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.

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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

PTX: Live in NYC

Sometime in the late 1990’s, I saw Rockapella in concert for the first time. I recall thinking “Wow, it’s hard to believe that they are all singing in tune and sound like a band despite no instrumental accompaniment. That Jeff Thacher guy is pretty cool, too.” It was an eye-opening experience for me, seeing a cappella like that.

Sometime the following year, I saw The House Jacks at the Bottom Line (yes, I’ve mentioned this before). This time, I can definitely remember thinking “Wow, this is rock music with no instruments. Plus, these guys are serious dudes” (for some reason I remember original bass Bert Bacco dressed kind of like a biker/rock star, complete with leather jacket and possibly boots). And they were loud, in a good way. This was a big moment for me, realizing that when The House Jacks called themselves a vocal band, they meant it and they owned it. The show proved to me that the future of a cappella was not just an updated version of doo wop, but rather a modified version of rock or pop music.

It was not until February 21, when I saw Pentatonix in concert in New York City, that I was able to see the next step in this evolution. As in, when Pentatonix came out on stage, I had this thought: “holy shit, this is like a real pop/rock show with professional lighting, professional sound, in a big ballroom with a pit and thousands of people crammed in (official capacity at the Best Buy Theater is 2,100). The bass and drums are shaking the place, and the energy here is electric.”

Now, while I have long been a fan of the live shows offered by Rockapella and The House Jacks, as well as a dozen other contemporary a cappella groups, I don’t believe there is even room for debate: this is a whole new animal of a cappella concert.

Setting aside the individuality of this particular group for just a moment, the atmosphere was unlike any I have seen at an a cappella concert, starting with this:

IMAG0530

You can kind of make out the “P T X” separated by lights…there was also a series of platforms with a singer on each platform. The bass immediately kicked in, and the rumble was so fierce you could feel it in your bones. Welcome, Avi. (and Liquid 5th)

Now, the uniqueness of this particular group. First of all, individual components. At one point, the group pointed out bass Avi Kaplan’s rare ability to sing overtones. Here’s what that means:

ANY CHARACTER HERE
ANY CHARACTER HERE

The remainder of the group also enjoyed convincing Avi to sing the dwarf song from the recent movie “The Hobbit.” Like this:

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ANY CHARACTER HERE

So, the group has a multi-talented and funny bass singer. They also allowed their uber-talented beatboxer/VP Kevin Olusola to show off his array of skills, performing a beautiful cello solo and then performing his famous celloboxing on the Imagine Dragons song “Radioactive.” Here’s the group performing that song earlier in the tour.

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Ok, Pentatonix showed that their rhythm section is comprised of two uniquely talented individuals.

What about the other three? Well, over the course of an approximately 90-minute set, the big 3 (Scott, Mitch, and Kirstie) offered one of the cleanest and most impressively tuned sets I’ve seen. They sounded a bit tired, having performed the previous night in Philadelphia, but their intonation was stellar. I’ve watched a lot of the group’s YouTube videos and thought “well, that sounds very tight without any production, but they also could have shot 15 takes before they got that one.”  In New York City, it was truly remarkable how clear and solid their tuning was. This is important. I’ve seen a lot of groups who might be considered among the best in the world suffer from tuning problems onstage. There were very few such moments for Pentatonix on this night.

A few other thoughts about Pentatonix as a performing act. First, they have charisma. They are funny, humble, and authentic, all of which are appealing, and they are so young. The group has broad public appeal, as demonstrated by their appearances at all kinds of corporate locations and on all types of television shows.

Second, they are creative about their song selection. Yes, they performed the songs from their album, but they also performed a few from their YouTube videos, a new boy band medley (‘N Sync) and a new original (the Kaplan-penned “Peaceful World”[Ed.- the song is actually called “The Peaceful War”]).

Third, they enjoy getting the crowd engaged in the show. At one point, Kevin and Avi spent time teaching the audience 3 parts to a song, then had the crowd to sing back to them in 3-part harmony. I’ve seen Ben Folds do this numerous times onstage, and while not everyone in the crowd necessarily loves it, I think it’s great- especially for the type of crowd at a Pentatonix concert. In other words, a crowd of people who love vocal music.

As should be clear by now, I was very impressed. This is a group of young performers who are talented, entertaining, and the scariest part: getting better (according to Acatribe’s Tara Ahn, who saw them on their previous tour). In addition, they have a cappella professionals (Liquid 5th) running sound on this tour.

It seems to me that if they’re not selling out amphitheaters in 2 years or less, someone in their management or label isn’t doing their job.

Final conclusion: if you can catch Pentatonix live in concert this year, do it. Their show IS the bridge to mainstream pop culture that a cappella fans have been predicting for years, and it is being executed by young, charismatic, and immensely talented singers.

2012- The Year in A Cappella

2012- my first full calendar year with the blog. A lot of new a cappella adventures for me personally, but also for the a cappella world in general.

Let’s begin with the 2 best stories of the year in a cappella:

1) Pentatonix blew up, y’all. If you thought Straight No Chaser was the group most likely to bring a cappella to the biggest chunk of the public, you were wrong. While SNC has peaked at number 29 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart, Pentatonix surpassed that mark in 2012, landing as high as number 14, number 5 in overall digital album sales, and number 2 for independent albums. Then, approximately 5 months later, their Christmas EP hit #45 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart, with peaks at number 5 for independent album and number 8 for holiday album. In the past few months, they’ve made appearances on the Tonight Show, the Katie Couric show, and the Talk, among other shows. They’ve also toured all over the country. Did I mention their YouTube channel has over 42 million– MILLION— views.

So, congratulations to Pentatonix for finally, unequivocally, and with appropriate humility and sense of self, breaking a cappella music into a new tier of mainstream success. Plus, they put out great YouTube videos at a surprisingly robust rate.

2) Remember when Mickey Rapkin wrote a book called Pitch Perfect, and the nerdiest of the a cappella nerds (myself included) rushed out to buy it and then enjoyed it, but were not necessarily blown away? Yeah. That book has been erased by the movie of the same name. A movie which took in over $5 million in its limited release opening weekend in the U.S. A movie which, as of today, has grossed more than $64 million at the box office in the United States and another $20 million abroad (according to Box Office Mojo).  Oh, and it was nominated for the “Favorite Comedic Movie” People’s Choice Award, Rebel Wilson was nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy by the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, it got a very respectable 80% rating from Rotten Tomatoes (compilation of movie reviews from a variety of sources), and there’s talk of a sequel. Did I mention the soundtrack hit number 1 on the Billboard Soundtrack chart?

There’s a slew of Pitch Perfect content on CASA which is worth checking out, seeing as how it was written by people who love a cappella music as much as you do.

Congratulations are certainly in order to producers Elizabeth Banks and Paul Brooks, director Jason Moore, screenwriter Kay Cannon, and especially to our own aca community members, and film music staff, Deke Sharon, Ed Boyer, and Ben Bram. By the way, if podcasts are your thing and you’re missing a cappella content on the pod-web-tubes (see my later comments), there was an interview with Ms. Cannon (the screenwriter) which you can check out here.

Other Noteworthy (not the group) Stuff in 2012

Books– There were a number of a cappella books released in 2012 which are worth checking out. The most important one, which I am still working my way through, is one which most arrangers should consider a necessary addition to their collection. A Cappella Arranging, written by Deke Sharon and Dylan Bell, is a true textbook on the art and science of arranging for contemporary a cappella, and it is written in a thoughtful, accessible, and fun way with examples and diagrams. I’m sure it is available from numerous online outlets, but I bought mine here. It is a terrific value and worthwhile investment.

Other books worth checking out (and which I have purchased, but not yet read) include Brody McDonald’s “A Cappella Pop” and “The A Cappella Book” by Mike Chin and Mike Scalise of the A Cappella Blog. And if you still haven’t read “AcaPolitics” by Stephen Harrison, you should pick that up as well. It is the first, and to my knowledge only, fictional book about the collegiate a cappella scene and it does resemble the Pitch Perfect movie (which it predated).

Festivals– As the global a cappella community becomes more connected, the number of festivals across the world have grown. Here in the U.S., CASA introduced 2 new (or revamped) major festivals, BOSS (Boston Sings) and Acappellafest (Chicago) which were, by all accounts, very successful. Other festivals of note occurred in Toronto, London, Sweden, Australia, and Taiwan, among many other places. An international collaboration between myself and Florian Städtler resulted in this list of as many international festivals as we could compile for the year. We hope to get updates going for 2013 soon.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards (CARAs), issued each year by the Contemporary A Cappella Society, were announced in a live ceremony at this year’s Boston Sings festival, and it appears CASA intends to do the same in 2013.

SoJam celebrated its 10th anniversary with an all-star concert featuring Fork, Pentatonix, and the Edge Effect, among others.

Sing Strong announced that it will feature not one, but two festivals in 2013, one each in Washington D.C. and Chicago.

Web– There were a number of new blogs and other web resources devoted to a cappella music, including:

http://www.reddit.com/r/acappella/

http://www.acafeed.com/

http://acappellaquest.blogspot.com/

http://lovedeacapella.wordpress.com

There was the controversial list of the “coolest” people in a cappella generated by the A Cappella Blog, and a number of streaming a cappella performances including, on the same weekend, one from the Los Angeles A Cappella Festival and one from Denmark by Postyr Project (my takes on these here and here, respectively), in April, the House Jacks’ 20th anniversary concert, and then SoJam X in November.

Groups

At one point, Overboard was a group of guys from the Boston area who did a series of free songs every Friday for a year, who released a brilliant compilation of Beatles tunes reimagined to tell a story, you know- a group with a startling lack of vision (heavy dose of sarcasm). In 2012, the members of that group were everywhere. First (and to be fair, it was late 2011), founder Nick Girard joined The House Jacks to cover both VP and tenor (and a few other parts in their live show). Because, you know, that’s totally doable. Then,  a group called Blueprint, featuring OB members Alfredo Austin, Jeff Eames, and Caleb Wheldon dropped an acabomb at BOSS, followed by a stunning 5-song EP which yielded a track (“Sweeter”) for SING 9.  Not too bad.

Later in the year, the talented Mr. Austin joined a new group called The Exchange, joining with established a cappella singers and personalities like Christopher Diaz, Richard Steighner, and Aaron Sperber. This group toured the world, released a number of videos with varying levels of silliness, from this to this to this.

Lastly, Overboard itself tried some new things, with the permanent addition of Eric Morrissey to replace Jeff Eames, and the temporary/permanent(?) addition for many gigs of Johanna Vinson (of Divisi, Delilah, and Musae) and Donovan Davis.

Talented jazz-y group Simply Put called it quits, Duwende said goodbye to an original (and very talented) member, Ari Picker, and Dan Ponce (founder of Straight No Chaser) helped produce a new group called Gentleman’s Rule. Musae released their debut album, as did The Executive Board.

The Swingle Singers said goodbye to longtime bass Tobias Hug (11 years), and welcomed new bass Edward Randell.

Misc.

The Sing Off China was a thing. There were a series of excellent blog posts following it here.

Sled Dog Studios held 2 separate production workshops, called Next Level, which featured talented instructors including Dave Longo, Tom Anderson, James Cannon, Tat Tong, Chris Crawford, Dave Sperandio, and Ben Stevens.

The ICCA’s have added a new region, the Great Lakes Region, and ICHSA added 2 new semifinals. The SoCal VoCals won ICCA’s for an astounding third time, and Vocal Rush from Oakland School for the Arts.

Six Appeal won the 2012 Harmony Sweepstakes. They will be performing the national anthem at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2, 2013.

Emerald City Productions released a benefit a cappella album for kids called “Sing Me a Song,” the proceeds of which go to organizations devoted to Cerebral Palsy research. The album features a cappella superstars like Nota, Overboard, Cluster, Rajaton, Peter Hollens, Postyr Project, and others. There’s some great insight about the project from Danny Ozment here, and I can tell you that my kids (ages 4 and 20 mo) love the album.

Voices Only Forte, a compilation of non-scholastic a cappella music from all over the world, was released. Corey Slutsky from Voices Only also put together this benefit track, the proceeds of which benefit the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.

At the end of the year, CASA President Julia Hoffman stepped down, and she will be replaced at the helm by Tom Anderson in 2013.

The Worst of 2012

Sadly, members of the Persuasions (Jesse “Sweet Joe” Russell), the Penguins (Cleve Duncan), the Cadillacs (Earl Carroll), the McGuire Sisters (Dorothy McGuire), and (Dion and) the Belmonts (Fred Milano) all passed away. These groups were critical to the history of modern a cappella music.

On a far less tragic, but still disappointing, note the Mouth Off podcast apparently went on an indefinite and stealthy hiatus. It’s hard to say exactly what happened, because there didn’t appear to be much explanation via Twitter, Facebook, etc., but presumably it was related to Christopher Diaz being extraordinarily busy traveling and touring the world with various groups and to various festivals.

My 2012 in a cappella

– I became a reviewer for RARB

– I wrote a few pieces for CASA (herehere, here)

– I attended my second a cappella festival, the very first Boston Sings (BOSS)

– I began the Spotlight series on this blog and got to interview some terrific producers and performers.

– I got to meet some really great people in the a cappella community, something I hope to do a lot more of in 2013.

I’m sure there was a ton of other newsworthy content which happened in 2012. Feel free to leave me some reminders or jabs in the comments section.

Happy New Year to everyone, and here’s hoping to bigger and better things for a cappella music in 2013!

Vocaldoings, Fall 2012

It’s been awhile since I got around to doing one of these, but there’s so much going on in the a cappella world, that if you took a day or two off from Twitter/Facebook/alloftheweb, you missed a lot. So, here goes.

The big news, of course, is the upcoming U.S. release of the film “Pitch Perfect,” which should open in most theaters tomorrow, Sept. 28. The full list of international release dates is available here.

I attended a screening for an upcoming post for CASA, and I am curious to see how the general public feels about this movie. For now, you can find the beginnings of what will be a variety of “Pitch Perfect” articles on CASA’s website right here and you can see the recent Mike Thompkins video for “Starships” which features a number of the actors from the movie here.

NEWS

Duwende announced that longtime bass Ari Picker will be leaving the group. I first saw the group 11 years ago, and only he, Ed Chung, and Abbey Janes remain from that version of the group. It’s a shame, because he and Ed have consistently produced, over the years, one of the most locked-in rhythm sections I’ve seen. We all wish him the best, and hope they can find a worthy replacement!

Notable newcomers “The Lost Dogs,” featuring (among others) Ithacappella alums Rob Deitz,  Nate Tao, and Harry Nichols and Cornell Chordials alum Ariel Arbisser have changed their name to “The Funx.” You can check out their new Facebook page here. They also released a snippet from a new original song here, and are currently touring in western New York.

Danny Ozment at Emerald City Productions has been busy lately, with his new blog “Behind the Aca-Curtain,”  and his new self-recorded, mixed, and most importantly, performed cover of “Mercy” by the Dave Matthews Band which you can check out here. The most interesting note to me personally, however, was that ECP is going to be releasing a collection of children’s songs performed by a number of terrific a cappella folks like Peter Hollens, Rajaton, and Postyr Project, among others. For those of us in the a cappella community with young children, this sounds like a must-have album and something I talked with Chad Bergeron (Acapodcast) about back in April at the BOSS festival. Looking forward to more details on this collection!

Cut Off A Cappella, from Rochester, NY, have a new Kickstarter campaign to help fund their debut CD. Check it out here.

The Vocal Company has announced a new service where they rent you, the singers, equipment and provide advice which will help you do the recording yourself. The service is called DIY A Cappella, and you can check out the details here.

The Sing Off China has concluded, and congratulations to the winning group, Freeman. The first runner-up was MICappella, a group I have featured previously on the AcaVids segment. For some great commentary on the entire season of the show, check out the blog “I Speak in Song” right here.

Sled Dog Studios is gearing up for another, shorter version of their workshop, this time called “Next Level 1.5” which will feature Dave Sperandio (instead of Tat Tong), James Cannon, Dave Longo, Tom Anderson, Kari Francis, Ted Trembinski, Jeston Lewis, and Benjamin Stevens. You can find out more on the workshop right here.

Sing Off Season 3 competitors (and terrific ones at that) Afro Blue have officially changed their name to Traces of Blue. You can check out their new website here.

LIVE MUSIC

In less than a month, AcappellaFest will be taking over the midwest in Chicago, IL. The professional showcase will feature The Edge Effect and Sonos, and there are a number of new workshops and presenters, so if you’re available and have the funds, it looks to be a great festival. Find more info here.

Overboard is currently on tour across the eastern seaboard and midwest. A few of their gigs will feature guest singers Johanna Vinson from Delilah and Musae and Donovan Davis. Check out the tour info here.

International alert: Florian Stadtler at the Vocal Blog has a new post about a German festival called Sangeslust which is coming up very soon. You can find the post here.

Future festivals alert: SoJam will be celebrating its 10th year with a ridiculous collection of talent for the main concert that includes Fork, Pentatonix, and The Edge Effect. Check out the SoJam website for more details here.

Sing Strong has officially multiplied, as 2013 will feature two separate festivals, one in Washington D.C. and a second in Chicago. No details on each festival yet, but there is also a tantalizing link which says “Start a SingStrong in my area.”  As of now, when you click, it only says “Info Coming Soon…” Stay tuned to http://www.singstrong.org/

MULTIMEDIA

The Exchange, the new “vocal boyband”/supergroup featuring Alfredo Austin, Christopher Diaz,  Aaron Sperber, Richard Steighner, and Jamal Moore have released their first clip, a cover of Jessie J’s “Domino,” which is quite good and which you can listen to right here.

The lovely ladies of Musae have a new video of them performing “Without You,” which is lush and moving, and which is located here.

The Boxettes have a new live video from a performance at the National Theatre London, which you can find here.

A few weeks ago, Peter Hollens released a second video with Lindsey Stirling, again featuring stunning nature backdrops, this time dedicated to “Game of Thrones,” which is available here. His most recent video is a parody on the hypocrisy and pandering of national politicians in a cover of Bruno Mars’s “The Lazy Song” which he and Luke Conard call “The Lazy Politicians Song.”

*Late Addition: Pentatonix released this quickly thrown-together video today. How do they make it look so easy? This.

ACA…sorta?

One of the biggest entertainment outlets to mock, er feature, a cappella music over the past few years was NBC’s The Office, where Ed Helms has repeatedly referred to his former Cornell group, “Here Comes Treble.” Well, it appears that his former Daily Show co-star (and current Comedy Central host/icon) Stephen Colbert will be appearing on an upcoming episode of The Office as “Broccoli Rob,” a former member of the Cornell group. You can read the rest of the article here.

Ben Folds is known to many in the a cappella community as a judge for all 3 seasons of The Sing Off and the guy who compiled an entire album of college groups covering his own songs. For those of us a little older, he was the former bandleader of the terrific trio, Ben Folds Five. This band was one of the best I have ever seen at harmonizing while rocking out, and their witty and punchy songs were extremely popular with college a cappella groups (including my own) in the late ’90’s. The good news is, they’re back together with a brand new  album which I already love. It is available for purchase in all the typical web outlets.

The House Jacks in NYC- May 11, 2012

The Bitter End in New York City bills itself as “Greenwich Village’s most famous nightclub” and its owners claim it “has been the showcase for every major musical and comedic talent in the United States.”  You can read more about it here and here. It is true that a lot of very influential and innovative musical and comedic talents have performed in the relatively small space, and you can feel that history when you walk through the place. The walls, the floors, the stage all emanate an intangible feeling, a sense that pioneers of rock and roll, blues, jazz, comedy, and other genres walked the same dark, cluttered room. I thought about this as I sat waiting for the House Jacks to start their set on Friday night, staring at the wall behind the right side of the bar where numerous artists’ names are handwritten in sloppy cursive. I’ve seen the House Jacks here before, along with quite a few other less memorable artists, but on this night I was thinking about music history and journeys.

I heard about the House Jacks in 1997, when I ordered their second album “Funkwich” from the Primarily A Cappella (or was it Mainely A Cappella?) catalog. When I first played the CD, it blew my mind. I was a freshman in college, and was just learning about some of the better college groups out there from the BOCA compilation and a few Beelzebubs albums I had ordered, but this was a whole new level. It was, as they identify themselves, a real vocal band. In some ways, that album changed my life: I would say that after listening to it hundreds of times in 1997-98, I knew that a cappella music was more than just a hobby for me- it was a serious passion. I saw the group perform in New York that same year, I believe at the now-defunct Bottom Line, and they did, as their first album (“Naked Noise”) suggested, “Tear Down the Walls.”

This is a long way of saying that I have been a big fan of the group for a long time, and am certainly a little biased. I have seen them 6 times in total, which featured 3 different configurations of members. This past Friday was the first time I saw them with new members Nick Girard and John Pointer, and the group seemed to have a fresh energy along with some new flexibility onstage. In their press release last November which introduced Nick and John, the group indicated that both men sing both tenor and vocal percussion. In Friday’s set, they did in fact split the VP duties and alternate on tenor and solo parts as well. (I think I also saw Nick singing bass on a tune where Troy Horne, the bass, was singing lead.)

Here’s another example of the group’s current flexibility.  By the time the group had finished its first 6 songs, each of the 5 members of the group had already sung a lead. So, you have a group with not only 5 singers, but 5 soloists. Many groups announce that they are looking for precisely this when they publicize auditions, but there are few groups who succeed and actually get a legitimate front-man in each singer. With the current iteration of the House Jacks, however, any one of these guys could and would be a legitimate lead singer in a rock band or vocal band. That is flexibility and talent.

It was also surprising and exciting to note that a few of the early songs were originals that are not on any current House Jacks albums. The songs were quite good, so let’s hope they end up on a new HJ album soon.

As I mentioned, the group seemed to have a different energy onstage from the last time I saw them back in 2009 or 2010. Specifically, they seemed to be enjoying themselves more, offering more smiles to both the audience and each other than they were a few years ago. More importantly (and perhaps related to that), they sounded great. Intonation and blend were actually a lot better than the last time I saw them, and maybe even one or two times before that. If you have not seen the House Jacks, they are, for all intents and purposes, a vocal rock band. They get loud, they distort their syllables and singing to simulate instruments, most notably guitars, and it is only natural for this style combined with the adrenaline and energy to create pitch problems.  It has never been particularly disturbing because they offer so much else in terms of stage presence and rhythm section groove, but it was nevertheless something which nibbled at the edges of their sound the last 2 times I saw them. Not so on Friday, however. There were very few moments where I even thought about pitch for a second. Whether this improvement was related to the new members, a different sound tech, or something else, it was notable and impressive.

The group seemed very comfortable onstage with each other, and they went off-mic quite early in the set to do a nice original which I think  Troy wrote. A lot of groups wait, offering their off-mic tune much later in the set, but the group seemed eager to show off their harmonizing chops and the roots of the genre early on, which I took to be a good sign for the show ahead. Here’s them performing that same song earlier this year:

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ANY CHARACTER HERE

Before I go on, I also have to mention John Pointer. The man is not so much a singer as a force of nature. He has energy, charisma, a scorching rock tenor (he absolutely  destroyed Led Zep’s “Kashmir,” a song from the aforementioned Funkwich album which I swore they could never pull off live and which I had never seen them do in 5 prior shows I attended). He is also a very impressive beatboxer. Here’s a recent solo he ripped off at a concert in PA:

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ANY CHARACTER HERE

It must seem more than a little unfair to other professional a cappella groups and vocal bands in the U.S. that the House Jacks have had such an incredible lineup of VP’s, with prior members Andrew Chaikin, Wes Carroll, and Jake Moulton. But to have a guy who has significant skills in that department and can also shred Robert Plant seems downright obnoxious.

And to be thorough, I should note that Nick did a terrific job with the challenging VP on that same song (“Kashmir”) and similarly crushed his own solo on Cee Lo’s “Crazy.”

The group offered a nice mixture of originals and covers early in the set before turning to a staple of any House Jacks performance-  the segment in which they take audience requests. In and of itself, the audience request is not a particularly impressive thing for some bands to pull off. What the House Jacks do that most other groups do not, however, is invite the audience to request songs that the band has never sung before. This is not only impressive, but requires what my friend calls huevos gigantes. Let’s just say it means chutzpah. Guts?

In any event, the group will sing almost any song requested for 20 seconds to a minute so long as at least one person in the group seems to know the song. The result is often high comedy, as resulted when an audience member Friday requested “A Natural Woman,” made famous by Aretha Franklin and for those of us there Friday, now by Troy Horne.  I was sitting at the bar, and the waitress who had been mostly uninterested in the set started to pay attention at this point. By the end of the audience request section she was shouting out requests, laughing, and cheering wildly after each tune. While the group as an entity is always funny during this section, it seemed clear that a good sense of humor is another trait that all of the current members share.

Later, someone requested “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a song which the group normally refuses to perform unless the request also specifies that the song be done in a unique style. The request was for a reggae version, and the group honored their rule with Austin Willacy on lead. Other songs included “Eye of the Tiger,” “The Greatest Love of All,” “Man or Muppet” (from the recent Muppet movie, a song which they turned into some kind of rap), a few others, and then the big mashup where they took another 9 or 10 requests and squeezed them all into one (including, among others,  the theme song from Mr. Rogers “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” “The Rainbow Connection,” “Thriller,” “Moon River,” “Dynamite,” “If I Had a Million Dollars” (mashed up with “Bills Bills Bills”), and “Back in Black”). As always, this part of the show was a huge success.

The only thing I wondered about the group’s stage setup, and it was probably related to the rotation of VPists, was that the VP and bass were on opposite sides of the stage. I would think, and I do have a little experience performing each (at a far inferior level), that the rhythm section might feel more locked in if they were standing together or at least near each other. This is simply my own curiosity, however, as I did not notice any deficiencies in the groove and in fact, the quality was fairly consistent (high, though stylistically different) between John and Nick. Of course Troy kept things locked down on the bassline,  just as he did on Season 3 of the Sing Off with Urban Method, regardless of who was doing VP here.

As always, I was stupefied by Deke’s vocal trumpet on “Summertime,” and when I play that section of the track from their live album, I am always quick to point out to whomever will listen that it is even more impressive in person because there are clearly no tricks, no pedals, and no comprehension in the audience as to how he does that.

The Bitter End is a club which typically books 3-4 acts per night, allowing each to do an hourlong set (approximately). The House Jacks were on first, and by the time they were wrapping up their set, a bunch of people were standing by the door waiting to see the next band. I heard at least a few of those people commenting about how cool the group was, asking their name, etc.   The House Jacks were clearly at the top of their game Friday night, and they likely accomplished the difficult task of impressing longtime fans (such as myself) while simultaneously drawing in brand new fans, some of whom may not know or appreciate anything about contemporary a cappella music. I heard one guy say, with obvious surprise in his voice, “These guys rock!”

And that is why the House Jacks are one of the only contemporary a cappella groups in the world that has been around for 20 years, endured 3 (or more?) lineup changes, and yet somehow keeps elevating their game to new heights.

The House Jacks may have been the first of four bands playing at The Bitter End on Friday night, and the place may have been only half full when they started their set, but there is no question in my mind that they are to contemporary a cappella music what Woody Allen and George Carlin were to comedy, what Neil Diamond, Peter, Paul and Mary, and countless others were to their respective genres- revolutionaries and leaders.

For more about the House Jacks, check out their website here.