Pacific NW Harmony Sweepstakes a Capella Festival - Olympia, WA March 13, 2010
Yes, it was thick; so thick you could cut it with a knife. That's what I did, when I ate an emu burger at the Fish Tale Brew Pub (5th & Jefferson) with some friends before walking six blocks to the Washington Center for the Performing Arts - to catch my first Harmony Sweepstakes.
Oh, yes, the tension: As my friend Al Baal and I stood in line for tickets, I could feel expectation, excitement, exhiliration - but tension, I think not. You wouldn't be here unless you 1) knew someone performing, 2) were a groupie, or 3) were an a capella aficiando. 1) was my reason, but after Saturday night's performances, it is safe to say 3) applies as well.
Due to a ticketing snafu, we walked into the packed auditorium a few minutes late, and upon taking our seats, heard the resonant strains of Rezonate, last year's Pacific NW Harmony Sweepstakes winners, from Eugene, OR. It didn't take long to determine the glue that held the evening together: Smilin Jay, morning host of 96.9 KGY AM radio, who served a concoction of elocution, clarity, and humor that made the evening a smooth apertif.
On to the competition: Eight groups, each given 10 minutes (including gratuitous and uproarious applause), which meant most groups had time for three songs. The goal: Sing the tightest harmonies, use the cleverest arrangement, have the smartest choreography. Almost forgot: Singing on key is helpful - and I didn't hear a note even remotely out of order. Note I am neither deaf nor tone deaf, but dang, every group had very good pitch.
Though it wasn't asked for, a synopsis of how each of the eight groups fared:
1. Real Time, the eventual winners, set the '70s tone for the evening by opening with the Partridge Family's perky "Come on Get Happy," which brought back my childhood crush on Susan Dey as Laurie Partridge. Then the upbeat tempo of "Rocky Top" had me hooked (sorry, I'm from Kentucky), and they concluded with "Take Five," the Paul Desmond written/Dave Brubeck Quartet masterpiece from 1959. 5/4 time a capella seems a tall order, but it was well-filled by these gents from Vancouver, B.C./Lyndon.
2. Cross Point, a Christian group from Bellevue, had some excellent harmonies in "Heaven Arise in My Soul" and "Friend in Jesus," and featured some energetic vocals by the female lead in "Higher Ground."
3. The Baud Boys, who described themselves as "hot guys with Baud babes," turned it up a notch with the best choreography in another self-effacing video game salute, with each of the Bauds dressed up as a video game (yes, Mario Brothers was represented). "People Get Ready" had soul and deft movement, and then came a smooth-as-silk Stevie Wonder medley that included "Superstition" - how in the pink tarnation do you get all those layers strictly by vocals?
4. Absolute, the all-women's group, sang sweetly on the Beatles' "Got to Get You Into My Life" and "Blackbird," ending with "I Believe." This was their first time in the competition, and they will surely be back.
5. The Shadywood Boys from Victoria, B.C. call themselves "retrophonic," and certainly threw me for a loop with the bluegrass-influenced "A Beautiful Life." They fired up "Troubles of This World, " and had the most unorthodox appeal, completely unconcerned about the 10 minute performance limit. I detected at least one member (the leader) as a Tennessee ex-patriate, because that accent can't be affected that easily. Really enjoyed their style of moving in close together to harmonize, and their entrance/exit from the back of the theatre worked well.
6. The V-Chords, who finished second place three years in a row, channeled Stevie Wonder with "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," and Earth, Wind, and Fire's disco-fueled "September," and featured some exceptional background work by the group. How these guys finished second that many times (and fourth this year) is beyond me.
7. 6-4-1, self-described as a "boy band gone gray," were another Christian group, and they put us back in the pews with "My Soul's Been Satisfied," "Sweet By and By," and finished strong with "The Star-Spangled Banner," which had me with my right hand over my heart and ready for the 7th inning stretch.
Strangers in Harmony did a nice job on the Gin Blossoms bittersweet "Hey Jealousy," and cranked it up with an excellent original called "Minefield" (I believe), featuring the exceptional percussion talents of Shawn the Kit; how this guy was able to produce a sincere replica of cymbals and drums is beyond me. Back to the '70s with America's "Sister Golden Hair," and more clean harmony.
Then came intermission - and everyone who performed was doing double-duty selling CDs in the lobby. And what a feeling of comraderie, as members of each group milled about, congratulating other groups, in a great unity of spirit: The love of performance. But I'm sure, as with almost any artistic endeavor, there are egos at stake, and vendettas to make and partake.
Post-intermission, Rezonate gave a classy performance, including "I Will Always Love You," and dedicated the song to their fearless leader, who was getting married in a week. Could you feel the love in this group? Definitely.
Audience favorite: Was there any question? The Baud Boys have spunk in spades, not bad for a band of Microsoft geeks. Scarcely anyone was surprised when they launched "X-Box," which brought the house down. These guys know how to set a fire that can't be quenched. And then Smilin Jay announced the winners:
3rd Place: Strangers in Harmony
2nd Place: Baud Boys
1st Place: Real Time
Note that one gent is a member of both Cross Point and the Baud Boys, and when the groups were all together, he was welcomed as a Cross Point member, then a Baud Boy put a coat on him to claim him as theirs. Double-duty, I say, and this Cross Point/Baud Boy member said he might be part of three groups next year. Rest your larynx, lad.
We missed the Afterglow in the lobby (hey, Seattle is a long drive), but the excitement still poured throughout the lobby. Few, I dare say, were leaving.
Here's the thing: My guess is there is a bond that unites each member of a group, and each group to another, and it's this: There can be no mistakes in performance. The intense glare of any mistake is magnified in this a capella crucible, because there is no musical accompaniment.
That said, all groups backstage were able to watch each group onstage via a monitor, and either sighed, "Hmmm...I guess it's a little late to change our choreography" or "Do we get a second chance if we bribe the judges?"
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Last night, a diverse group of musicians took to the stage of the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia for the 2010 Pacific Northwest Harmony Sweepstakes. Among the eight groups competing were two groups who had won the title in previous years as well as a perennial second place finisher who got to sing at the national finals as a last minute replacement. With eight competing groups, the biggest field in years, those of us who are a cappella junkies knew we were in for a good show!
The emcee for the evening is Smilin’ Jay, a local radio personality. As always, the evening is presented by The Masterworks Vocal Ensemble.
First up is the quartet Realtime. These guys are one of the afore-mentioned previous winners. Since they last appeared on the Harmony Sweeps stage in 2007, they have undergone a personnel change. The new lead singer, Doug Broersma, is tenor Tim’s father. Brothers, Mark and Tom Metzger, round out the quartet.
From the first chord of “Come on Get Happy” (a.k.a. “The Partridge Family” theme song) they nail it. Tim just wails on some of his out of the stratosphere high notes. The second song is the country classic “Rocky Top” complete with cowboy hat shtick.
The last song of Realtime’s set is an arrangement of the jazz classic “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck. A little research informs me that the arrangement they are singing is by David Wright, a name well known in barbershop circles. Realtime won the world championship for barbershop quartets in 2005, but this is about as far from barbershop as you can get. It is pure jazz. In a word, the arrangement and performance are amazing. They handle the 5/4 time signature and multiple key changes with ease. Straight out of the chute, Realtime has set the musical bar amazingly high.
Next up is an 8 member mixed ensemble called Crosspoint. This is the first time Crosspoint has participated in the Harmony Sweeps, but as I look at the group, I realize there is a familiar face up there. Dave McEwen has been on this stage before with the Baud Boys. In fact, they are due to perform next! I didn’t realize people could compete in more than one group. Good to know!
Because they are a church based group, the audience is not surprised when Crosspoint’s first number is a Christian piece, “Heaven Arise in My Soul.” The solo is handled nicely by soprano Colleen Hickman. The group stays true to their message with their second piece, “How Jesus Cared for Me.” Tenor Drew House has the solo this time. Arlene Madrid is featured on the final song of the set, “Higher Ground.” Her wonderful solo voice and strong background harmonies help make this piece their best. One of the best things about the Harmony Sweeps is the diversity of the groups involved. We’ve already heard country and jazz, and now we’ve enjoyed some contemporary Christian music.
The Baud Boys have been a crowd favorite for years at the PNW Sweeps. They are the second group tonight to have won this contest in a prior year. As 2008 champs, they served as hosts last year, but they’re back in the mix in 2010. For those not in the know, the Baud Boys are all Microsoft Employees. In the past, they have used their software geek persona to huge advantage. The audience knows they have something up their sleeve before the pitch pipe blows.
The stage is dark, then, as the first notes are sung, flashing lights appear. Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t credit my twelve year old son, Daniel, for giving me the name of the first song. About three chords in, he tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Mom! That’s the Halo theme song!” After a few bars, the song morphed into one of the most recognizable video game themes of all time: Super Mario Brothers! Even I recognize that one. By now the lights have come on and we see a gaggle of video game cartoon hats, primarily those annoying Mario characters, complete with magic mushrooms, of course. I can’t do the medley justice. It’s musical and visual humor at its best.
The Baud Boys round out their set with “Train Coming,” and a Stevie Wonder medley including “I Wish” and “Superstition.” Both are sung well, but these songs seem inconsequential. The Baud Boys have already earned the audience favorite vote, if not of everyone, then at least of everyone who has ever played a video game!
I am so happy to see that the next competitor, Absolute, is an all female group. The Harmony Sweeps needs to see more women stepping up to the plate. It is possible to go all the way as evidenced by last year’s National Champs, Maxx Factor!
Absolute opens with the Beatles classic “Got to Get You in to My Life.” After proving that they will sing any and everything with snippets of both “Dona Nobis Pacem” and “Fat Bottomed Girls,” the women segue into another Beatles tune, “Black Bird.” They are performing really well for their first time in this venue, and I am impressed when they finish their 10 minutes with a beautiful song called “Believe.” They are selling this song at a different level than the rest of their set, and I’m buying it. They do believe! I had the opportunity to chat with the members of Absolute during the intermission and discovered that “Believe” is an original composition by one of their members, Elizabeth Wyatt. Betty Busch, a friend of theirs, did the arranging. Well done ladies. I hope we hear more from you in the future. And Elizabeth, keep writing songs.
If you’ve seen the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, then you can conjure up a visual of the next group. The Shadywood Boys not only look like the Soggy Bottom Boys from the Coen brothers’ movie; they sound a lot like them too. They entered the sold out auditorium from behind the orchestra seats. “This Little Light of Mine,” may have been lost of those in the upper balconies, but for those of us down front, it was a treat to be reminded of the true essence of a cappella singing just a group of friends trying to make sweet harmony.
After making their way to center stage and a lone mike on a stand quite a departure from the hand-helds favored by the rest of the groups the quartet proceeds to make fun of both themselves for singing “Hill Billy” music and of the contest as a whole for awarding everyone who doesn’t place in the top three fourth place. The southern gospel tunes “A Beautiful Life” and “Troubles of This World” (I may have the song title wrong on the second song) round out the set before the Boys wander back through the audience singing “This Little Light” again.”
What I truly enjoyed about The Shadywood Boys was not just their traditional harmonies, but their complete dedication to who they are as performers. From their coveralls and bowties to their country bumpkin patter, they know who they are. They didn’t come to win the contest. They came to entertain the audience, and that, future contestants, is what being on stage should be all about.
The V-Chords have placed second in the contest multiple times. In fact, when 2007 winners Realtime had to withdraw from the national competition the V-chords got to represent the Pacific Northwest in San Rafael. They open with the Stevie Wonder song “Don’t you Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and even include a few bars of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” for good measure! For the first time this evening, we’re getting a heavy dose of beat boxing and vocal percussion, and the young people in the audience love it!
A short humorous piece about their hunt for a new bus driver causes us to laugh and bridges the gap to the final song, Earth Wind and Fire’s “September.” Dave Edwards takes the lead line and proves that basses can tap into their inner tenor and sound awesome. He’s got some major chops. This is a very solid performance by the V-Chords.
Westminster Chapel in Bellevue sent two groups to the Harmony Sweeps this evening. We’ve already heard from the mixed ensemble, Crosspoint, and now we get to hear Six4One. There are five men in the group. There is a sixth member, but she is a keyboard player, and this is an a cappella contest after all. “Satisfied with Jesus” is followed by the old hymn, “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” They end their performance with a 5 part version of the “Star Spangled Banner” that is based on the Gaither Vocal Band four-part arrangement. Truth be told, I think I prefer the addition of the fifth voice!
These men are, by their own definition, “A boy band gone grey.” So many younger groups are able to mask tuning and synch issues with energetic showmanship and amazing vocal percussion. Strip away those things and sometimes I’m not sure I’d like to listen. By contrast, Six4One just sings. They sing in tune. They sing with expression. They sing WELL! If I get to listen to Six4One and Crosspoint, I may just take a road trip up to Westminster some Sunday.
“Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms is the first song for the final contestant of the night, Strangers in Harmony. For a group that’s been together less than a year and a half, these guys show a lot of versatility by performing both covers and original pieces. RC Cowlishaw is featured on the second song, “Memory is a Minefield,” written by Strangers in Harmony founding member Eric Chung. The last song of the set is America’s “Meet Me in the Middle” featuring Mike Mendyke. Both “Minefield” and “Middle” include some much appreciated percussion as well as harmonies that run the gamut from two-part to five-part then back again.
Ah, intermission and time to vote for the audience favorite.
When we return to our seats, we are entertained by 2009 PNW Champions Rezonate. They begin with a song that I think is called “I Got No Rhythm.” It features tenor CJ Mickens who can sing both a strong lead line as well as some amazing falsetto. I’m glad CJ is singing a cappella, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ventures into pop music. He’s just got that kind of voice!
“Whenever I’m Alone with You,” by The Cure is the next song, followed by Seal’s “Don’t Cry.” An original song by Jason Caffarella, “In my Arms,” is dedicated to member David Fertal and his fiancée who will be getting married next week. They wrap things up with a medley of songs by Queen. It begins and ends, as all things Queen should, with “The Bohemian Rhapsody.” I will not spoil the completely hysterical (and gross) transition from that song into “We Will Rock You.” Also included are “This Thing Called Love,” and “Under Pressure.” Rezonate was a worthy champion. I hope they’ll re-enter the fray next year.
The audience favorite award has been a foregone conclusion since they sang. The auditorium erupts when we realize we get to hear The Baud Boys again. They don’t disappoint when they sing the hysterical “Gonna Make You Happy Tonight.” You need to find this one on YouTube.
The original arrangement award goes to Realtime for David Wright’s incredible arrangement of “Take Five.”
Third Place: The V-Chords
Second Place: The Baud Boys
First Place: Realtime
I’m not a judge, but I agreed with every single one of the placements. In fact, I had them written that way in my program before they were announced! I believe the Pacific Northwest may have another national champion come May. It’s all about good singing, and Realtime knows how to do that! They set the standard tonight, and they’ve already proven they can win national and international championships. Good luck to them in San Rafael.
The 2011 PNW Regional competition will be held on Saturday, March 12. Put the date on your calendar now and buy your tickets early. This is always a sold out show!
Great show at NW Harmony Sweeps in Olympia, WA tonight! I've been to almost all of them in the past 25 years and from top to bottom this was one of the best.
Realtime, a 4-member group from Vancouver, BC and Lynden, BC took top honors and will represent PNW at the nationals in San Rafael. They were super...whether it was a kick-ass version of "Rocky Top" or a marvelous interpretation of Dave Brubeck's Take 5.
Westminster Chapel in Bellevue contributed two groups to the competition, an 8-member mixed ensemble called Crosspoint,who I thought had a couple of ladies who lead voices were superb. Add to that , the five men who make up six4one, whose gospel interpretations were full and inspiring and finished their set with the Star Spangled Banner.
The Baudboys, the all-male group composed entirely of Microsoft employees, have won the PNW competition before and were tough competition again with their performance which mixes excellent vocals and gut-splitting comedy. They took the Audience Favorite award and for their encore performed on of my favorites from them, a boy-band type ode where the lead is telling his girlfriend that "tonight's the night", oh....after he finishes his computer game.... The Baudboys came in second for the evening.
Aside from last year's winner Rezonate, which hosted the show this year, there were several other Oregon groups--The V-Chords provided their usual flair, and Strangers in Harmony, who performed my favorite original for the evening, I think called "Memories a Minefield"
The five women of Absolute also provided a strong st including "got to Get You into My Life."
The group I found most refreshing for the evening was The Shadywood Boys out of Victoria, BC. Singing old-time Southern Gospel, they kept it very 30's retro--singing around a single microphone reminicent of Flatt & Scruggs, and other groups of that era. I loved it. My personal favorite.
Realtime will be a great representative of the PNW in San Rafael in May. I wouldn't be surprised to see them bring home the prize.