HomeConcert Review: Straight No Chaser

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by Daniel Israel

Will Straight No Chaser capitalize on the chance to commercialize a cappella?

As the frigid air whipped through the Upper West Side and buckets of freezing rain drenched the streets, an anxious crowd seeking music and warmth filed into The Concert Hall on December 11 for an evening with Straight No Chaser. Formed originally at Indiana University in the fall of 1996, this professional reincarnation of the collegiate group (of the same name) has been thrust into the national spotlight (outside the typical collegiate a cappella world) thanks to their YouTube sensation "The 12 Days of Christmas." This current tour features music from their Atlantic Record debut, "Holiday Spirits."

The show started 25-minutes late and by then, approximately three-quarters of the 800-seat hall was filled with teenagers, former a cappella singers, and adults with families. The pre-show energy in the audience was palpable, similar to a collegiate concert. The 10-member, dark-suited group walked out on stage, picked up their individual microphones, and began the concert with the 1995 hit-song "This is How We Do It." Straight No Chaser performed this Montell Jordan single standing in their standard formation: a straight line across the stage, chorus line-style. With the exception of the soloist, the group seemed stiff. Fortunately, they didn't sound stiff. But the basic arrangement (filled with "ah's" and "bah's") fought the natural impulse of the song and ultimately made it less appealing than it might have been with more creative, intuitive background choices. Clearly though, these guys could sing.

Next, Straight No Chaser performed a cover of Van Morrison's "Moondance." This genre fit perfectly with the group's arrangement approach – homophonic rhythms on standard syllables (more on arrangements later). They followed "Moondance" with "Africa," and within the first few recognizable measures, fans began to hoot and holler in approval. The group responded with a little extra enthusiasm, and it made this number the tightest non-holiday song of the entire evening. The main repeated motive sung by the entire group was crisp and perfectly together, the group tuning was impeccable, and the angelic upper voices were prominently featured. All of this provided a stellar backdrop for the all-star soloist. But a more imaginative arrangement could have taken them to a higher level of performance. "Africa" would have also benefited from a different physical formation (not in a straight line.)

The group continued with "standard" a cappella tunes, "Up on the Roof" and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." The intonation and soaring upper voices continued to blow me away. And though their unimaginative swaying and snapping choreography for "In the Jungle" got old, the number was nonetheless a crowd pleaser. Straight No Chaser then introduced each member to the audience (which took too long and contained too much on stage chatter and inside jokes), then closed out the first half with five songs from their recent release, "Holiday Spirit". It was in these songs that the group balance finally felt right. The basses (two, at most) finally felt present. Whether it was an adjustment made by the vocalists or by the on-stage sound technician, they finally achieved their fullest sound. Their "Jingle Bell Rock" was simple, yet incredibly gratifying. For much of the song, half of the group sung sustained chords on vowels "ooh" and "ahh" while the other half gave the piece some rhythmic motion, singing "doot doot ba doo." The bases (now audible) and soloist rounded out this full-sounding and very appropriate basic arrangement.

The highlight of their first-half holiday set was "Auld Lang Sang," the classic song/melody often associated with New Years celebrations (specifically Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve). The song provided the audience with a chance to rest their ears from constant block chords. Straight No Chaser's arrangement was based largely on a repetitive rhythmic pattern of "days of auld lang syne." They used this rhythmic groove interspersed with measures of rest and gave the soloist breathing room. This was one of few songs in the first half that had a pronounced musical arc.

The second half opened with a traditional Straight No Chaser song, "Back Home in Indiana" and was followed by a more exciting "Hiddeee High." The group took off their ties before this song and flung them into the first few rows of the audience, suggesting that the rest of their program would be more relaxed. As they dove into this song, three soloists emerged in front of the group. This different formation seemed to act as a catalyst and the group interacted on stage with each other (while singing) in ways they hadn't before while standing in a straight line. The audience felt this song take off and within a few moments, many were bouncing in their seats.

The next three songs were frankly a bit of a let down, especially their version of "Any Dream Will Do" from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It was fun and the audience enjoyed it (especially the choreography), but too many block chords in the arrangement stunted the growth of this live performance.

By this point you've realized that I continue to harp on Straight No Chaser's arrangements. Talent-wise, this group can sing anything and any style and most of the group (if not all) are top-notch musicians. Their voices are incredible and as a whole, they are more together than any a cappella group I've heard before. I have nothing against block chords and "ooh's" and "aah's." But from the perspective of an audience member, whether conscious or not, it's tiring to hear the same sounds over and over again. When used correctly, "ooh's" and "aah's" can be a huge release at the climax of a song, or, as was the case with "Jingle Bell Rock," can be used nicely to layer arrangements. But when used on the downbeat of the first measure and never lets up, it's harder to make songs travel. These are all things that Straight No Chaser are likely aware of. However, if Straight No Chaser is going to "commercialize" a cappella, they have a better chance with varied arrangements and arrangements that better utilize the enormous talent in the group. They shouldn't play it this conservatively. As an ambassador for a cappella, it's important to make the best possible impression to these "new" audiences.

The concert closed with a strong sequence of songs. A dramatic version of "Carol of the Bells" which showcased the depth and versatility of the group was followed by a beautifully performed original composition, "Indiana Christmas." The set came to a close with their famous "The 12 Days of Christmas." The audience (and I) was thoroughly amazed by this performance. It was musically exciting the entire way through, beginning with a basic round. As the classic song progressed day by day, they recapitulated many of the evening's songs in a lively medley, culminating in the reprise of the tune of "Africa" with "12 Days" lyrics. Straight No Chaser left the stage to a standing ovation and returned for a beautiful encore of "Oh Night Divine," sung acoustically without microphones.

Unlike many other professional a cappella groups, Straight No Chaser never lost the true feeling of a cappella. They used microphones, but only to amplify. They sounded acoustic, just like they would if you were listening to one of their rehearsals; no booming bass effects or distorted guitar sounds were needed to enhance their music. If you have the opportunity, see Straight No Chaser and you'll be treated to one of the warmest, most honest sounds in music. They have a rare opportunity to spread this music to everyday America. I hope they expand their comfort zone and represent a cappella in the best possible way.

Daniel Israel is an Artist Representative at AMI, a new jazz booking agency (www.theAMIagency.com). He is also a composer in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Writing Workshop and is currently writing The Dirty Hippie Jam Band Project. He is a proud alum of the University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers (www.midnightramblers.org), and can be reached at .