Review of 2013 Bay Area Harmony Sweepstakes

Hello, readers.  Here is my review of the 29th Annual Bay Area Regional Harmony Sweepstakes.  This was a **SOLD OUT** competition.  Not an empty seat in the house, the house being its usual venue—the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts.  Those of you who have been to the Sweeps know that it starts promptly, and this year was no exception. 

In the traditional style of the competition, the 29th Annual Regional was hosted by last year's champs:  Sing Theory, the vocalese preservationists and developers.  They were announced, came on stage, and sang "Stoned Soul Picnic."  Their bass singer had a rich round resonant sound that filled the auditorium and balanced out the talented voices of the others.  They had a nice vocal slide in the middle of the song which got them from their verse to the bridge.  Then *poof* after their one song, they exited the stage.  At that point, the MC, Ken Malucelli took the podium. 

This is not the first time I've seen Ken emcee the SF regional competition.  He was confident and calm as a cucumber—no nerves, no confusion.  He introduced himself, speaking as if he was glad to be there.  He explained the rules.  This is another tradition of the Sweeps.  In spite of the fact this is the 29th annual show, rules are explained at every contest so that those in the audience new to the Sweeps can join all the old hats in understanding how the contestants are judged.  The time limit is a biggie.  The emcee explained that contestants who go over 10 minutes cannot take the coveted first place that qualifies them for the national contest.  Every year the emcee explains that contestants are warned—with a very high-end technological system which may or may not be unique to the Sweeps.  A timekeeper holds up a bamboo pole with a sign reading "1 MINUTE" and another timekeeper holds up a bamboo pole with a sign reading "30 SECONDS" to demonstrate this high-end technology.  The same joke every year, and every year it gets a big laugh.  This year it did, too. 

And speaking of time limits, Ken explained that some of the contestants may have timed their performances so tightly that applauding after each song of their set could cause them to go overtime.  It was requested of us that we hold our applause until the very end of each group's set.  Ken spoke plain English, and I have to believe most of the audience members also spoke plain English, as it was the only language I heard throughout intermission, but somehow we were unable to comply with this request.  We got the joke about the bamboo poles, but apparently we didn't understand the request to hold our applause because we clapped like crazy in between sets all night long.  Luckily, though, while I did see the one-minute warning pop up, I don't recall seeing the 30-second warning, and I am certain that none of the competitors went overtime.

The judges were introduced and their numerous qualifications itemized by the emcee.  I won't reiterate them here, as their bios, as well as the bio of the emcee, as well as the bios of each competing group appear on the home page of the 29th Annual Harmony Sweepstakes Bay Area Regional.  Click here to read the bios.  (You will have to scroll down.)

Emcee Ken made the ever-important request that all noise-making pieces of technology be turned off, and most of the audience members complied, except for that one rebel whose watch gave a double-beep during the performance of one of the contestants. 

After his request, Ken turned the podium back over to our hosts for the evening, Sing Theory, who introduced Richter Scales, the opening act.  We, the audience, were told the Scales were going to sing about something that was especially difficult to find in San Francisco.  This got the audience thinking:  would they sing about love?  A parking space?  An affordable place to live?  These were some of the thoughts voiced by the audience members within my hearing range, but no!  Richter Scales sang "Republican in San Francisco," an original by Richter Brian Rosen.  They sang this song in the barbershop singing style and at one point flashed us a popular barbershop choreographical move known as "jazz hands."  This is where you hold one hand (or both hands) up in the air, spread your five fingers wide, and jiggle your hand or hands.  Each Richter did it with one hand, as they each had a mic in their other hand. 

If you check out the bios, you will notice the photo for Richter Scales shows ten members.  There were only eight Richters on stage.  During intermission I questioned a Rick about the discrepancy.  There are actually 16 Richters, but contest rules forbid groups of more than 8 from competing. 

Richter Scales gave us three songs in all, the second being "Pure Imagination" as arranged by RS member Brian. "Nine Swingin' Nails" was their last song, another original by Brian.  This one was a bit on the risqué side, which surprised me. The usual flavor of the sweeps is family-appropriate entertainment.  However, I didn't see any children at this year's performance, and if they had been there, I doubt they would have understood the song, anyway.  In fact, many of us were confused by the lyrics:  "I want to hurt you, penetrate you, love you like an animal" which brings the lovers closer to God.  W H A T ??? 

Okay, let me explain, because during intermission I asked a Rick about this.  There is a one-man band who calls himself "Nine Inch Nails."  He sings a sort of synthesized jazz-pop-gothic genre, and does a song called "Closer," the lyrics of which are far from pure.  The Rick's song is a take on "Closer," except it's done a cappella with a cabaret flair.  Get it?  If not, don't worry.  This was quite new to many of us.

Richter Scales closed "Nine Swingin' Nails" with a riff of the Alleluia Chorus (by Handel).  They exited the stage, and two members of Sing Theory (a guy and a gal) returned to the podium. 

The guy reminded us that should we still be at the theatre at 2 a.m., we would have to reset our watches ahead one hour.  Then the Sing Theory gal introduced the next contestant, the California Golden Overtones, and she said some sort of a joke, but she was the only one who got it.  The audience remained mute while the Sing Theory hostess turned to her co-member and said, "They (the audience) could care less" (or something like that) and started to crack up.  Anyhoo . . . California Golden Overtones sang two songs.  For the first one, there were two soloists in front while the rest of the Overtones were in a line behind them.  They sang "Barton Hollow" by The Civil Wars.  Well, DANG!  That stage just came alive.  One of the soloists had a heck of a voice, but the mic was just a little too far away and she was almost drowned out by the other members. In all fairness to the CGOs, I'm not sure if this problem should have been adjusted by the sound person or not.  There was clapping in this song, by some of the group members, but the auditorium seats 962, and even from my seat in the third row, the clapping was barely audible.  In spite of these sound insufficiencies, their energy did project.  For their second number, "Cry Me A River," they were all in a line across the stage.  They swirled their wrists and snapped their fingers.  Some of them looked a bit stiff at the beginning of this song, but as the song progressed they dropped their shoulders, and when they started with their synchronized dance steps, they smiled and looked relaxed, got into the music, and seemed to be having a great time performing for us.  In spite of the fact their set consisted of only two songs, they got the one-minute warning, but they wrapped up their set without going over the time limit.

Sing Theory announced the next group:  38th Avenue—"WOOHOO!  YAY!" from their families, friends, and fans in the audience—and Sing Theory told us 38th Avenue is named after the street in Santa Cruz that the group members live on.  These contestants are tonight's newbies.  Not only is this their first time competing in a Sweeps, they have only been together for a month and a half.  Aside from the fact that they were so good and had such sweet harmonies, their beatboxer was also like a breath of fresh air to the beatboxing art.  In the first place, he held the mic far away enough from his mouth so that we could actually see his lips moving.  A treat, because the sounds he made were innovative—new and refreshing enough that he didn't sound like any other beatboxer that I've ever heard.  This guy of 38th Avenue didn't overwhelm the a cappella with an instrumental sound.  They sang "Jessie's Girl" (an uptune), "For Emma" (a ballad arranged by member Jefferson Lam) and "Radioactive" (arranged by members Adam Fixler and Devon Magaña).  They graced us with light choreography and a bit of theatrical dramatics.  During the last song, they kind of collapsed like deflated balloons by folding themselves in half, as though taking a deep bow, and then inflated themselves back upright. 

After the exit of 38th Avenue, Sing Theory members came back to the podium to introduce Mighty Men of Faith, the next competitors.  Their bio photo shows only four members, but there were five on stage.  Sing Theory told us that the Mighty Men had lost their lead singer in January (RIP), doubly sad because tonight was his birthday.  Nevertheless, in homage to the old adage "The Show Must Go On," the Mighty Men of Faith took the stage and gave it all they had, inviting us members of the audience to clap along and stamp our feet and get into the music in true Gospel style.  We did comply, at least with the clapping.  Up to this point, the Mighty Men provided the only glint of eye candy so far:  they wore bright lime green ties and matching breast pocket hankies against their black suits.  They sang with gusto even though they normally sing with a band.  They sang "Shake the Foundation," "Give Me a Clean Heart" (arranged by member Richard Hayes II), and "Send Me, I'll Go," which they sang for Sydney, their fallen comrade.  The guy taking the lead on this song did Sydney proud.  For Mighty Men of Faith, it was all about spreading joy through music. 

Sing Theory introduced the next competitors:  T Sisters, a trio of Tietjens.  When they came on stage, one of them picked up a mic and told us a little bit about the group and their web site.  She spoke in a very mellow voice, almost monotone with no emotion, but hearing them sing was a different story.  Their first song was a spiritual-like number, Bones, written by sister Chloe Tietjen.  They were a little stiff for their second song, "The Wind," an original by sister Rachel but arranged by all three.  I noticed that they avoided looking at the audience, especially the sister in the middle.  Her dress was eye catching and looked burnt orange under the stage lights.  It was different in color from those of her two sisters, both of whom wore black, so the sister in the middle really stood out, though all sisters were equally beautiful.  I kept willing them to look at us, so that we might feel connected to them, but they did not catch my vibes.  Their last number, "How Can I Keep From Singing," had lovely lyrics.  The sisters had nice crescendos and decrescendos and sweet a cappella harmonies.  Even though sometimes they have a band with them, hearing them sing a cappella made me a bit jealous that I don't have any sisters with whom I can sing a cappella songs.   A talented trio, no doubt about that. 


Opening the second half of the competition, Sing Theory introduced Quintessence.  They sang "Shining Star" (arranged by member Bakari Holmes), "Cecilia/Some Nights" medley (arr. By Quintessence) and "Down to the River/Bottom of the River" (arr. By Bakari Holmes and Cassie Greene).  Their set was diverse, and they had some nice, sharp head snaps during Cecilia.  But during their set, sometimes the lead singer was overpowered by the beatboxer and the others singing the harmonies.  (Again, I'm not sure if that was something that should have been corrected by the person running the sound board.)  Quintessence was not afraid to use humor.  At one point they all pinched their noses together as they moved about the stage.  This antic earned them an appreciative laugh from the audience.  The ladies had on short white dresses, which were a nice diversion from so much black, which has been the dominant color at all the SF regionals that I've been to, including this one.  Quintessence was very spirited for their last number, and they were very entertaining.

Sing Theory introduced Eli, telling us that Eli is Aramaic and Hebrew for – I have to admit, I lost focus here, so I looked up Eli on Wikipedia and it means "God" in Hebrew and Aramaic.  This would make sense, as the four ladies comprising Eli are all from the Lafayette-Orinda-Presbyterian Church.  Sing Theory told us the gals of Eli like to read, they like watching Downton Abbey, and they are looking forward to seeing how it ends.  When Eli took the stage, my first thought was, "Wow!  What a difference red lipstick makes!"  The faces of the ones wearing the red lipstick really looked alive under those stage lights.  Their skirts of royal blue and tops of black were not identical, but they still had a unified look.  They sang "Spirit Song," an original by Greg Murai, one of the members of Lafayette-Orinda-Presbyterian.  Greg also wrote Eli's second song, "On this Shining Night," and arranged both those songs plus Eli's third and last song, "Higher Love," which sounded like a plea from Eli when they started it, but then they picked up the pace a bit.  All these gals had voices on the higher side.  I was surprised when one of the singers took out an egg-shaped shaker, like a tiny maraca, and used it to shake out a rhythm.  Is that allowed in this a cappella competition?  Could that have gotten them disqualified?  I don’t know. 

A good set, they exited the stage and Sing Theory introduced Prime Time.  One of the singers owns a wine store in Redwood City.  Can you imagine singing in the wine store??  Sure would bring in some partiers!  But I digress.  Prime Time sang "Lullaby of Birdland" (arr. by member Caia Brookes), "Rachel" (arr. by member Wil Mathews) and wrapped up the set with "Prime Time Blues."  All three songs were to me similar in a jazzy style with lots of scatting.  Their theme song, "Prime Time Blues," had lots of life, and this group "owned the stage," so to speak.  They smiled a lot and looked like they were having lots of fun.  They had constant eye contact with the audience and made us feel like they were singing just for us. 

Sing Theory then introduced the last competitors of the evening:  Ro Sham Bo.  The Sing Theory gentleman said Ro Sham Bo asked him to say their name with H's, and he said it, which came out kind of weird, then he said he didn't know why they asked him to say it like that.  I'm not sure if the audience laughed or not.  I was trying to figure out what the heck the Sing Theory guy was really trying to say.  Ro Sham Bo by this time had set up a prop—tonight's only competing group to use one.  It was a giant board with "The Dating Game" written on it in the same lettering style used in the 60s TV show of the same name.  They used it as a backboard in front of which three bachelorettes sat.  It and they were stage left while a bachelor sat stage center.  Each bachelorette had to say hi to the bachelor whose name I forget (Alex?).  It was only when the third bachelorette said hi to the bachelor that we knew she was a he in drag.

After the hellos, the bachelor got to ask a question, the first being, "Bachelorette number one.  What goes through your head when you are kissing your man?" or something like that.  Then, with bachelorette number one singing the lead, the six members of Ro Sham Bo sang "Kissing My Love" (arr. by Paul Kim).  After the song, the bachelor addressed his next question to bachelorette number two:  "If I could take just one of your body parts out on a date, which part should I take?"  With bachelorette number two singing the lead, Ro Sham Bo launched into "All of Me" (arr. by Moorea Dickason).  And the third and final question by the bachelor:  "Bachelorette number three, imagine us out on a date together.  Tell me about it."  With "bachelorette" number three (the guy in drag) singing lead, Ro Sham Bo sang "Feeling Good" (arr. by Moorea Dickason).  The Ro Sham Bo member acting as The Dating Game Hostess said we have to "wait until next time" to find out which bachelorette the bachelor chose, and all six members of Ro Sham Bo lined up and threw that Dating Game kiss where they turn away from the audience, bring a hand up to their lips, then face the audience, throwing us a kiss.

Ro Sham Bo was the last contestant, and then it was time to vote for audience favorite, the process where one box per group is placed on stage (and on the tables in the lobby so the voting process goes quickly) and audience members place their ticket stubs in the box representing their favorite group.  This process went quickly and relatively smoothly, considering it was a full house in a 962-seat house.

While the votes were being counted, Sing Theory took the stage to sing for the last time as 2012 Bay Area Regional champs.  At some point, they called their friend to the stage—I'm not sure what the story was, I think I was talking to my seat mate at that point—but all of a sudden some guy with a bass guitar walked on the stage.  Laughter, laughter by Sing Theory, no, no, no.  No guitar you funny fellow.  Oh, okay.  So he put his bass guitar on a stand which just happened to be there, but then he said he had gum in his mouth.  This cracked Sing Theory up even more, and then they sang their song.  I'm not sure how many songs they sang or what the names of the songs were—sorry about that.  This was the end of the night, and the two people to my right got up and left, causing distraction.  I don't think they left out of displeasure.  I think they just wanted to beat the traffic.  However, this is pure speculation on my part. 

Anyway, after Sing Theory and their friend sang, the Audience Favorite was announced: 38th Avenue, who took the stage once again to sing to us one more time.  This is another Sweeps tradition, that the group that gets Audience Favorite sings to us again.  But 38th Avenue has only been together for a month and a half and only knew one more song.  So they sang it:  "Long Way Down to the Bottom of the River."  Lovely sound.  Off they go.

The traditional close of the Sweeps is that each group is called back to the stage one by one.  When all are assembled, the emcee announces the winners.  (See the results box.)  Thanks were also announced before the singing of the closing anthem:  "Goodnight Sweetheart." 

You know, this year's "Goodnight Sweetheart" was the nicest one I've ever heard at the Sweeps.  Everyone on the packed stage seemed to know the song and the harmonies were just glorious.  One of the gals from Sing Theory grabbed a mic and graced us with her beautiful voice by singing a couple solo verses.  On the refrain, audience members were singing too, in harmony, no less, and when the song was over, it was rather bittersweet. 

As of tonight, three regionals have concluded:  Mid Atlantic, Bay Area, and Chicago; with four more regionals to go:  Pacific Northwest (March 16th), New York (March 30th), LA (April 6th) and Boston (April 14th).

Ours was an entertaining Sweeps with Ro Sham Bo taking first place.  This means they will compete for the national title in San Rafael at the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium in two months.  See you then.

Stacy Lynne
Campbell, CA


Bay Area Regional
March 9, 2013

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