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.

—-

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?

Updates!

As you may have noticed, things have been somewhat slow here for the past 2 months. There were two reasons for this: (1) things have been very busy with my work as a lawyer; and (2) things have been very busy in my other a cappella endeavors. The first is likely uninteresting to you, but the second should garner some interest.

In the past, I have written a few posts (here and here) for CASA (plus another one on repertoire coming very soon). Well, at the Boston Sings festival, I met with CASA.org content editor Amy Malkoff, and we discussed the possibility of bringing my Vocaldoings periodic news updates to CASA. It took some time to get up and running, but CASA will now have a monthly news update written by yours truly. Here was the belated May post, which was probably longer than most will be. June has been submitted and should go up around the first of July. I’ll publicize it here when it goes up.

I have also been busy nominating for Voices Only 2013, the collegiate compilation put together by Corey Slutsky. I was a nominator for Voices Only Forte II earlier this year, and I was pleased and honored to be selected as a nominator for the mixed groups for VO2013. Although I cannot say more at this time, I can say there are a lot of terrific submissions in this category and I think this year’s edition will be the best yet.

AcaVids hit a little bit of a lull during this busy time, but we have been trying to get back on track and we’d love to hear your opinions and suggestions. The past 2 weeks we’ve been scouring the world for some of the best groups from other regions of the world, first with South America and then with Central Europe. I enjoy doing this because it is both interesting and fun to learn about groups in other places, and these groups are often incredibly talented. What do you all think about these features?

There are some other things I’ve been working on which will remain private for now, but I will surely update you all as soon as practicable. I do have a substantive post coming in the next few days, so stay tuned for that, and please feel free to write with suggestions, comments, and questions, either in the comments section below or by emailing me at dave@acatribe.com.

Thanks for hanging around and/or checking in!

Vocaldoings: March, 2013

It’s been a busy few months since we talked about all of the exciting things coming in 2013.  It’s time for a few updates and some news we couldn’t have predicted back in January.

NEWS

On February 1, Inside A Cappella began offering weekly, 5-6 minute shows on its YouTube channel. The show, produced by Deke Sharon and Dave Longo, is hosted by Rachel Chaloub and offers some quick news, editorial/analysis, a few video clips, and more. In the 5th episode, released on March 12, the show broke the news that The Sing Off will be returning for a 4th season. When I say it “broke the news,” I mean it really broke the news. This renewal had not been reported yet on any other entertainment website, though some followed a week later.  You can find out more about the audition dates for the abbreviated Season 4 of the show here. Also, the producers of the upcoming Boston Sings festival announced that groups can mock audition for Deke Sharon and Sing Off executive producer Sam Weisman at this year’s festival.

In other mainstream entertainment news, DreamWorks has apparently picked up the rights for a movie about Straight No Chaser. You can read more about this from the Hollywood Reporter (!) here.

Sled Dog Studios and The Vocal Company announced in early January that they will be joining forces to create a new business offering all of their separate services and more. You can find out more about the merger and the new services in my recent interview with Chief Executive Officer of the new entity, Dave Longo, which is available here.

Speaking of a cappella production companies, Clear Harmonies Productions revamped their website, showed off a new logo, and released info about a new concert series they are producing in Arlington, VA, which will feature remaining performances by groups such as Breath of Soul, Musae, Blue Jupiter, The Executive Board, and Six Appeal.

Craig Martek, founder of The Pow Arrangers, is working on two great new websites, one tracking a cappella groups by location (here), the other tracking upcoming a cappella events (here). The latter was also related to a lengthy discussion on CASA’s Facebook page about how much we would all enjoy a website tracking concerts of part-time and full-time a cappella groups here in the U.S. by location. The discussion has turned to maintenance, and the group is currently seeking volunteers (I already signed up) to track 10 groups per year and update the administrator each month with all upcoming gigs for those groups. If you’re interested, send an email to: brian@casa.org.

The Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award nominees have been announced. You can find the list here, and don’t forget the winners will be announced at BOSS in 2 weeks, so get your tickets here (also, if you go to the festival, you’ll get to see The House Jacks, Postyr Project, Five O’Clock Shadow, and a number of collegiate groups perform, get a chance to mock audition for producers of The Sing Off, and get to see a whole lot of terrific workshops). Also, if you want some insight and analysis regarding the nominees, check out Rob Dietz’s blog for his “Call the CARAs” take on some of the major categories.

ICCA results are coming in, with all of the quarterfinals completed and three semifinals completed as well. Congratulations to all of the groups, and especially to the NU Nor’easters, Michigan G-Men, and FSU Reverb for punching their tickets to the Finals in NYC on April 20 at 8 pm.

Liquid 5th Productions has, as usual, been busy. First, engineers Carl Taylor and Chris Juengel have been alternating running live sound for some group called “Pentatonix”? If you missed it, my review of just how amazing the new PTX tour sounds/looks can be found here.  Liquid 5th has also joined forces with the UK University A Cappella Blog as they increase their reach across the pond (as they say). Here’s more info.

RARB (Recorded A Cappella Review Board) has been reviewing a cappella albums for twenty years. As tends to happen over time, much has changed in what is required and expected of the organization, and RARB has decided that it would be in its best interests to (finally) register as a non-profit organization. The organization is looking for opinions on the best way to raise money to achieve this goal, and we would very much appreciate it if you could take the time to complete our survey, which you can access here.

LIVE MUSIC

As I mentioned previously, Pentatonix has been on tour for much of the past 2 months. If you are able to catch them on any of the remaining dates, I highly recommend you do so.

The Exchange have been quite busy touring Australia and Hong Kong for much of the past 2 months. They have reportedly been working on some new recorded tracks with Tat Tong while on the road, so here’s hoping there’s a new EP coming later this year.

Overboard has been busy touring as well, with their recent “#monkeyponytour” taking them all over the map, including stops in Texas and the United Kingdom. You can find out more about upcoming gigs here.

Sing Strong Chicago just wrapped up this past weekend, with performances from Nota, the Swingle Singers, Traces, Blue Jupiter, Ball in the House, and others. Stay tuned for some videos on this week’s AcaVids coming tomorrow.

RECORDINGS

Since we last updated you all, the Exchange released their full-length debut album, “Get Ready.” You can check it out here (and I highly recommend you do).

Sweet Honey in the Rock have been around for nearly forty years with their very unique blend of folk, blues, jazz, gospel, and ethnic music.  They recently released a new album, a live 2-CD set from Lincoln Center, which is available now on CD and on Amazon, iTunes, etc. The press release for the album is available here.

Five O’Clock Shadow are getting ready to release their first recorded music in almost 13 years! Rumor has it the 5-song EP will be released before or during the upcoming BOSS festival, so stay tuned to the group on Twitter or Facebook for the breaking news.

MO5AIC are getting ready to release their new EP, RE5ET. You can preview it on their website right here.

Rockapella’s “Motown and More” album is now available on iTunes and Amazon.

VIDEOS 

Pentatonix has a powerful new collaboration with Lindsey Stirling which is now up on YouTube here.

Straight No Chaser released a new video collaboration with Sara Bareilles which stirred up some controversy among the die-hard “Chasers.” That video is available here.

Jewish a cappella groups Six13 and the Maccabeats each produced a new, hilarious, and terrific-sounding video for the upcoming Passover holiday. Here is Six13 with Pesach Shop and The Maccabeats with Les Miserables- Passover.

FUNDRAISING

Finally, we all know there is always some good old a cappella fundraising going on at Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Here are a few noteworthy campaigns.

The lovely and talented Boxettes have an ongoing campaign on Pledgemusic for their new EP, “No Strings.” Check it out right here.

North Carolina State University’s Wolfgang has a campaign to fund their new album right here.

The Vocaholics from NYU have an Indiegogo campaign to complete their new album here. (another group from NYU, my own Mass Transit, completed a successful campaign on that same site in just 9 days- go MT!)

New Hampshire’s Not Too Sharp also has a current Indiegogo campaign for their new album, to be recorded with Sled Dog Studios, right here.

The Eldred Key Elements, a high school group run by Justin Glodich, reached their goal but are still hoping for a little extra money to help raise the level of their upcoming album.

Sadly, both Committed and Traces of Blue (aka Afro Blue) recently failed in their efforts to fund new albums, though Traces of Blue is able to use the funds actually raised towards that effort. Here’s to hoping Committed gives it another shot with more success in the near future.

—-

That’s all the vocaldoings I have time to catalog for now. If you know of some noteworthy a cappella news, don’t hesitate to share it with others by commenting below or email me at dave@acatribe.com

Performing A cappella Is Way Easier Than Judging It

Last weekend, I had the honor of judging one of the Varsity Vocals ICCA events in Rochester, New York. It was a quarterfinal competition pitting nine groups from around New York State against one another for two spots in the Mid-Atlantic semifinals and a host of individual awards. And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in a cappella music.

When I was performing a cappella, I had just a few things to worry about. My part was generally memorized to the point where I didn’t have to think about it too much and my ears could hear the other singers just fine for tuning and blend. The main thing I had to worry about was choreography and entertaining the audience – something that never came naturally for me as a performer.

As a judge I had to listen to soloists, pick up on arrangements and balance, watch choreography and facial expression, and listen for that all-important intonation as I was writing comments. That’s a lot to do during a group’s 12-minute set and especially hard to do after eight other groups and at 10:30 at night.

The most difficult part for me was listening to the balance. As an audience member, I like to let songs play out in my ears. Deconstructing songs as they are happening takes work and it’s something I only normally do in front of my own choir. It’s easy to pick out when a soloist is off or someone’s not selling the visual cues to the audience but the balance can fluctuate between sections and it isn’t a mistake that is readily apparent unless you’re searching it out.

To make matters even more hectic, we began scoring the group while they were still performing and finished during the short introductions for the next group. To say the timeline was compressed is an understatement. There were sixteen categories we rated on numeric scales in those two minutes or so. In addition to the group numbers, we charted the best soloists, vocal percussion, choreography, and arrangement.

Here is the complete list of groups I saw in alphabetical order:
Eight Beat Measure | Rochester Institute of Technology
Encore | Rochester Institute of Technology
Main Squeeze | Syracuse University
Otto Tunes | Syracuse University
The Buffalo Chips | University at Buffalo
•The Chordials | Cornell University
The Class Notes | Cornell University
The Macaulay Triplets | Macaulay Honors College at CUNY
The Mandarins | Syracuse University

Results and Awards
1st Place: The Chordials
2nd Place: Eight Beat Measure
Outstanding Soloist, Male: Jay Grollman of the Chordials for “Lies”
Outstanding Soloist, Female: Kristy Timms of the Macaulay Triplets for “Feelin Good”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion, Male: Shawn Falzone of Eight Beat Measure
Outstanding Vocal Percussion, Female: Heather Newkirk of Main Squeeze

I won’t get into the specifics about what was talked about in the judges room. I will tell you I think the two groups that eventually moved on were the two best groups that night. That’s obviously my opinion but one shared by the other judges enough where the numbers said they advance.

The night was hectic but worth it. Groups gave their all vocally and in their choreography. It was a great night to be a fan of a cappella music. Good luck to all the groups as they move on to the semi-finals and go back to their campuses.

Ch-ch-changes

With all of the exciting things about to happen in 2013 in the world of a cappella (like these), there are also a number of changes coming to this blog.

The biggest change is the expansion of the Acatribe team. When I started this blog, I always hoped that if people actually read it, I might someday be able to invite some other contributors to join me so that it is really Acatribe, and not just AcaGuy. Well, that is finally going to become a reality. Beginning soon, there will be 4 new faces here at Acatribe, volunteering their precious time and energy for you, the readers. Heather Newkirk, Tara Marie Ahn, and Pat Holden come from a variety of a cappella backgrounds, a fact which will hopefully expand the breadth of the Acatribe perspective. To start, each will be involved with the AcaVids portion of the blog. With each taking one week a month, and my own matching contribution, we’ll be able to bring you new AcaVids every Monday, as I originally promised and intended. This segment will move away from the old AcaVids page (for logistical reasons), and instead be available in an individual post which is tagged with “AcaVids” for faster loading.

A little about each one? Sure.

Tara Marie Ahn is a fifth grade teacher and “a cappella super fan.” In the past year, she has been lucky enough to see The House Jacks, Swingle Singers, Overboard, Pentatonix, Street Corner Symphony, Duwende, Hyannis Sound, Ball in the House, Straight No Chaser, and Musae, among others, in concert. She also attended VoCALnation 2012 and SoJam X, and will be attending LAAF this weekend and BOSS 2013. Basically, she is willing to travel to see some great a cappella performing. She also has some videos and playlists up here.

Pat Holden has performed with the Potsdam Pointercounts, the Collegiate Chorale, the Long Island Sound Men’s Barbershop Chorus, and numerous smaller groups performing contemporary a cappella and/or barbershop music. By day (and sometimes night), he is a chef at Trump National Golf Club. He is also the only one of us who can pull off a beard without looking ridiculous.

Heather Newkirk is a member of Syracuse University’s Main Squeeze, with whom she sings, arranges, percusses, and dances. Check out her doing most of these things at last year’s ICCA Quarterfinals right here.  She also tweets more than some nations. Follow her on Twitter here.

It is my hope that, in time, each will also contribute one or more substantive blog posts on anything related to a cappella which strikes their fancy. Yep, people still use that expression (apparently). For now, though, look for the AcaVids rotation to begin with yours truly next Monday, February 4, followed by Tara, Heather, and then Pat. We hope you enjoy this weekly change in voice (so to speak) and perspective.

We also have another new contributor who will provide periodic discussion and analysis on the availability and use of popular versions of a cappella music in a classroom setting.  Matt Warren has presented sessions across New York State on integrating popular music into school music curriculums.  His work has been featured in The Choral Journal as well as on his personal website: http://tinyurl.com/MattWarrenMusic.  Matt has taught chorus and general music for seven years at Spry Middle School in Webster, NY, and was also a member of the Potsdam Pointercounts (not at the same time as me or Pat). You can follow him on Twitter (@MattWarrenMusic) or Facebook (http://facebook.com/MattWarrenMusic).

In other news, I hereby pledge to have at least 2 substantive posts of my own each month. My goal is to get one up every week, but life sometimes has a way of interrupting such goals. So, the best I can promise is 2 substantive posts a month, with occasional (or frequent) bonus posts. What can you expect with this increase in content? We’ve got more Spotlight segments on the way (not just with producers this time), more analysis, and more discussion. I hope you’ll check back periodically or follow the blog to see what’s going on.

There are a few other projects in the works for the blog which are very preliminary, but you can look for hints on those later this year (probably late spring).

Last, and I’m sure this will devastate some of you, we’ve got a new logo and/or banner on the way. I’m sure some of you have really enjoyed the cheap, crappy-looking pitchpipe .gif which we use as a twitter icon and the faded, distorted arrangement we use as the banner, but the time has come for a change. No timeline yet, but both are in the works for 2013 debuts.

I am thrilled and excited for these changes, and I am open to additional suggestions.

So, tell us…what kind of content would you like to see on Acatribe? As always, we welcome ideas either in the comments section or via email to dave@acatribe.com or tweet us @acatribe.

Welcome to Tara, Pat, Heather, and Matt.

2013- here we come!

~Dave Bernstein