This past Friday’s House Jacks concert in Cambridge, MA was part of a 3-date east coast tour, a little tour-lette not uncommon for the House Jacks these days. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say up front that I have seen them several times over the years, that they are one of my favorite bands (not “a cappella bands”, but bands, period), and also friends.
Now a staple at the venerable Club Passim in Harvard Square, the House Jacks come in a few times a year and fill the room with an impressive mix of return attendees and new listeners (they ask at each show – a smart move both as a way to connect to the audience, and a way to assess where people are coming from). Though Club Passim is best known for presenting folk music, it has embraced a cappella for several years now, and is a nice little listening room for vocals, albeit a bit too squishy for my taste.
The guys have been opening their shows (at least the last handful I’ve seen) with “You Were Everything”, which I believe is an Austin Willacy song. A powerhouse opener that is both moving and plain rocking, it is a perfect appetizer of what you are about to enjoy. Crunchy chords, beautiful dissonances, and aching lyrics. The floor pounds with the combined efforts of the rhythm section (Jake Moulton and Antonio Medrano), Austin wails on lead, and the show is launched.
Requisite jokes about Boston weather, wherein California boy Deke Sharon recounts how, as a high school student, he managed to tour Tufts on one of the few nice-weather days of the year, then attended the school, and spent the rest of his years in the area wondering what he’d gotten into!
“Hard to Handle” followed, with Roo Ahuja on lead. Roo’s voice is – I’ll go straight for the cliché – smooth as silk. He can tackle any style thrown at him, and make it beautiful. Deke gets the audience to join him on “You’re the One”, including a call-and-response section that starts out reasonable, and quickly veers into ridiculous/hilarious. Everyone’s in on the fun, and it just works. The singer-filled audience is up to the task…for the most part. Blame Deke for the rest.
I will interject here to say that one of the things that makes the House Jacks one of the best vocal bands out there is the skill with which they interact with the audience. All fledgling groups would do well to study the House Jacks for not only what they do musically, but for their extraordinary performance skills. From the very beginning of the evening, the groundwork is laid: they make it clear that this is not a passive show, that the audience will shape everything that goes on, including part of the set list (more on that in a minute). They deliberately create an atmosphere of fun and mutual respect, and I have never seen an audience who hasn’t gotten swept up in it. Individual audience members are playfully called out, called upon, and recognized, and the band members do some serious kidding around with each other as well. At one point, Austin says to Jake, “You sound a little too much like the Alpha from ‘Up’”, a quick reference that he surely recognizes only a portion of the audience will get, but for those that will, it will be very, very funny.
“Jake’s Blues” follows, and allows beatboxer Jake Moulton to actually sing, and do it well, and to show off his mad vocal harmonica skills. Yes, vocal harmonica. A simple and beautiful trio works well as background.
“The Path You Walk”, starts with Austin in a lower range, then he jumps the octave in verse two, creating an urgency that, coupled with Jake’s impressive and innovative lip buzz (http://www.casa.org/node/3310), fills the room.
Bass Antonio Medrano’s one and only lead is on a cover of Billy Idol’s 80’s hit “White Wedding”, a languid and spooky take that is both fun and sexy. The fluid background “ahs” and more lip buzz from Jake bring it together.
At this point, the band takes requests, as they do in each show. The only stipulations are that the songs NOT be in their regular repertoire. An impressive collective knowledge of genres and songs, coupled with their skill at intuiting which part each person will take without prior discussion, is really something to be seen/heard. Audience members are challenged to stump the guys, and only occasionally do they NOT know a song, but when that happens, they do it anyways, making up something based on the title they’ve been given. Each request section ends with a mashup of several songs, and…it really must be seen to be believed. Tonight’s songs included:
“Pancho and Lefty”
“Fields of Gold” (a la Bobby McFerrin)
“Thriller”, a requisite shout-out to the recently-departed MJ
“One In A Million”, morphed into “Billy Jean”
“99 Luft Balloons” (in German…ish)
[Interestingly, at every show I’ve seen, someone requests “Bohemian Rhapsody”. If you go see them, consider requesting...anything else]
Deke’s showpiece, the classic “Summertime”, is next, and if you haven’t heard Deke do his vocal trumpet, that alone is a reason to see the House Jacks live.
Roo took the lead again for “Completely”, which is followed by a mind-blowing drum solo by Jake. Here we could hear more of his lip buzz (which seems physiologically different from others I’ve heard, as he seems to use the back of his throat more than just lips), scratching, and other techniques, and his sheer virtuosity.
The guys closed the show with an off-mic rendition of “Georgia On My Mind”, led by Austin:
My photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=108556&id=615212203&l=70a12f7c3d
Christine Geiger photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/amusings/sets/72157621387859518/
Henry Lefkowitz’s video of “Completely” from the 7/11 show at The Bitter End:
Thanks to Christine Geiger and Henry Lefkowitz. If you have video or photos from this weekend’s shows, please post links in the comments!
About the author:
Amy Malkoff is the Web Content Director of CASA's website,serves on CASA's board of directors, and is a singer/songwriter.