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Last Saturday I attended the LA Harmony Sweepstakes as a fan and as part of my ongoing effort to network with people in the community. I was not disappointed on either point.

The groups were great, one-and-all. While that sounds a lot like "oh goody, every one wins!" tripe, I assure you that it was sincere. I'm not going to pretend to be hip on everything that's going on in the world of a Cappella but I thought the groups ranged through a good representation of what a Cappella had to offer with one very notable exception; there was no "true" barbershop. That said, young-if-not-collegiate pop a Cappella was there, a little jazz style, solid contemporary a Cappella was well represented, comedy, and even a little artsy stuff for people who just want to see what's different.

As a audience member and sometimes-sound-engineer I will say that the sound was mediocre to medium-bad. IMHO people who think that percussion and bass need to be the overwhelmingly loudest instruments in the mix need to listen to something other than rap, rock or punk once in a while. Any group that had a rhythm section suffered for a lack of being able to project or hear the rest of the parts, including the leads in some cases. I felt especially bad for the first soloist from These Guys who was just about drowned out with the VP/Bass overload. There were some equipment problems too which are understandable and they did their best to fix those issues; equipment is equipment and gremlins are gremlins. But the mix was a real problem for my ears.

Opening the show were the judges Ready Willing and Mabel who earned a new fan. I've enjoyed that tight jazz sound since I first heard Manhattan Transfer and this group represents well. Their bass has the kind of resonant voice that you assume earns him money somehow because anyone would like to hear anything he says and I just loved them. Very sincere, salt-of-the-earth type of people who you want to tell others are your friends.

These Guys came out and rocked it despite the audio issues mentioned above. Am I the only one who didn't see them on America's Got Talent? Great group personality; very likable, great singing, good arrangements. An early favorite.

King4; funny group doing the expected impressions of Elvis and great arrangements of his hits. Lots of laughs in the audience, sometimes more for the group itself than the singing. Everything about this group is focused to a presentation and they pull it off flawlessly. They're a great study in knowing who you are and what you have to offer.

I know Vocal Magic fairly well after attending the last couple of their "Javapella"s and this wasn't their strongest showing. If I sound more critical of them it's because I have experienced them at their best and most relaxed. They were doing newer music and seemed to have trouble hearing up there. That said, I like their sound and their style and I think they represented themselves well; I think Mister Tim said in his blog that they "sing for the love" and it's true. If anyone is in a Cappella simply because they love singing that much you can't help but fall in love with this group as kindred spirits. "Fields of Gold" was a solid showing and "Birdland" is a good addition.

Audience favorite was my real favorite too: Evolution. Right mix of great talent, entertainment and presence, and strong arrangements. Liked their look and their "lead" tenor was amazing. A-MAZ-ING. They're off to the Finals next month (where I HOPE to see them) and will represent the LA area well. I wanted to hear more VP but I wonder if the minimalist style was what they were going for.

Red Harmony seemed like the "babies" of the group to me but I intend no disrespect. If they weren't the youngest people on the stage that night by a large margin (5+ years) I'll publicly retract that statement and purchase their first album. They have some tightening to do, but they have a solid arranger at their core and a great tenor soloist. I hope to see them again to see if my suspicions are correct. I would like to see one of the girls put it all out there as a soloist (see SoundStage). Their version of "The Remedy" was a highlight of the night.

Elemental Harmony was odd, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that, and previewing their recorded stuff before the show didn't do anything for me (see below about recordings a Cappella) so I wasn't really expecting much. Sitting next to two of their fans I just quietly listened and was pleasantly surprised. When they started there was a palpable and uncomfortable energy in the room for people who like their a Cappella a little more mainstream but after a while I started really enjoy the energy of these women were giving off. A base, gritty, no-apologies love of singing and camaraderie for each other. They were different and a good example of where you can go with music if you don't care about being popular and are just doing it because you want to. The high soprano for this group was definitely my cup-of-tea vocally; I come from a background of love for classical voice and theater and hers was the most beautiful voice of the night.

Throat was balls-to-the-wall. Strongest bass and maybe strongest VP of the night (I could be talked into giving the VP from SoundStage the nod but they weren't competing). Did all original stuff which to me is the hard way to win a sort of "popularity contest" but they gave it their all. I LOVED the female presence in this group: I like the singular-gender groups well enough but for me the boys lack the highs (possible exception of Evolution and their tenor) and the girls lack the lows I'm looking for, so having her in with the four guys really took their sound somewhere. They were my sentimental favorite because I'm a closet Mister Tim fan (maybe not that closet anymore) and because I thought they left it all out there on the stage.

The winners of last-year's competition and this year's hosts took the stage and I was pleasantly surprised again. Once again, previewing SoundStage's recorded music did little for me and I expected a good performance but nothing more. For me, if they had been competing again this year, they would have won my vote. The lead soprano in this group has to be seen to be believed because apparently hearing her wasn't enough for me. Her stage presence and talent could have sold the group alone but the VP, arrangements and everyone else was not far behind. They might have one of the most talented arrangers I've run into so far and I can't say enough about him and the group that was more than equal to dishing out what he was cooking. Find them and see them. And support them because they're trying to raise money to go overseas and compete.

I picked up a few CDs after the show and I have to say that CD's just don't seem to work for a Cappella...either that or the engineers just don't know what to do with it, but I don't want to disrespect the recording and mixing engineers who know far more about it than I can hope to. Everything that I love about a Cappella (the style, the talent of the singers, the talent of the arrangers, the live ENERGY) is just GONE from a recording; I've witnessed it myself as a member of a group. It's like the difference between seeing live theater vs. a TV Show or movie but it's more than that too. When the live human energy and experience is missing the mix just sounds...shallow and uninviting. It's my #1 suspect for why a Cappella doesn't have more of a following and why the only thing that gets noticed by the mainstream is the comedy stuff. If someone can turn me on to a recording that stands out I'll happily investigate it.

The lobby of the theater and the "Afterglow" party were my change to gush and hobnob and I enjoyed both immensely. Maybe I'm just still too much a recovering cynic but I just expect people who have talent to hide behind it and come off in person as being an egomaniac or just an asshat and I am consistently pleasantly surprised at just how nice and approachable people are...and gracious. It's truly inspiring and my virtual hat's tipped to everyone I had a chance to meet and chat with for being great representatives for yourselves, your groups, a Cappella, and humanity in general. There's no class division here...just fellow singers.

And a final note about the opportunity to hear most of the groups in an acoustically sound environment and away from the technical mix and mess....WOW. All of you keep doing what you're doing. You sound GREAT.

Thanks everyone! Best of luck to you and I hope to run into any and all of you again soon!


Album suggestion:

 Easiest and most logical place to start is Duwende: Collective


They're a great live group, very modern, the album won multiple CARA awards... and it's completely FREE for download.  Can't get easier than that!

They do great things with their recordings - let me know what you think!

There are, of course, hundreds of other acclaimed albums... I'll leave it to others to suggest recordings that are great examples of a cappella in the _recorded_ medium.

The CASA A Cappella Originals mp3 Library will be back on line soon - paying members of CASA get to download mp3s from there.  Some of the best music you'll find, for a better price than you'll find anywhere else, AND you get all the other amazing benefits of being  a CASA member.  I highly recommend.

Thanks for your great review of Saturday's show!

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