Audience reviews of 2010 Boston Harmony Sweepstakes

Ralph Esterman

I had the pleasure of attending my 12th Harmony Sweepstakes this past Sunday at Tufts University.  Truth be told, I was a little apprehensive as to what the afternoon would hold in terms of the musical offering.  In correspondence I had received in the weeks prior to the competition, it looked as if there were only seven a cappella groups competing (historically, there have been eight at most of the competitions) and that two of the groups competing this year had competed in the past.  As the competition unfolded though, and one group followed the next until we were soon at the end, my fears were unfounded as the “event” turned out to be one of the best Harmony Sweepstakes competitions that I had ever attended.  And this goes without even mentioning the presence of the Tufts Beelzebubs (our host group – the Bubs for short) who, I’m sure, everyone was looking forward to seeing and hearing after their tremendously successful (a second place finish) performances in the NBC televised a cappella competition called The Sing Off  which aired last fall.  I’ll get to the Bubs later.

The competing groups were a diverse mix of hip-hoppers, barber-shoppers, high schoolers and “typical” a cappella groups.  I have to say that I’ve never been a big fan of barbershop quartets (or the female version a la the sweet Adelaides), especially as they try to fit into the generic a cappella world.  It’s a different kind of singing – wonderful and enjoyable in its own right – but I’m not sure it fits here.  That being said, the two barbershop groups (Average Joes and The Honeymooners) were very good.  And, in fact, last year’s winners, another barbershop group called Our Town, was tremendous.  They sang again this year as well and were as strong, melodic and crisp as they were last year when they won the competition.

As I said earlier, there were also two groups who had competed before – 5-Alone and Overboard.  5-Alone is a group of students from a performing arts charter school in western MA and they were wonderful.  And their ballads were amazing.  And while this group had competed in prior years in the Harmony Sweepstakes, it was with different kids singing.  They were great in the past and they were great in this competition.  Overboard is one of those groups I’d call a “typical” a cappella group and while their performance was very good, we had all seen it before and there was nothing new.  Overboard came in third in this year’s competition. 

Two other groups who competed this year were The Pinkertones and Wasabi’s.  I thought that the Pinkertones were very good.  They were very upbeat, their harmonies were top notch and their soloist was very good.  Wasabi’s was an a cappella group from the Berklee College of Music.  They were very melodic and very jazz-oriented in their singing.  If we had seen them by themselves, I think we all would have thought they were tremendous.  But compared to the two strongest groups, they just couldn’t compete.

The group that came in second was Prism.  I don’t know if anybody present had any idea how they would be received by the judges.  I certainly didn’t.  Prism was amazing.  Their style of singing was very different than anything we had heard all afternoon.  Their songs were original and their singing was incredibly together, but their style, their orchestration and their vocals were possibly the most complex I’ve ever heard in an a cappella setting.  I think that’s why no one knew how they would be received by the judges.  I was very glad, though, that the judges took the time to really evaluate them and placed them second.  They really deserved it.  I thought they were great but didn’t have the courage of my convictions.  So, on my score card, they weren’t even in the top three.

The group that stole the show, came in first, and in addition, was the audience favorite, was Plumbers of Rome.  There were only three guys in the group but if you closed your eyes, there was no way you could tell how many people were on stage singing.  They were together, their vocals and harmonies were spectacular, their music was original and they were hysterical to boot in their presentation.  They, indeed, deserved to win the competition.

And how could I finish this review without talking about The Bubs.  As they’ve ALWAYS been in the past, as they were on The Sing Off and as they were this past Sunday, they were fantastic.  Because they’re all college kids from Tufts, their personnel changes every year – that’s inevitable.  But they just keep on trucking and don’t lose a beat.  They bring so much energy to their performing, there’s no way that you can sit still.  And no one does.  They’re just such a joy to watch and listen to, it’s really unbelievable.  They are what a cappella is all about!

So, great job to all of those who were responsible for this year’s Boston Regional Harmony Sweepstakes.  I look forward to more incredible performances and more competitions in the years to come!

Marisa Debowsky

The Boston Regional Competition of the Harmony Sweepstakes 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.

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.

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