HomeConcert Review: Harmony Sweepstakes Boston Regional

Marisa's picture

The Boston Regional Competition of the Harmony Sweepstakes (4.18.10) was a smashing event this year. A stellar line-up, a full house of a cappella enthusiasts, and a smoothly-running show -- what more could I ask?

At a competition like this, every viewer is a judge (and I'm no exception). I watched the show critically: I want to see a set from each group that is balanced, visually compelling, and that sounds good. But this isn't just any music: it's a cappella. So I ask more questions: why is the group performing this song with only voices as its instruments? (Is it a cover that's an impressive imitation of the original, or, better yet, a re-imagining? Or is it an original song intended for voices only?) Are the singers (and arrangers) using their voices effectively? And---most importantly---is the audience having fun? The answers came back a resounding 'yes' for much of afternoon.

Our local hosts, the Tufts BEELZEBUBS, open the show with "Right Round," the club hit by southern rapper Flo Rida. Lest we forget that we're in a college auditorium, the Bubs begin the afternoon with signature college presentation: they form a Clump, the lead comes out in front, and then the Clump overshadows him via a wall of sound that buzzes with energy: they point, they nod, they bounce. Some (unnecessarily) jolting "Hey!"s insure that the audience is awake. During the chorus (when the group sings the hook: "You spin my head right round, right round..."), we hear hints of the good stuff to come.

Last year's Boston Regional Champions from Harmony Sweeps are OUR TOWN, who bring a note of balance to the opening: we are in for a set of diverse musical styles. They look and feel like an antithesis of the Bubs: these are four middle-aged guys in sailor-inspired jackets, singing pitch-perfect Barbershop. Let me emphasize -- these guys can sing. Even the imitation harmonica works for them. No wonder they won last year's Boston competition.

The audience claps for their key change -- not because modulation is so shocking around here, but because the audience is old hat at this and recalls the tradition of key change applause. These are Harmony Sweeps devotees filling the room, and they're eager for the competition to begin.

The competition begins with a lovely opening: the lower trio comes out and starts PRISM's first song (with impeccable blend, I might add, and a great bass), and then the lead joins them on stage, and then the three upper voices enter and round out the sound (with some slightly squeaky ba-ba-das). Their excellent rendition of "Why'd You Really Have To Do This?" sets a high bar for the competition (and two hours later, wins Best Original Song!). Their second piece, "A Day in the Life of a Fool," started its life as a bossa nova standard. They opted for Frank Sinatra's English text (rather than the original Portuguese) and created a sonic painting that could easily have been arranged by Debussy. PRISM really hits is stride with this song, and if you closed your eyes, you might imagine yourself in Monet's Nymphéas. (Plus, the leading lady can really scat.) They close their set with "Afro Blue," a jazz standard popularized by John Coltrane. They will take a well-deserved second award, Best Original Arrangement, for this tune -- I was impressed in the first 15 seconds when the piece began with clapping and a bass line, and they kept me interested throughout.

PRISM makes conscious and effective use of tone color, dynamics, and the full range of the human voice. These New England Conservatory students and alumni are versatile, talented, and well-prepared for this competition set. They don't need flashy visual presentation to make it work: they pour their energy into arrangement and musicality. It's impressive live, and I can't wait to buy their record.

Our study in contrast continues: The HONEYMOONERS are two married couples, presenting doo-wop, novelty and classic songs. Their goal is to entertain, and they do. The purists among us may be disturbed by their sometimes pliable relationship with pitch---especially in a quartet setting---but the casual listeners in the audience near me were eating up the light-hearted mood and the scripted comedy between and during their songs (imagine "Lion Sleeps Tonight" with choreo nods to The Macarena and YMCA). Actually, imagine "Lion Sleeps Tonight" in a Harmony Sweeps set at all: it's deeply dated. Freshening up the repertoire may help appeal to a cappella-savvy audiences.

The HONEYMOONERS' performance was vocally uninteresting, but filled with goofy theatrics. They made the audience laugh -- and that's a good use of 10 minutes.

You'd better be creative with arrangements if you're three people. Good thing they are. The staging is scripted, but doesn't feel like forced acting: it feels like they're playing with their space, making use of everything at their disposal.

The PLUMBERS set up some small black boxes as props, leave, and blow the first pitch off-stage: their 10 minutes begin with an empty view. The bass walks out and starts the familiar hook to "Tainted Love." His two bandmates come out and join him, and we're off and running, producing a full sound with only three guys: impressive! Turns out that the bass can also drum, and the lead singer can also do a pretty good electric guitar. Their rendition of "Tainted Love" encapsulates exactly why they're doing this song a cappella: they can do stuff that a band with instruments can't do. They lie on their backs. They switch genres on a dime (even during a song: "Tainted Love" just became heavy metal for a few bars... and wait, now there's a jazz kit). Next, they do ten seconds of "Dreidel, Dreidel" and then dive right into "Fred Jones," the Ben Folds ballad, in which the bass does a very impressive cello imitation. They close the set with the "No Diggity," kicking the butts of every college group that tried to cover an R&B smash hit and ended up sounding empty or looking silly. These three guys are wearing---seriously---plumber outfits, and they still manage to be on the cool side of entertaining.

The PLUMBERS present the whole package: they are completely engaged with the audience, musically solid, goofy (in a Deke Sharon sort of way), and all-around great. They nailed this set and closed the first half of the show as a shoe-in for Audience Favorite.

The six singers in 5-ALONE are in high school, and are already fabulous musicians. Their arrangements are harmonically very sophisticated, and the delivery is spot-on. (In this particular set, the bass is really droning: hard to say whether or not that's a conscious choice.) I especially enjoyed the light-hearted gaiety of their third song: Queen's "Seaside Rendezvous" re-imagined in the style of Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Their whole set reminds me of the 2009 British film "An Education", and the main character's first trip to France -- all jazzy and sunny and full of youthful joy. (If you haven't seen the movie, by all means, do. And if you haven't seen 5-ALONE perform, by all means, do!)

(PS: They opt for the low-tech [or music-nerd] tuning fork rather than a pitch pipe, and you may catch a glimpse of the pitch-giver hitting the fork on her head. I found it endearing.)

All originals! The watershed day has come! No longer relegated to "all covers, all the time," here's a group of high schoolers who are writing and performing new music. From the get-go, I like the look of these guys: they're dressed in jeans and blazers, lending a note of a casual Friday; they're energetic and fun; there's some light choreography and it makes the set look polished.

But. Vocally, today's set misses the mark (Tonal center? What tonal center?). The balance is heavily skewed: except when the bass is alone, they sound like a group of tenors. And while there was some harmonic interest in the bridge of their second tune, the arrangements are not notable (lots of na-na-nas). I hate to say it, but this set would have been better with instruments.

The PINKERTONES sound and feel like the teenage, easy-listening version of Ball in the House. (And that's a flattering comparison: Ball in the House is an R&B vocal band at the top of their game. In fact, BitH member Aaron Loveland is a judge for this afternoon's show.) The PINKERTONES' songwriting, now cliche and full of allusions to the greats, will surely grow over time into their own distinct style. I look forward to seeing them gel as a band down the road.

The AVERAGE JOES, in their matching suits, bring us the novelty side of Barbershop. Their song choices are great: Adam Sandler's "Grow Old With You," Randy Newman's "Follow the Flag," and "Almost Like Being In Love" from the musical Brigadoon. Musically, this set from the JOES is, indeed, average: they commit the fallacy of scooping (and not the stylized sort) and the pitch isn't always locked in. Nonetheless, I like them! And these guys are funny (especially Eric, the tall, bespectacled Joe tenor).

The WASABI'S are a marriage of Jazz, Japan, and Berklee College of Music. They look great up there: they are stylish (clearly winning my vote for Best Snappy Dressers, an unfortunately absent category), adorable, effortless -- just sharing with the audience the music that they love to sing. And musically, they're firing on all cylinders: pitch-perfect, creatively playing with tempo in their arrangements, flawlessly executing bell chords, showcasing each musician's scat prowess over the dum-tum of the fretless bass. They performed two songs in their set: "Just Friends" and "Open Arms" -- both sad songs about heartache, delivered with incongruous big smiles. They made some bold choices in the arrangements, including deliberate and non-standard harmonization of tunes formerly belonging to pop music. And it's that kind of innovation that I'm looking for in contemporary a cappella.

Unique among today's lineup: OVERBOARD is a professional vocal rock band. (And they are here to rock us.)

Their first song, "It's All Rock 'n' Roll To Me" has fun staging, high energy, and the lead jumping off stage for a gratuitous crowd appearance. For their second tune, Nick Girard (recently nominated in the 2010 A Cappella Community Awards Favorite Male Vocalist category) delivers "25 or 6 to 4", a screaming rock ballad. Nick is a ham, and he can sing the heck out of this song. He also demonstrates serious arrangement chops in this set (chops which garnered him another 2010 ACA nomination, Favorite Arranger): his intricate and creative arrangements borrow from jazz and doo-wop, making good use of the flexibility of all-vocal instrumentation.

Everything about OVERBOARD yells "potential": they almost have this set locked in, but the group as a professional band (rather than its original incarnation as casual post-college street singing) is still nascent. This is one to keep our eyes on, because on the day their live set coalesces, it's going to be extraordinary.

And the judges deliberate! OUR TOWN comes back to serenade us while we cast ballots for audience favorites; I loved their up-tempo rendition of "Hey, Look Me Over" (a germane choice, with the great line 'fresh out of clover, mortgage up to here...'). They have a big sound (that could put choirs to shame) and confident, on-the-nose vocals, and we keep loving what these guys present.

The BEELZEBUBS, our local hosts, fill the remaining judging time; they do "Magical Mystery Tour" (appropriately trippy and ambitious), "Come Sail Away," "Careless" (a beautiful Amos Lee ballad, with an especially nice humming background) and "Teenage Wasteland." The reader may recall the Bubs' recent fling with "The Sing-Off", garnering the honor of first runner-up: they've been practicing the art of the live performance. The Bubs have long been known for their cutting-edge sound and high energy, and this afternoon is no exception.

And the results are in!

Congratulations to:

    * 2nd runners up, OVERBOARD
    * 1st runners up, PRISM

      ...and going to the Harmony Sweepstakes National Finals next month:

    * Boston Regional Champions, PLUMBERS OF ROME

The PLUMBERS OF ROME deliver the closing song for the afternoon, and it's a brilliant encore: "My Magical Hat." (The song was written by Morgan Phillips during his battle with cancer. Morgan's music video is phenomenal.) The PLUMBERS are playful as ever, and the audience is totally on board. The last line is "I wear my hat, blah, blah, et cetera!" and the audience walks out smiling and singing that phrase over and over.

About the author:
Marisa Debowsky learned to love singing contemporary a cappella in days of yore (namely sixth grade), and sang her way through college and grad school (in the UVM Cat's Meow).  While in the Northeast, she co-founded and co-produced the Vermont A Cappella Summit.  She continues to be active in the community, both as a singer and an event organizer (and arranger and sometimes booking agent).



Am I the only one that finds it a bit odd that the winners of the BOSTON regional competition are from Colorado? I mean I know there are scheduling conflicts and a group might travel to a neighboring competition NY vs Boston etc... but this just seems fishy.

btw, I'm NOT saying this group didn't deserve to win... just wondering why they came to Boston to compete when there are several closer competitions? It's not like there is a shortage of Boston area groups to choose from either.


I think...

...as long as you're willing to travel and you get accepted, you can compete in whichever regional you want to. There has always been some of that. And you'd have to ask Jackie (the producer), but I think there are less Boston groups applying than you may imagine.

Amy Malkoff http://www.amymalkoff.com/harmony CASA (Contemporary A Cappella Society) Program Manager + Director of Web Content - http://www.casa.org Judge - ICCA, ICHSA, Harmony Sweepstakes, etc.

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