Audience reviews of 2010 Chicago Harmony Sweepstakes

The night began with producer Andrew Blendermann welcoming everyone to the Harmony Sweepstakes and introducing last year's champs, barbershop quartet 3 Men & A Melody.

3 Men & A Melody instantly showed why they were the 2009 champs. They contrasted last year's red suits with sharp new blue suits. They sang a few songs, closing with John Mellencamp's contagious "R.O.C.K. in the USA" which got the entire audience involved, clapping their hands.

3 Men & A Melody introduced the first competing group, No Better Cause, from Lincoln, NE. the quintet was wearing black suits with red ties. They opened with a novel arrangement of the classic "Ride the Chariot". The next song was an audience pleaser--a 2-song medley of Michael Jackson Thriller hits. The guys each sported a single silver glove to match the fashion of the artist at that time. "Wanna Be Startin' Something" got the audience to clap along, especially when the bass dropped out to showcase the upper parts. "Billie Jean" was masterfully performed, including a spectacular moonwalk and a vocal percussion breakdown at the end.

No Better Cause's final song was the 1980's classic "867-5309". Every time they got to the eponymous phone number, they had the audience sing along with them. This was a fun way to close out the set.

The next group was Round Midnight. This male quartet from New York City entered wearing retro NYC outfits with red as the common theme. The opening sound we heard was a single voice singing the beginning of Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind". When the rest of the group joined him, it felt like we were watching a barbershop group sing in close harmony on a New York street corner. What struck me was the clear and beautiful sound of the bass.
Round Midnight's next song was "Since I Don't Have You", which featured a soaring falsetto solo. They closed out their set with the Isley Bros.' "Shout", with a terrific slap bass throughout and the audience throwing up their hands every time the group hit the word "shout". Round Midnight proved they had mastered the ability not just to rock out or sing mellow, but to combine them all in one song with the "a little bit softer now"/"a little bit louder now" routine.

The next act was a female group caled The Bradford Trio. Their delivery was in stark contrast with every other group on the stage during the entire night. They did not talk at all, choosing to maximize their ten minutes with religious music. No vocal percussion, no bass, no hand-clapping--just pure music. Their first song, "The Lord Is My Rock", was a serene 6/8 spiritual. The second song, in 3, perhaps called "I Am a Poor Way-Faring Stranger", was a quiet, serene, mostly monophonic song. The end featured some call-and-response polyphony and a dramatic high A in the soprano line. Their third song, "There is No Problem Too Big that God Cannot Solve It", was a nice major song. I do wish they had at least introduced each song, as I wasn't familiar with any of them and could have used a little background. What I did hear, I enjoyed.

3 Men & A Melody then entered stage left and sang a song instead of talking. What a great idea! We were treated to "It's All Right", popularized by Huey Lewis & the News.

Next to take the stage was An Octave Above. They were clad in black and opened with an energetic rendition of "Sing a Song". They split their octet visually into soloists and backup, which made it easy to figure out what was happening musically. There was clearly a lot of work put into the blocking, and this kept the performance visually (as well as aurally) interesting. The piece ended with a dramatic high A by the sopranos and a tableau by the group. An Octave Above's next song was by Evanescence. The singers staggered upstage and downstage for this song. The vocal percussion was solid throughout this song, and this provided a new wrinkle on the group's traditionally jazzy sound. The group finished with A-ha's classic 1980's song "Take On Me". The song began with the signature synth riff and then a powerful duet. The VP was softer for this song. As the set drew to a close, singers paired off for a high-energy ending.

Andrew returned to stage, clad with one of the host's blue jackets in place of his tux jacket. He announced a brief intermission.

The Offbeats opened the second act. This male quintet from Iowa City entered with dress shirts, ties, and rolled-up sleeves. They began with the Motown classic "Signed, Sealed, Delivered". They then announced that 3 Men & A Melody had "previewed" their next selection, "It's All Right". "Just imagine them...20-30 years ago," which drew audience laughter and an "angry" walk-on by 3M&M's Chris Droegemueller. This song featured a gentle solo with rich, effortless low E's by the bass. As many other groups did, The Offbeats ended their set with a crowd-pleaser: "Kiss Him Goodbye". This song had a soft beginning. The classic "Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye" got the crowd involved, and the lead singer hit a beautiful high Bb to close the song.

Sundown was next on the bill. The alumni of Millikin University featured an unusual vocal configuration: 4 women and 1 man. They began with "Tell Martha Not to Moan". This highlighted the women of the group (obviously!). The next song was the Andrews Sisters' "Oh Johnny! Oh Johnny! Oh!". They arranged themselves with the Andrews Sisters-like trio stage right and the bassist and VP/special effects singer stage left. Sundown closed their set with a crowd favorite, Stevie Wonder's "Superstition". This jazzy offbeat arrangement featured altered chords--and a reference to James Brown's "Superbad" at the end!

The next group to perform were the inimitable Jimmy and the Threats. They explained that, sadly, Jimmy would be unable to join them, as he was currently incarcerated, but that all money raised through record sales would be used to spring him from the joint.

This male trio, which might be described as hip-hop or R&B a cappella, launched into a few original songs. "Mr. Floyd" began with a single singer singing a "doo-wop" line. He was soon joined by the other backup singer before the lead singer launched into his verse. The second song, "This Party", started with each singer's mic held low and a soft beginning. They soon broke into a polyphonic layering of singing/rapping, VP/old-school beatboxing, and an ah/dah part.

Jimmy & the Threats concluded with a piece called (perhaps) "20-something America". This piece seemed to reference the previously-performed "Shout" as well as the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction. I was glad that there was a place for this group on the stage, as nobody did it like they did!

3 Men & A Melody then treated us to an interlude of "Heavenly Bodies".

The final group to perform was Home Free. Their outfits suited them perfectly, as they were black suits with colorful t-shirts underneath and Converse shoes. This represented the duality of their serious musicianship and their frivolity on stage. This was immediately evident in their first number, an upbeat arrangement of the Simon & Garfunkel classic "Bridge Over Troubled Water". The group rocked the song out but maintained the sweet sound and underlying message of the lyrics.

Home Free then launched into a medley of songs they claimed they were newly-working out for future performances. Some of these have been heard by previous Chicago Harmony Sweepstakes attendees, while others of them were new to this stage. The medley began with an ironically emotional rendition of "I Am Woman". Next was the Village People's campy classic "YMCA". Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" was next. The group really showed their versatility next by performing "Coney Island Baby". They then wowed the audience by performing "Coney Island Baby" again...up an octave! The medley concluded with the Surfaris' "Wipe Out", which really has to be heard in person to experience the awesome performance of their vocal percussionist, Adam Rupp.

After a final song to close out their set, Home Free yielded to Andrew, who announced a second intermission. Having been to shows in the past where this did not happen, I can tell you that this is a much-appreciated innovation. It allows the judges to spend some time deliberating, the audience to stretch their legs, the groups to try to sell some merchandise, and everyone's batteries to be recharged for the third and final act.

That act began with 3 Men & A Melody taking us up and down the tempo dial. They also sang sweet, fast-paced, and emotional songs, one of which got a standing ovation. They closed their five-song set with their quirky take on Bobby McFerrin's mainstream a cappella classic hit, "Don't Worry, Be Happy".

The awards and accolades, to me, are almost anticlimactic, but I do congratulate Home Free and wish them well at Nationals.

All in all, a great night for contemporary a cappella!

Loren Shevitz, Shircago   

"What Joy! Living in the Heart of Music." Patrick O'Brian

AD 2010 March 27, Saturday, 7:13 PM CDT. Behind the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts In Skokie. Parking in the garage is a piece of cake. And free. Bankruptcy deferred at least until Monday. A good omen.

7:30ish in the theater. Andrew Blendermann struts on stage in the usual tuxedo. He doesn't talk too long. Another good omen.

3 Men and a Melody sing. Still not sure which 3 are the men. They sing fine, ringing barbershop. They also talk, but not too much.

"All musics are created equal." Peter Schickele

No Better Cause come out and sing. All five of them. Who needs a better cause?

Mathematical fashion note: Their stunning red ties have different patterns. One has stripes with positive slope (lower left to upper right). A European touch, not usually seen on American ties.

'Round Midnight sing long before midnight. Even before Sundown, but well after sundown. These guys had to come all the way from the peripheral state of New York to sing in the heart of music in the heartland. But they sing good, so I can forgive their "New York State of Mind," even feel a bit of compassion. Not everybody can live in Chicago, poor things.

If I have to quibble, maybe the audience is just a tad too refined. Where is the rowdiness? Why are we all sitting down? Yeah, we clap the off beats from time to time, but music makes ya wanna move. Yes! I see one courageous soul, undaunted by decorum, dancing on the side balcony.

The Bradford Trio. I am not a Christian. I really don't like to hear Christian groups slipping in a few bits of secular pop to appease me. These twangy ladies sang all solid Christian songs, which I love to hear. Oh, they counted right, there are three of 'em in the trio. Maybe the twang cover slips off from the good vocal techniqueonce or twice. Maybe the arrangements get a tiny bit too clever here and there. That's all right.

In between groups, some of the 3 men and/or the melody come out and talk trash. I guess they are only following orders. They aren't as annoying as some of the in-betweeners in previous years. Sometimes they even sing, which is good.

An Octave Above. These guys are slick and professional. I mean that in the nicest way. They are fine tonight, and I've heard them being even finer before. Oh, they also counted right. Except that there are actually seven tones in an octave, but that's not their fault.

Fifteen minute intermission. Bo-----Ring. I don't even need to pee yet.

But, strange and wonderful events take shape in the lobby. In stunning defiance of all proper musicocompetitive authority, to say nothing of Mama, who don't 'llow no a cappella singin' round here, five guys break openly into close harmony during intermission. They wisely keep their individual names and precise geographical co-ordinates secret ("somewhere near Detroit," sure). But, they are known collectively as Full Throttle, and they drove full throttle all the way from their hideout somewhere near Detroit to hear, and why not be heard? I catch them flagrantely "Come and Go"ing in a delicto Doo-Wopish way.

I also identify the daring dancer, but not her name yet.

"Pulled through." Mark Twain

Intermission is over, and Andrew and the men and/or melody don't talk too long.

The Offbeats. If there are 5 of them, does that make the metre 10/4? Is this a subtle CB joke? They come all the way from Iowa City, which is at least 1000 times cooler than you think. Even though all musics are created equal, "Kiss Him Goodbye" deserves a special mention. That was it.

The people in front of me become more and more annoying, writing letters and numbers on sheets of paper instead of listening properly. Using bright white lights. (Haven't you guys heard that red lets you write, but doesn't kill peoples' night vision?) The very fact that they are lined up in a row together is pretty suspicious. I'll try to ignore them.

Sundown. From Millikin, the college and/or university with the second best name. (Slippery Rock, of course. Beaver changed its name.) Delightful pop stuff. How did one guy get to sing with four such gorgeous babes? Probably his red tie, also with positive slope stripes.

Oh, yeah. More in-between trash, having to do with that contest stuff, but sometimes they sing. Deal with it.

Jimmy and the Threats. Jimmy won't be eligible for parole until 2013, but the remaining triple threat are keeping things warm for him. Among the equal musics, theirs stands out. It's the sort of music I like least on this show. I love it. Does music care how much or little I like it? Do I worry how much my amino acids like me? I love the smallness of these trios. I also love the largeness of those octets. One quibble: I don't really feel threatened. To whom are they really threats? Grammarians?

The audience is still way too restrained, even in the face of explicit threats. I am ashamed of my own complicity. I try to annoy people, and disrupt the in-between trash, with limited success at best.

Home Free. These guys are also slick and professional. That's OK, 'cause they have music, and it's contagious. Well, I'm about to whine a bit. Not the dread mudley song about how we picked a song for this contest by trying out every possible and impossible genre, yet again? Didn't I hear one of those last year, or maybe it was the year before, or ... ? C'mon guys. Sure, there's music in the mudley and the story, but the mudley and the story don't serve the music. (What? Oh, "medley.") Everybody else seems to like that sort of metacompetitive post-modern story about the music about the story about the music about the contest more than I do. Oh, well.

No, we are not yet home free. There's another intermission.

Nonmathematical fashion note: Some of the tennis shoes are genuine black Converse high tops. That's almost cool. Of course, cool is the white Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars that I used to wore, and they were only really cool after they got properly dingy brown. It didn't matter so much that I was a crummy basketball player, when I wore my Chuck Taylors.

And more contest stuff. The judges write down some stuff, discuss some stuff (or maybe they're just having donuts back in their secret room), analyze some stuff, judge thinking not that they themselves will be judged. Some of the groups win. Some of 'em don't. But, for a few brief ringing hours, we have lived together harmoniously in the heart of music. That means---drumroll and trite cliche alert---we all win!

"If it sounds good, it is good." Duke Ellington

And, yet another thing that sounds good---the spontaneous manual-digital-seatbackial drumrolls from the audience, snatching music from the jaws of competition.

The Finale, grand and otherwise. I like these finales, largely because the contest is over, and we're back to just music. The first time I fested at one of these a cappella festivals (it might have been Best of the Midwest, rather than a Sweepstakes), the groups all came out and sang a very rousing last number together. So now, why do the groups come out and plaster themselves to the back of the stage, like shy junior high kids at the first dance? (Well, that's the way it was when I was a shy junior high kid.) Can't we get them downstage and in our faces? "Good Night Sweetheart, Good Night" is a fine closer, particularly for the afterglow. I would have gone for something rowdier here. Audience sing-along is a fundamental requirement of musical life, just ahead of food, water and oxygen, so I only regret that there is rather little of it. And, we audience (yes, I share the blame), are rather wussy. So, why aren't there contestants flooding out into the audience as ringers and section leaders and agents provocateurs? I don't pretend to know how to do this sort of thing perfectly, just much better.

Now, to the Afterglow. After harmonic seventh chords, and the excuse for men to get away from our women, afterglow is the greatest contribution of barbershop singing to world culture. So the contest is over. So the concert is over. Does that mean that the music is over? A resounding and ringing "NO!"

Well, this afterglow is just in the lobby, and they've organized the attending groups into this long straight line of tables up against the wall (bad feng shui here), so we have to blow pretty hard on the embers to get some proper heat out of the afterglow.

Ah, the dancer's name is Tziporah Ladin-Gross. She and her buddies increase the kinetic part of the energy in the lobby by a few dancing orders of magnitude. They sing some good stuff in Hebrew. We've finally ascended from the music by those selected for the contest, through music by the band that came on their own, to the highest pinnacle---music by whoever feels like singing. ("Whomever"? Whatever.)

Ah, Full Throttle revs up, a couple of backfires, some noise. Are we on our way?

Yes! Approved competitively correct groups react to the guerilla provocation, and they fire back in close formation and closer harmony. We are glowing. I even like those poor benighted guys from New York now. Especially when they take in Jay G--- who, casting off his evil supervillain character, comes back to the good side as a singer of songs, rather than a judger of songs. They sing "Sweet and Lovely," and it totally is. I really like novelty. I like bands who aren't the usual suspects, but are equally guilty, to say nothing of threatening. I like to hear fresh, new, novel music. Wouldn't it be fresh, new, and novel to hear some good ol' chestnuts, sung really good on stage in performance, from time to time? Just a thought.

Primarily A Cappella are also here. They need no introduction, and they've already got as much of my CD budget as I can afford today.

"Try this at home." Bobby McFerrin

Gold Medal Ideas has a mighty silly name, and it smells of that evil competitive stuff. But, they are giving out free kazoos.

Yes, you got it right. Free kazoos. If you were here, instead of home playing couch potato like a doofus, you could have a free kazoo, too.

The kazoos carry the profound inscription, "EVERYBODY CAN MAKE MUSIC." Yes, I'm talking to you.

For a modest financial consideration, I believe that they will also make you a T-shirt with anything you want written on it. Yes, even, "Customize Your Own," or the more traditional, "We Print Anything."

But, back to the kazoos. Three delightful young whoopersnappers start tooting their kazoos. Even more delightfully, they allow one old fart to make it a quartet. ("Young whoopersnapper" and "old fart" are scientific terms, not intended to offend any particular age group, ethnic group, nor food group.)

Chapter 6 are represented. Representative democracy is cool, but for music, ya gotta be there. I like them anyway (wonderful concert in Lake Forest still rings in my mind).

AD 2010 March 27, Saturday, 11:46 PM CDT. Security forces gather in great numbers (I think 1 and 2 are pretty great numbers, actually) to douse the embers of the afterglow, and drive out the purveyors of perverse polyharmonic pleasure. My guerilla fighting instincts immediately put me on the alert. I opt for a strategic withdrawal, so that I'm not stuck in the cell with Jimmy next year, and I can attend

The Twentieth Annual Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival Chicago Regional

"I hate quotation. Tell me what you know." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Better yet, sing it out!

Michael J. O'Donnell

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