Monday, May 08, 2006

Living in harmony

Saturday night, KJ and I attended — for the 14th consecutive year — the Harmony Sweepstakes National A Cappella Championships in San Rafael. (It was fourteen straight for me, anyway — as reported here at the time, KJ broke her streak last year due to a bout with the flu.)

Eight stellar vocal groups from around the country, representing a myriad of musical styles, sang their fannies off for the approval of about 2000 hopped-up a cappella-heads.

I look eagerly forward to the Sweeps every year, not only because I enjoy the music, but because it's one of the rare opportunities I have to connect with some of my longtime singing compatriots whom I don't otherwise see. I'm sorry you couldn't be there, but here's a recap of what you missed:
  • 'Round Midnight (New York region). A stylish barbershop-style male quartet, these guys delivered some of the evening's tightest harmonies. They weren't flashy, which probably cost them points with some of the judges, but they sang a wonderfully sweet set that included "Tonight," "Tin Roof Blues," and a novel arrangement of "Take the A Train." It's a distinct disadvantage to perform first at the Sweeps, though — I can't recall the last time a group that kicked off the contest actually won.

  • elmoTHUMM (Chicago region). A few years ago, the Sweeps finals would often consist almost entirely of all-male contemporary groups modeled after such legendary vocal bands as Rockapella and the House Jacks. These guys were a throwback to those not-always-thrilling days of yesteryear. I wasn't impressed with their set — their singing was ragged and raucous (their rendition of "America the Beautiful" never did come together), a couple of the individual voices were subpar, and they suffered from frequent tuning issues. They also used manual percussion instruments, which I thought (perhaps incorrectly) were disallowed in the Sweeps. But where else are you going to hear a cappella covers of the Monkees ("Last Train to Clarksville") and Bad Company ("Shooting Star") in the same 12-minute set?

  • Curious Gage (Denver region). The evening's first mixed-gender ensemble, this five-voice group (four men, one woman) mined some of the same general territory as the preceding act, but with somewhat greater success. Their female singer, Carleen Widhalm, did a nice lead vocal on "Any Way the Wind Blows," and I also liked their cover of one of my favorite Doobie Brothers tunes, "Long Train Runnin'." One of their singers, however, wandered in and out of tune almost the entire set, which distracted me from fully enjoying their performance.

  • Hi-Fidelity (Los Angeles region). When I heard that Hi-Fidelity made the finals, I knew immediately they'd be a front-runner. They're a talented barbershop quartet that specializes in comedy, and they performed their set costumed as the Addams Family (Gomez sings lead, Uncle Fester sings tenor, Cousin Itt sings baritone, and Lurch sings — what else? — bass). I've seen the act several times before — in fact, I've been the master of ceremonies on two previous shows when they've done it — but it never fails to bring down the house. All Hi-Fidelity had to do to finish in the medals was sing up to the level of their comedy. On this night, they did.

  • Regency (Mid-Atlantic region). This male quintet sings in the classic streetcorner doo-wop style, and after 20 years together, they do it awfully darn well. Regency last graced the Sweeps finals the time KJ and I attended, so it was a delight to see them again after all these years. Their energetic set included such standards as "Johnny B. Goode," "Jump, Jive and Wail" (accompanied by some fast and furious dance steps by the lead singer) and an unusual arrangement of "Only You."

  • Clockwork (Bay Area region). Local favorites Clockwork were back for their second shot at Sweeps glory — they were in the finals two years ago — with more of their customary polished vocal jazz stylings. Clockwork's five singers (four gents, plus the nonpareil Angie Doctor) are all incredibly skilled musicians, and their performance abilities have improved since I last saw them. Vocal jazz ensembles have a spotty history of success in the Sweeps, mainly because they seem a trifle staid opposite the more flamboyant pop-contemporary groups, but Clockwork acquitted themselves quite ably this year.

  • Tongue Tied A Cappella (Pacific Northwest region). Like many a cappella groups out of the Northwest, this youthful male quintet owes a stylistic debt to popular 1994 Sweeps champs the Coats (originally known as the Trenchcoats). And, like most of the Coats-inspired groups I've seen, they don't hold a candle to the original. It didn't help them any that the familiar songs they covered — "Sunglasses at Night" and "We Built This City" — are without question two of the cheesiest hit songs in pop-rock history. Entertaining enough, but not at the level of several of the other competitors.

  • Traces (Boston region). The sole returnees from last year's finals, Traces is a fine female gospel quintet, anchored by one of the most phenomenal female bass vocalists I've heard. Their set this year was tighter and smoother than I remembered them from the last contest. Like the vocal jazz groups, gospel performers tend to fare poorly at the Sweeps, but these ladies did a lovely job. (Even if KJ thought their all-white outfits were just a bit much.)
As the judges (including my good friend and vocal coach, Phil DeBar) tallied the scores, last year's champions Groove For Thought delivered a superb swan song performance. Hi-Fidelity won the Audience Favorite balloting, affording them the opportunity to sing the evening's only encore.

When the final results were announced, Hi-Fidelity emerged the victors, with Regency second and Clockwork third. Congrats to Craig (Uncle Fester), Tom (Gomez), Gregg (Cousin Itt, and Thing, too!), and Martin (Lurch) — good fellows all.

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5 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Anonymous Anonymous offered these pearls of wisdom...

It makes me sad to think that the best we can do as a cappella musicians is dress up like the Adam's Family and sing worn out barbershop harmonies. Thanks for setting us back another 20 years Harmony Sweepstakes.

10:57 AM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

Sorry, Anonymous, but that simply isn't fair.

First of all, Hi-Fidelity won the Audience Favorite award as voted by the nation's most knowledgeable and discriminating a cappella audience. Therefore, the majority of the 2000 a cappella freaks in attendance thought H-F delivered the most entertaining performance of the evening. Entertaining the audience is what it's all about, yes?

Second, anyone who would characterize H-F's set as "worn-out barbershop harmonies" clearly hasn't heard the quartet perform. As part of their Harmony Sweeps package, they sang a parody version of "Bye Bye Blackbird" that includes more than a dozen flawlessly executed key changes. Whether you like the barbershop style or don't, you'd have to acknowledge the vocal talent and musicianship on display there.

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous offered these pearls of wisdom...

Audience favorite out of a Cali based group shouldn't be too difficult a task when the event is held in Cali. My point is this...If they're the best singers out there, then do us all a favor and loose the hokey schtik and at least make an effort to push a cappella singing to the mainstream. Besides, if they're that talented go to the Barbershop Nationals and leave CASA supported events to the contemporary groups. I don't hate barbershop, but they already have a well established platform for recognition of excellence.

9:12 PM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

Okay, Anon my friend, let's go at this point by point.

Audience favorite out of a Cali based group shouldn't be too difficult a task when the event is held in Cali.

Hi-Fidelity is from Los Angeles. The Harmony Sweepstakes finals are held in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you think a group from L.A. has an inherent advantage in a popularity contest with a Bay Area audience, you don't know much about California.

You don't know much about the fairmindedness of the Sweeps audience, either. Since 1998 -- which is as far back I can go with the information readily at hand -- the Bay Area representative has won the Audience Favorite poll only once. That was in 1998, nine Sweeps ago. The L.A. representative has won twice, including Hi-Fidelity this year. The Chicago and New York representatives have each won twice during that period, and the Denver and Mid-Atlantic champs once each.

So much for your bias theory.

My point is this...If they're the best singers out there, then do us all a favor and loose the hokey schtik and at least make an effort to push a cappella singing to the mainstream.

The Harmony Sweepstakes isn't just about being the best singers. Only half the total score is for singing skills and vocal technique. The other 50 percent is for entertainment value.

Hi-Fidelity did not, in my opinion, deliver the best vocal performance of the evening on Sweeps night. I said as much after the contest to a friend of mine who was on the judging panel. In fact, it wasn't the best I've heard H-F, and I've heard them several times. They did, however, entertain the audience superbly, earning the night's only standing ovation.

One man's hokey schtik is another's comedic genius. I personally never found Jerry Lewis funny, but he's considered the king of comedy in many quarters.

By the way -- the most commercially successful pure a cappella group of the modern era? Rockapella. Hokey schtik? In their heyday, they were all over it. Perhaps you're unfamiliar with a little show in which they appeared, called Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Or perhaps you never saw the PBS broadcast that spawned the modern a cappella movement, Spike and Co. Do It A Cappella, in which Rockapella performed two numbers -- "Zombie Jamboree" and "Flat Tire" -- that fairly defined hokey schtik.

Besides, if they're that talented go to the Barbershop Nationals and leave CASA supported events to the contemporary groups. I don't hate barbershop, but they already have a well established platform for recognition of excellence.

Here again, my friend, your handle on the facts is tenuous.

First, the Harmony Sweepstakes is not a CASA-sponsored event. (For the benefit of the non-a cappella freaks in the reading audience, CASA in this context is the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America.) The Sweepstakes is produced and owned by John Neal, the fine gentleman who also owns the music retail company Primarily A Cappella and its affiliated recording label. CASA has zero, zip, nada to do with the Sweeps, other than that CASA members sometimes participate in it.

Second, the Sweeps rules clearly state the following: "Groups of any style are welcome." This year's National Finals featured groups that performed contemporary, jazz, R&B, gospel, and yes, barbershop. Just as the Sweeps is not a CASA event, it's not a contemporary-specific event, either. If you want one of those, then start one.

And as far as hating barbershop, methinks the gentleman or lady -- I don't know which you are, since you decline to identify yourself -- doth protest too much. Frankly, that's irrelevant. Different strokes for different folks. That's always been the credo of the a cappella community, and I first performed a cappella on a public stage in 1971, so I know whereof I speak. Me, I hate country music. But if a country vocal group won their way into the Sweeps finals, I'd welcome them with open arms. And if they won the championship, I'd join the standing O.

Rather than spewing the negativity, why not celebrate the fact that an a cappella event drew a crowd of 2000 happy folks, made the evening news and the local papers, and landed the guys who won a semi-regular gig on NBC's Last Call with Carson Daly? If it gives more people the chance to check out our beloved musical form, why not rejoice?

Like I said, I've been performing a cappella in front of audiences for 35 years. Anything that promotes the medium, whether it's to my personal taste or not, is all right by me.

Your attitude? That's on you.

10:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous offered these pearls of wisdom...

Wait a minute, let me step up to where you are - there. O.K., you've got your opinion and I've got entire set as the Adam's Family - C'mon.

When prat falls & schtick become the entertainment, I think we've missed the whole "a cappella" point.

Happy singing & good luck. (I'm with you on Jerry Lewis, though I'm sure he would have made a fine barbershopper.)

10:01 AM  

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