Audience reviews of 2010 Mid Atlantic Harmony Sweepstakes

Vocal Stars Shine at the Birchmere

- Christian Gerard

The Mid-Atlantic Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival returned to the legendary Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia on Saturday night April 10, 2010, and, as always, it was an entertaining night for all involved.   The large and appreciative crowd was treated to an exceptional array of vocal talent that covered a wide range of styles.  The stakes were high as 8 vocal groups competed for a trip to San Rafael, California and a coveted spot in the Harmony Sweepstakes National Finals.   The Mid-Atlantic region had produced the last 2 national winners:  German import Vocaldente took the prize in 2008 after wowing the Birchmere crowd with their airtight harmonies and timing, clever arrangements and infectious humor, and last year MAXX Factor powered their way to wins at the Mid-Atlantic regional and nationals with their extraordinary vocal prowess and precision.

MAXX Factor’s success last year only grew after winning the top prize, as they appeared on NBC’s hit reality show “The Sing Off.”   Anticipation was high as they returned to the Birchmere to host this years’ event, and they did not disappoint.  Resplendent in bright red jackets and glittering jewelry, the four ladies of MAXX Factor looked radiant and sounded better than ever.   From their opening notes, they captured the crowd’s complete attention.  They hop-scotched from traditional vocal numbers to pop with ease, commanding the stage and never missing a note.  One highlight was their take on ABBA’s classic “Dancing Queen,” showing once again that a great song can stand up to any number of different styles and arrangements.   With big buoyant smiles and a mix of humor and extraordinary vocal talent, MAXX Factor introduced each group with great enthusiasm and wit, and kept the evening moving swiftly and smoothly.

Living up to the towering standards set by previous regional winners was clearly a daunting assignment, and MAXX Factor’s opening set only amplified the high marks the groups would need to meet to have a chance at winning.  With only 10 minutes permitted, each act had to choose their strongest material and hope to make an impression that would last with the audience and judges.   Each group made a strong showing, and in the end the judges had plenty to consider as they deliberated and selected a winner.

The first to give it a whirl was West Side Five from New York City, and it was immediately evident that they were up to the challenge.  Their jazzy arrangements were performed with sophisticated elegance and class.  The material was traditional jazzy-vocal, and well-chosen for their style.  The lead vocals were stellar, and their blending was immaculate.  The audience watched in silent, rapt attention as West Side Five brought their selections to life with effective use of dynamics, going from solemn quiet to swelling crescendos with ease and perfection.  John Shumway’s enthralling vocal-trumpet solo on “Lil’ Darlin” sounded like the real thing – it was one of the undeniable high points of the evening.   The group’s precision, poise and professionalism was all the more surprising considering they had only been together for 6 months.   West Side Five set a high standard from the very beginning, and it would be up to the other 7 groups to see if they could match it. 

Next on stage was DoubleShot!, a group of 6 talented guys from Pittsburgh who are familiar to fans of a cappella music at the Birchmere.   DoubleShot! won the Mid-Atlantic Region and audience favorite awards in 2007, and from the level of their performance this year they were clearly aiming at a return trip to Nationals.  DoubleShot! opened with a lively take on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” complete with bits of choreography from the famous video.  They pulled it off well with their trademark mix of wit and solid vocal technique.  Next they had the crowd grooving with a high-energy, hip-hop inflected version of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours”.   Dré Johnson took the lead vocals on the Gavin DeGraw smash “I Don’t Want To Be” and delivered a powerful, crowd-pleasing performance.  DoubleShot! stalked around the stage with confidence and energy, keeping the audience entertained with their affable personalities and terrific vocals.  The bass boomed, the vocal percussion was tight, and the arrangements were inventive.   DoubleShot! never fails to entertain and their obvious hard work and dedication shined through in their performance at the Birchmere.

Lustre was next, a 4-piece all-female group from Baltimore, and they maintained the high level set by the first two groups with a terrific set.    2nd place finishers in Region 19 of the 2009 Sweet Adelines International competition, Lustre is no stranger to competition.  They are an experienced and polished group that delivered exquisite harmonies in their performance Saturday night.  Charming and engaging, Lustre looked comfortable on stage, and used hand movement to great effect.   Their take on the standard “Flirty Eyes” was one of the highlights of the evening, and their nostalgic version of “Bandstand in Central Park” was note perfect. 

Local favorites Euphonism was next to take the stage, and they were greeted with enthusiastic applause.  Seven members strong, Euphonism has a stylish and energetic stage presence.  They opened with an exciting performance of Duffy’s “Mercy” complete with a deftly-executed rap segment.  They engaged the audience and were clearly having a blast on stage.  Euphonism’s well-blended vocals filled the Birchmere hall with rich sound. They thrilled the audience by closing with a nifty performance of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” with a snippet of “Billie Jean” thrown in for good measure, and solid choreography – including the trademark anti-gravity lean from the “Smooth Criminal” video.  It was a solid performance by Euphonism, and they will remain a group to watch in the coming years.

The 5-piece Glorious was next, and they brought a riveting classic R&B and gospel sound to the Birchmere.   Veterans of the stage, Glorious has been around for over a decade, and it shows – their rich harmonies were delivered with real spiritual fervor.  They opened with a powerful performance of the gospel standard “Walk Around Heaven” with a falsetto lead vocal reminiscent of Aaron Neville.  Their take on the classic gospel tune “How I Got Over” had the crowd grooving and clapping along with enthusiasm.   Glorious stood out with their professionalism and extraordinary passion, and they were a delightful change of pace from the other groups.

Making the trip from Durham, North Carolina was Fleur de Lisa, 4 ladies with bright smiles and terrific harmonies.  They performed several short original numbers with flair and polish.  Fleur de Lisa’s songs are inspired by poetry, and although they were short, they were lovely.  Their clear warm vocals and charming, easygoing stage presence made them a delight to watch. 

The 4-member Contemporary Christian group Voices of Truth of Maryland was next up.   They delivered an energetic performance with fresh-faced enthusiasm and positive feeling.   “Something Beautiful” was their opener, and the audience clapped along as they sang their hearts out on stage.  They closed with the familiar gospel standard “How Great Thou Art”, but performed with a unique arrangement, mashed-up with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy”.  It worked well, and added to the upbeat vibe of the performance.   Voices of Truth had fun on stage and the audience enjoyed their engaging, positive style.   A young group, they will undoubtedly continue to grow and improve as they continue to perform together.

Tonic and Gin ended up as the final contestants, and they made the most of their 10 minutes on stage.  A 7 piece group from the Washington, DC area, Tonic and Gin looked stylish in shades of black and blue, and their performance was marked by terrific stage presence, wide smiles and energy.  Their set covered a wide range of stylistic territory in a short time, as they opened with the standard “Save the Last Dance For Me”, and then did a lovely take on the country tune “I Smile”.   Rascal Flatts’ “Summer Nights,” arranged with a snippet of “Life is a Highway” by Tom Cochrane, was a strong closer and ended the competition with a bang. 

All 8 groups sounded terrific, and the audience was clearly appreciative, knowing the long hours of hard work and dedication it takes to get these songs into shape to be performed in such expert fashion.   While some were better than others – as is the nature of any competition – everybody gave their best effort.    As I sat with my audience favorite ballot before me, I reflected on all 8 groups, all of which had positive aspects and all of them enjoyable, but ultimately I decided that one stood out about the others.  I notched my vote, as did all the other audience members, and as we sat back to await the results of the crowd vote and the judges’ deliberations, MAXX Factor regaled everyone with several more tunes.  They absolutely wowed the crowd, especially with a spellbinding version of “When You Wish Upon a Star”.   MAXX Factor were undoubtedly stars for sure, but the question on everyone’s minds was - - who would follow in their footsteps to represent the Mid-Atlantic Region in the National Harmony Sweeps finals?

Finally the results were delivered, and the audience warmly applauded each announcement.  Fleur de Lisa won a well-deserved acknowledgement for Best Original Song for “Rainy Season.”   Best Original Arrangement went to Eric Hughes of West Side Five for “Pure Imagination.”    The anticipation mounted, and the final two awards were announced – Audience Favorite went to West Side Five, and they were greeted with a standing ovation as they took the stage for an encore.  From their wide smiling faces, it was evident how pleased they were with the recognition.

But would the judges agree with the audience and send West Side Five out west, or would it be DoubleShot! returning to Nationals to represent the Mid-Atlantic Region?    The 2nd runner-up position went to Lustre, and they were all smiles as they acknowledged the crowd’s applause. DoubleShot! landed in the runners-up position, and it was announced that, yes, the audience and judges were in agreement.  It was a clean sweep for West Side Five, as they were declared Mid-Atlantic Regional Champions.   The audience seems to heartily approve of the decision, as they cheered West Side Five and all the contestants as they all took the stage for one final time to sing the obligatory sing-a-long of “Goodnight Sweetheart.”   It was a terrific night for a cappella music, and it seemed fun was had by all.  Will the Mid-Atlantic Region produce a third straight National Finals champion?   It’s in the hands of West Side Five – and we’ll find out on May 15, 2010 in San Rafael, California.

Christian Gerard

As in past years, the Mid-Atlantic competition was held at The Birchmere, a well-known dinner-theater-style music venue tucked in an out-of-the-way corner of Alexandria, Virginia. My wife and I had never visited The Birchmere before, and we didn’t know that most people get there early, to eat before the show. So when we arrived at 6:30 (for the 7:30 show) we found the place almost full. But we found seats at one of the long tables close to the stage and were soon getting acquainted with the friendly folks sitting around us.

This was my first time at one of these competitions and, to me, the most striking aspect of the evening was the diversity of musical styles represented. There was barbershop, gospel, jazz, and pop, as well as some numbers that defied categorization. 

The event was hosted by Maxx Factor, the marvelous female barbershop quartet that won here last year and went on to win the national competition and to appear on ABC’s “Sing Off” last fall. They are amazingly good singers, and they are relaxed and funny on stage. Their two sets (one at the beginning of the evening, and the other at the end, during the judges’ deliberations) were real treats.

An unexpected highlight of the evening was the set by West Side 5, a mixed quintet that traveled all the way from New York City to participate. As the luck of the draw would have it, they were the first of the competing groups to take the stage. Within the first few bars of their opening number, “Pure Imagination,” heads were shaking in amazement: this group was obviously really good! Their first number was a challenging jazz arrangement with difficult harmonies, but West Side 5 made it look easy.

Their other two numbers, “L’il Darlin’” and “Don’t Mean Anything,” were equally impressive. After their set, I turned to my neighbor and said, “I can’t believe we’re going to experience anything better than that tonight.”

This is an awesome group, and all the more impressive for having been together as a group for only six months. (They are all alumni of VoxJazz, the student jazz group at Harvard, but they weren’t members at the same time.) They have not yet had enough time to put together a full-length CD, but they were selling a three-song sample CD at the event, and there are two demo tracks and two YouTube videos on their website at http://westsidefive.tumblr.com/. Go check them out—you’ll be hearing more about this group, without a doubt.

West Side 5 blew me away, and apparently they had the same effect on the judges (who awarded them both the first-place prize and the prize for best original arrangement).  They apparently blew away the rest of the audience as well (they voted to give West Side 5 the “audience favorite” award). I have no idea what kinds of groups other regions will send to the National Harmony Sweepstakes, but I have to think West Side 5 is a legitimate contender for the national title. (If West Side 5 does win at the national level, it would be the third year in a row that the Mid-Atlantic winner has gone on to do so.)

Another group I found especially interesting was Fleur de Lisa, which is comprised of four women from Durham, NC. Their repertoire consists entirely of short, original songs based on poems (often haiku). They sang a half-dozen songs in their 10 minutes on stage. The topics included a crocus bush, having a crush, a woman reading a letter by moonlight, a woman shredding the shirt of a departed lover, and the rainy season, among others. They were often simple-sounding arrangements, but intricate in their construction.

There was no realistic possibility of Fleur de Lisa winning the contest. Their material was so far out of the mainstream that the audience hardly knew how to respond, and Fleur de Lisa didn’t attempt to draw in the audience with their staging. It was all about the music. But the judges did honor the group with the “best original song” award.

I really enjoyed Fleur de Lisa. If you think you might like their unique take on a cappella music, I suggest you check out their interview with NPR’s Frank Stasio, which will give you a lot of insight into what they attempting as well as a sampling of their music.

Although Maxx Factor, West Side 5, and Fleur de Lisa stood out for me, there was plenty of great music from the other six groups.

Doubleshot, a group of six men from Pittsburgh, gave a rousing performance. Their energetic choreography and humorous presentation style made them an audience favorite. Their campy cover of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was a classic, full of mock-horror poses appropriate to the lyrics. The judges gave them 2nd place overall.

Third place went to Lustre, a female barbershop quartet that hails (like Maxx Factor) from Baltimore. They gave a strong performance, but they didn’t match the dynamism that Maxx Factor brings to barbershop singing, and the inevitable comparison probably meant that we in the audience didn’t get a proper sense of how good Lustre really is. Their “Flirty Eyes” was cleverly staged, and they did a great job with the harmonies of “Just the Way You Look.”

Glorious, a traditional male gospel quintet, did two strong numbers, but you had a feeling the group would be more at home in a church, or getting the congregation at a camp meeting fired up.

The highlight of the performance of Voices of Truth, a contemporary Christian mixed quartet from Williamsport, MD (near Hagerstown), was a quirky arrangement that featured the unlikely combination of the hymn “How Great Thou Art” with Bobby McFerrin’s tune “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” You have to wonder how they came up with it, but the combination worked perfectly. Voices of Truth is looking for additional members, and I think adding two or three more voices would round out their harmonies and help them achieve the sound they are aiming for.

The other two groups, Euphonism and Tonic & Gin, are both seven-member DC-area groups, mixed male and female, using arrangements that typically feature a beat-boxer, a bass, and a soloist singing the melody, backed up by harmony from the remaining four members.

Euphonism’s set included a dark Michael Jackson medley that combined the breaking-and-entering theme of “Annie, Are You OK?” (“he left blood stains on the carpet”) and the disputed-parentage theme of “Billie Jean” (“she says I am the one, but the kid is not my son”). The grim subject matter didn’t dampen the audience’s enthusiasm for the performance. This newly-formed group is off to a good start.

Tonic & Gin, which brought a strong local following to The Birchmere, featured good choreography and interesting arrangements of popular songs from the last couple of decades.

I enjoyed hearing all eight of the groups (nine, if you count Maxx Factor), and I urge all you readers to plan on attending your nearest regional competition next spring. These events are a lot of fun.

George Alexander

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