Review of 2012 Bay Area Harmony Sweepstakes

Saturday night, March 10, 2012, was the night of the 28th Annual Bay Area Harmony Sweepstakes competition, which was held at its usual venue, San Francisco's beautiful Palace of Fine Arts on 3301 Lyon Street. If you weren't there, here's the rerun with a few explanatory notes thrown in.

Part of the tradition of the annual competition is that the winners of the previous year act as the hosts for the current year. Last year, the first-place winners were Brass Farthing, those eight funny fellows who sing four-part harmony while raising good cheer, the singing/drinking bunch that pulls us into their party whenever we see them perform. Part of their performance is their pub-like attire, funny hats, and beer steins in their hands, which they sip from during their performance. (What is in those beer steins, gentlemen?) Their get-ups are colorful, rich, and a joy to behold.

Promptly at 8:00 p.m., Brass Farthing came on stage. Immediately, minor technical difficulties ensued in that one of the needed mics was not turned on. Oh well, there's nothing to get flustered about, these things happen during live performances. It's fun, especially for the audiences. Ours began to yell, "We can't hear you! The mic's not on! It isn't on!" Such unexpected occurrences make us active participants in the competition.

Participation is a common thing for a well-seasoned Sweepstakes audience. We are not usually a passive bunch. That's why we like the competition so much. We can add our own energy. Once the competition started, though, this year's had a different feel, a possible reason for which is offered up later in this rerun.

The mic switch was turned on and Brass Farthing did their thing, the thing they are so capable of doing—entertaining their audience, singing their first song about bringing the wife to the bar, but it was a big mistake because her heart was stolen away by the man playing the trombone in the bar band. They didn't really seem to care, though. The beer steins came up and sips were taken in homage to the wife who ran off with the trombone player. Funny, funny, funny. That's Brass Farthing! They had that rich, round, resonant sound I always listen for in four-part a cappella, and they filled the auditorium with it.

After their opening, our emcee for the evening, Ken Malucelli, stepped up to the podium. Ken has worn many different musical hats—manger, agent, executive producer, founder of the world’s largest costumed caroling organization, and he is a composer whose works have been commissioned, premiered, performed, and recorded. Not surprisingly, Ken was quite comfortable in his role as emcee, and he asked how many in the audience were first timers. Amazingly, about 50 percent of the audience members were newbies. I found this unusual, and perhaps it was what gave the night a different feel from previous Sweeps I have attended. This one was less participatory, more reserved as the competitors began to take the stage. First timers usually watch and observe. There's nothing wrong with that. Sometimes first timers are awed by what they see.

A little excitement—Ken the Emcee had a door prize for the people who drove the most miles to get to the competition. The door prize was a DVD, CD, and something else, I'm not sure what, and I'm not sure what the title of the DVD was or who the CD was by. Things got a little muddled at that point.

Ken had stepped away from the mic during the excitement, excitement in the audience just for the fact that someone was going to get a prize. Voices started calling out: "Memphis, Tennessee!" and "New Hampshire! NEW HAMPSHIRE!" I don't know who actually won the door prize or how far they came to see the show.

Then the rules were explained (no longer than 10 minutes or disqualification results), the judging criteria was explained (50 percent of a score is based on performance quality—an ability to entertain as well as sing, an ability to connect with the audience).

Because the clock would start with the first note sung, we, the audience, were encouraged to save our applause for the end of the set, or, if we simply had to clap in between songs, we were told to do it as rapidly as possible. Emcee Ken guided us, and made us practice rapid clapping until we got it right.

Then Ken introduced the judges for the evening, who were mingled among us, the audience. All the judges, as well as our emcee, have the life experiences one would expect of judges of a high-quality vocal competition. If you yourself are a performer and are in need of "people" so that "your people" can call "their people," I bet these judges and our emcee can help take you a step further toward obtaining the "people." Ken and the judges all have extensive backgrounds in different areas of entertainment. They are people who have been places. Their accolades are numerous on an individual basis, and they are experts of their crafts in one or more fields of music. Between them, they conduct, perform, teach, produce, direct, distribute, and tour on the road. Did I leave anything out??? Their bios (along with bios of the competitors) are on the Sweepstakes home page.

The five judges whose talents I laud are: Jenny Bent, Bryan Dyer, Lauren Carey, Walter Zelnick, and Patty Hawley Pennycook. I have already lauded the emcee, but he deserves a second hand: Ken Malucelli.

And now, on with the show!

Brass Farthing took to the role of hosts quite comfortably, as though they were talking to guests in a living room rather than to an audience at a competition. For instance, when the speaker was done with a spiel, he would ask the one-man stage crew, "Are we ready?" The stage crew would reply, "Stretch it out. Stretch it out." So our Brass Farthing would turn to the audience and ask if any of us knew any jokes. No one offered any up, so Brass told us he had heard one recently about [something. Silver?] but by then, the stage was ready for the first competitors, Gimme 5!, who were introduced with much aplomb, and they set the mood for the remainder of the show.

Gimme 5!, is comprised of people (guess how many?????) who all met when they were students in a doowop class. After their doowoppity doowop graduation, each went his/her own different way, and by that I mean they all went on to sing and perform in different a cappella groups based in the Sacramento area. The five performers that appeared before us on the Bay Area Harmony Sweepstakes stage had come together about four years ago from four different quintets to sing as Gimme 5! They wore black as their base color, but they splashed purple into their outfits, which helped give them an individual yet unified look, except for the one woman who had on a black blouse with a white bubbly-looking print. I couldn't see her purple accent. Unfortunately, I was very distracted by this, as the bubbly blouse overpowered everyone else's outfit.

One of their songs was "Life Could Be a Dream." They had the sound one would like to kick back and listen to while in a lounge, drinking down a favorite concoction and indulging in a rendezvous. In fact, Gimme 5!, performs regularly at a lounge called the Naked Lounge, so of course how can the host let something like that go without calling attention to it and making some sort of joke? He can't, of course. No one can. He didn't. The silly joke got the audience to titter slightly.

Another song Gimme 5!, sang was "Stray Cat Strut," one of my favorites, which gave some of the members a chance to add theatrics to the act. The lyrics to Stray Cat Strut must be sung with attitude, though, and unfortunately, the big stage ate up some of the attitude that the lead singer needed to project. The theatrics were there, though. One guy licked his "paw" to slick his "fur" back. One woman (not the one with the bubbly shirt. The other one) kind of rubbed herself against the guy she was singing next to (not the guy who licked his paw—the guy on her other side), which I thought was hilarious. These quick theatrics were funny because they were so unexpected. The group came on as rather straitlaced. It was a nice surprise to see their humor surface.

Totally Tapioca was next, and God bless them, while they still wore black, it wasn't their dominant color. Pink was. Totally Tapioca looked even better on stage than they do in their PR shot (see the Harmony Sweepstakes home page). Even so, one of the women had on a top with white bubblies, which, just like the previous group, overpowered the rest of the dress code. Perhaps it's me. Could I be too sensitive to shirts with bubbly patterns?

Totally Tapioca started their set with "Blue Moon." They sang a song called "Wings," in which their four voices came together beautifully when they sang it.

Totally Tapioca's thing is parodies. They take well-known songs such as "One Fine Day" and put their own lyrics to them. The thing about their parodies, though, is they are tied into a message. Totally Tapioca did not announce the meaning behind the lyrics of "One Fine Day," so audience members took the lyrics any way they wanted to. Once I reflected on Totally Tapioca's mission statement, I realized the lyrics did fit their mission, which is to make a positive difference in the world one song at a time. The Bay Area Harmony Sweepstakes competition is a great step in their road, and I thank them for stopping.

Continuum was the third group to perform. The members of continuum are the most experienced students at Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland. It's a boys' school, and everyone in the school sings. It's not a boarding school—it's a day school. The students receive both musical and academic training there on a daily basis. Continuum members have paid their dues by rising through the ranks. They are the best of the oldest. They had a unique stage entrance.

Continuum, singing, walked from the wings to their places on the stage but looked rather stiff once they got there. I wasn't expecting what sounded like centuries-old church music from them, so I was a little thrown for a loop, but it didn't last long because for their second song they sang "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" followed by "Here Comes the Sun," Their segue from cathedral-like to rock was abrupt but welcome, and somehow, it worked and was a good segue. During the segue, their stiffness left. They wore all black—again with the black—with ties that provided the only diversion from too much black tonight already.

One thing that really stood out for me was the fact that Continuum did not start with pitchpipes, very hard to do if one is singing a cappella. This amazed me, as their sound was the tightest I had heard so far, so I put a star next to their group's name, thinking they could get an award pending the talents of those yet to perform.

I don't know how many Continuums were singing "beatbox," but whoever it was and however many were doing it, they sounded like an actual electrical drum set (is there such a thing?). My personal observation was that the applause meter registered higher for Continuum than it did for the first two groups, which had the hard job of warming the audience up. "Three's the charm" seemed to ring true in the case of Continuum.

Next up—Solstice. Their material is written by women or written specifically for voices of the fairer sex. Black was their dominant color—Dear God, not more dull black—accented by turquoise any place it fit. A turquoise sash around the waist of a black dress, a turquoise spaghetti-strap top over black slacks or skirt, etc. I especially missed bling—sparklies—sequins—eye candy—glamour—SOMETHING SHINY!—not just from this group, but from all the performers. The shiny ties on the men were not enough. This competition definitely lacked in bling, but it was seeing Solstice that really drove the absence of bling to the forefront of my brain.

Solstice sang a song in a language unknown to me for certain (African?) but very relaxing for me to listen to. They also sang "Java Jive," a song familiar to many in the a cappella world. The Solstice lady with the black dress and turquoise belt/sash around the waist was a real treat to watch during this number. She likes the song a lot, I could tell, because she had a blast up there performing it. She didn't hold back (and why would she?). She boogied her little heart out up there for herself, perhaps, but also for us, her audience, and her joy reached those of us in the auditorium seats.

With this joy in our hearts, the house lights came up. Time for **15-minute intermission,** during which I cruised the crowd and listened (eavesdropped) for tidbits to see what the audience thought of whom, but I heard no juicy gossip, nor any gossip of any kind. People were too focused on buying See's candy bars from Continuum to help fund their trip to Spain, buying recordings from Brass Farthing, and supporting others in similar style.

The drinks and eats to be had were typical of a function of the performing arts: Fruit dishes, goodies, coffee, bottled water, wine, etc. I bought a $3.00 piece of marble cake which was as dry and crumbly as all get-out. I only ate half, but too bad for me I ate the second half on my way home while driving. I could feel the crumbs bombarding me, so I didn't dare brush until I parked my car at home and stepped out of the car. Nevertheless, the following morning, I would open my car door to a seat full of cake crumbs. I should've gotten the See's, which would have helped send Continuum to Spain. My mistake.

Blinking lights * blinking lights * blinking lights.** Back into the auditorium for the second part of the show, even thought the line for the ladies' room still stretched across the lobby. Hold it or burst, but don't miss that show!

One of the Brass Farthings introduced Unaccompanied Minors with appropriate jokes (but certainly not put downs) about their ages, though one had just turned 18! ("Woo hoo! Hurray!" from the audience.) A sextet of high-schoolers—three girls and three guys (just like TV's Friends)— God bless the youth of our country! While they still wore black (like every other group who competed) the Minors used the black only as a minor color, with eye-popping, eye-pleasing bright red as the dominant color, which shone up nice and bright under those stage lights because the fabric was satiny or shiny. They took the mics, there were introductions and an attempt at humor (a polite spattering of appreciation by the audience). Unaccompanied Minors are still newbies, as they've been together less than 6 months, and they are still ironing out the kinks. "The Longest Time" was one of the songs in their set. They sang a lot of oohs, aahs, ba-daps and be-bops, but there were four people singing these harmonies against only one lead, so the melody didn't sound strong enough to me. I am getting older, however, so maybe that was just how I heard it. All in all, they WERE entertaining, and they CAN sing.

Okay, so Unaccompanied Minors finished their performance and "Brassy" did a little ad libbing to give Mr. One-Man Stage Crew time to re-ready the stage. I found it fascinating that Mr. Brass Farthing was so relaxed at the podium in front of a packed house, just ad libbing away. Once the stage was set, Brass Farthing introduced Sing Theory.

When Sing Theory took the stage, guess what their dominant color was? Yep! More black. Well, it wasn't a fashion competition. It was a singing competition. And Sing Theory did certainly sing. The group is dedicated to the art of vocalese. Vocalese is hard to explain, but as I understand it, you take a musical melody that is part of an instruments-only composition. You apply lyrics. These lyrics can either be written or improvised. They are usually inspired by instrumental solos. But Sing Theory sings them a cappella. HUH? By this time in the night, I had heard so much jazz and scat-like arrangements, I couldn't tell the difference between scat and vocalese. Other people near me could, though, and heads were nodding in approval.

House Blend was the last group of the night, comprised of four members who all met while singing in the same House of God. However, their arrangements had nothing to do with religion, and they didn't preach any kind of message. It was music, laced with humor throughout.

Guess what colors they wore! Black, but thankfully, because my eyeballs were by now very bored, they also wore red velveteen (that's what it looked like from my third-row seat) jackets.
They had an actual act, meaning they didn't just come out and sing. They had an act. First three came out and announced they had Pavarotti with them, and out came their fourth member with a white scarf draped around the neckline of his red velveteen jacket. He sang something which I didn't understand because it was Italian Opera, complete with the forever-held note at the end. The singer's voice did not crack. He held a steady note without gasping for breath and without coming off as a showoff holding a note only for the sake of showing us how long he can hold a note. No! He sang it against the other three, who were singing background music. It was a very long hold, which can only be accomplished by very accomplished singers, which this singer certainly seemed to be. (His profession is teacher of the teachers who teach voice.)

In a show of admirable flexibility, they then sang a country western tune highlighting the phrase, "Number Two," which as we all know has a universal meaning but which is not the ONLY meaning of "Number Two." It can mean many things in addition to its universal meaning, and those other meanings were also part of the song, which was followed by a tribute (complete with costume cape) to Mighty Mouse. While they were the last of the competitors, House Blend was certainly the most theatrical of all the performers.

Houseblend exits, on comes Ken the emcee. Hey! Some teenagers he knows (three of them) were celebrating birthdays, so he told us their names, which we promptly forgot, and sang the usual audience rendition of Happy Birthday, where we all muddle up the names in the name part of the song. Oh well, our hearts were in it!

The vote for audience favorite was next—lots of fun to watch from my seat. I guess I am lazy, because I didn't want to get up. I gave my ticket to my friend and told her whose cannister to put my ticket stub in. This is how one votes for their favorite group. The group with the most ticket stubs gets dubbed audience favorite. I don't know if a monetary award accompanies bragging rights. So as my friend had to battle traffic, first going one way, then having to go against the tide to get back to her seat, I just sat there watching the well-behaved people of the audience snaking the line and getting back to their seats. I was looking for people I knew. Can you believe I did not see one single person I knew? Highly unusual, but remember, this year half the audience were newbies.

Okay, everybody back to their seats, time for Brass Farthing to perform their very last set as the 2011 Harmony Sweepstakes champs and 2012 Harmony Sweepstakes host. They had changed their outfits, which surprised me. I didn't know they had more than one.

They sang something about having a mermaid for a wife. She smells fishy, and they have trouble with that, according to the song. One thing I was not expecting was for one of them to pull out a harmonica. Huh? Wait! This competition is dedicated to the art of a cappella. What are you doing? I don't know if I was the only audience member to disapprove, but I thought that if Brass Farthing had hummed the same tune the harmonica played, I would've been happier. I really hate to see a cappella diluted, but that's just me.

Anyway, after hearing so much jazz all night long, Brass Farthing's sea-shanty kind of harmony was nice to hear. They sang two songs from their new CD.

Okay, off they go.

Ken the Emcee announces the winners. He asks someone—anyone—all of us—if he is supposed to hand out anything. (No one had gone over that with him.) Someone must have answered him, and the answer must have been no, because he didn't hand out anything. He just announced:

Audience Favorite: HouseBlend [Applause, applause, bows and smiles]

Best original arrangement: Sing Theory and in rapid succession

Best Original Song—"I love Loving You" by Sing Theory [Applause, applause, bows and smiles]

Third Place Winners: Continuum [Applause, applause, bows and smiles]

2nd Place Winners: Solstice [Applause, applause, bows and smiles]

First Place Winners: Sing Theory [Wild applause, applause, bows and smiles]

But of course, it wasn't over until the performers (conducted by . . . who WAS that conducting them? John?) sang "Good Night Sweetheart" in lovely harmony, which the audience then sang back to the performers. The song is the cue which means "the show is over; thank you all for coming now; bye-bye!" It's tradition. And the great thing about tradition is, you can count on it.

So there you have it, folks. Sing Theory cleaned up good. As the winners of this regional competition, they get bumped up a notch to the National competition in San Rafael, at the Marin Veteran's Auditorium. This will be on Saturday, May 12, 2012, and will start at 8 p.m. ( See here for more info.) We'll see you there, Sing Theory.

~~Stacy Lynne~~
Campbell, CA

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