written not only for voices and loops, but for voices, loops and “sound”/production.  It is a bit difficult to explain, but I feel that I get a better and better idea about what the possibilities are, and this inspires us all to compose in different ways.

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Your debut album features a number of songs which make use of electronic instruments, such as drums, and acoustic instruments, such as cello. Do you think this makes Postyr Project any less pure as an “a cappella” or “vocal” group?

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I don’t really see us as an a cappella group. I mean, we have a few songs we sing strictly a cappella, but the whole foundation of the group is to fuse the voices with something else, so I would say that we are some kind of vocal group that produces vocal-based pop music. Or something like that. It is always difficult to label yourself, don’t you think? Personally, I love to sing a cappella, however, most of the music I compose needs a touch of something else to create the sound I have in my head. For some reason, I need a bit of disturbance to the soundscape…

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In January, 2012, the group pulled off two remarkable live, web-streamed concerts which drew in viewers from all over the world. How difficult was it to set that up and to actually perform two separate concerts with many of the same songs in the same evening? What kind of response did you get?

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Was it easy? NO! Was it fun? YES!!! Phew! That was a big project, and also quite expensive to be honest. But it was so much fun and something that we will never ever forget. As I said earlier, we love to explore and to find new ways of doing things, and with this interactive concert concept we saw an opportunity to reach out to our international followers and to bring some of the homey, casual feeling we have in our rehearsal room on stage and in that way gave the audience a chance to get to know us a bit better. To get closer. We had a lot of good feedback and viewers from more than 40 countries all over the planet. I sometimes meet people in concert that come up to me and tell me that they saw us online. That’s the best!

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Is this the group’s first visit to the United States? Is it your personal first visit here? If so, do you have anything you hope or plan to see while you are here?

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It is Postyr Project’s first visit to the United States. I have been here three times before, and I love it! Line and I decided to fly in to New York a few days early, so in a few minutes I am off to SOHO to do some serious (shoe) shopping. Later this week, I want to visit MoMA and Williamsburg and finish “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac while having a coffee at “Good Stuff Diner” or “Sunburst.”

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What are some other vocal/a cappella groups in Europe or America that inspire or intrigue you?

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I am very inspired by Latvian “Cosmos.” They don’t really exist anymore, but their album “Turbulence” is really something to check out! I am also very inspired by Jens Johansen, the conductor of the Danish XL vocal group Vocal Line, who basically taught me everything I know about vocal music. What else…I love to listen to Bjork’s record “Medulla.”  Besides that I am crazy about other vocal-based music like Oh Land, Susanne Sundfoer, Fallulah and singer songwriters like Tina Dico, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell. Hmmm…. and when I want to disappear for an hour I listen to Keith Jarret’s Cologne Concert. This is pure beauty and creativity and being in the moment for me.

[Editor: I couldn’t resist looking up Cosmos, and this video is unique and utterly riveting…http://youtu.be/JbNI8huqG_M ]

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Your new album has received some positive reviews in Germany. Any idea when it will be released in the United States?

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We haven’t decided it yet, but we will let you know! :-)  And we brought a few of them here, so…

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What kinds of things does Postyr Project have to look forward to in the rest of 2013?

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We are touring throughout 2013. 70ish concerts in 12 countries in 4 continents. Not boring. Next stop after Boston and New York is The Netherlands, then Aarhus Vocal Festival in Denmark (www.aavf.dk), then Germany, Finland, Italy, Namibia, Germany, Taiwan, Latvia, Italy…and so on. We are also doing some collaboration projects with other groups, more about that later. While touring we are trying to write new songs and also we are busy putting more “wood on the fire” in Germany, where things are starting to roll with “My Future Self” on the radio and German MTV and much more. We are keeping our fingers crossed and we look forward to seeing the outcome.

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Tine, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. We are all looking forward to seeing you in Boston (and hopefully New York), and we wish you the best of luck with all of these amazing things coming for Postyr Project!
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Here is the latest video from Postyr Project-“My Future Self”- enjoy!
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