HomeConcert Review: The House Jacks at the Grass Valley Center for the Arts, 4.30.10

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I’m going to say this up front so it’s out there:  The idea of me “reviewing” a House Jacks show is a little silly, since the group has been iconic in my memory for fifteen years or more, and I consider Deke Sharon to be a little bit of a god.  A really nice, friendly, and amazingly talented god.  So, yes, it’s going to be a stretch to say anything remotely negative about these guys.  Hopefully, readers of this piece feel similarly, so it won’t be a big deal, right?  Moving on then…

One of the things I love about the Jacks is the way they have continued to grow and evolve musically over time.  In their early years, I used to find the arrangements a little dense at times, and sometimes the intricacies of the individual voices were harder to make out.  At the time, it worked, of course, but at this show on April 30, the vocal landscape seemed more transparent, even elegant in a way, and it really showed off the strengths of each singer to great advantage.

At this point, I want to mention that it was wonderful to see an audience with a real cross-section of ages represented.  Younger kids were rockin’ out next to grandmas, young parents, singles – which is a real testament to the universal appeal of these five terrific dudes.

But I digress!  On to the guys:

Austin Willacy (tenor and frequent lead) showed his vocal flexibility to be, as always, stellar.  All you can do as you follow the peaks and valleys and soaring flights is just smile in wonderment.  You never quite know where you’ll end up, but you know the guy flying this plane knows what he’s doing.  Multi-faceted and multi-talented (as are all the Jacks), Austin particularly shone on a poignant original song, “Show Your Face,” which will be featured on the Jacks’ next album.

Roopak Ahuja, aka Roo (tenor, frequent lead, and occasional bass) possesses an instrument of true power and beauty - smooth and sweet timbre with the slightest little smoky edge in there to keep it interesting.  He provided many exceptional moments throughout the evening, but one of the most striking was in the opening measures of “Believe” when he gave us a sample of his early musical roots in North Indian classical music – what a haunting, pure sound.  (Note:  A live version of this piece can be found on the HJ album “Get Down, Mr. President,” and a studio version will be included on the upcoming album.)  Roo is also blessed with more than his share of gorgeous.  Not that I notice these things, being a happily married woman who’s old enough to be his… um… older sister, but I include this information purely for your sake, gentle readers.  Really.

New (returning) group member Troy Horne holds down the bass line with rock-solid, resonant tones, and he’s great to watch because he has a remarkably grounded, quietly joyous stage presence.  When he gets a chance to sing out front now and then, you really get to see that joy in action, and it’s infectious – he makes you smile just by being who he is.

Truthfully, I don’t know how to write about Jake Moulton (beatbox) because I’m not 100% sure he’s really human.  Let’s just say that as beatboxers go, he is among the elite, the best of the best.  Passion and precision, along with a range of musical and percussive sounds that are so varied, you can’t quite believe they all come from just one guy.

And finally, Deke Sharon.  I’m resisting the urge to start channeling Wayne and Garth and cry out “I’m not worthy!”  But really, what can one say about Deke?  Is there anything this man can’t do when it comes to a cappella music?  He writes (beautifully), he arranges (amazingly), he founded THE contemporary a cappella organization, he’s charming and funny onstage… oh, yeah, and did I mention the man can really SING (as we were reminded when he took the lead on the Gershwin classic, “Summertime”)?  As I said earlier, he’s been a real inspiration to me in my musical life and I feel very fortunate to have been able to observe his growth as an artist over the years as well.

One definite high point of the evening was when the group asked for requests – any song, any artist, even for pieces they didn’t know.  Yes, improvisational a cappella, folks, it can be done.  The guys tackled such diverse selections as “Billie Jean,” “Blue Moon” (in two different interpretations), an AC/DC song I can’t quite recall at the moment, “I Feel Good,” and many other audience favorites.  There were varying degrees of success, of course, but where things lagged musically, the charm and wit of the performers came to the fore and all was well.

There was actually one unfortunate moment in the evening, and if I didn’t mention it, I’d be remiss.  When Troy was getting ready to step up and take the lead on “This Man’s Pride” (from the HJ album “Good Things”), he and Roo traded microphones so Roo could take over the bass line.  Unfortunately, the (local) sound board operator didn’t see the exchange, and as a result, the first part of the song was badly out of balance.  I wish they could have gone back and started that one over again.

As spectacular as the evening was, the Jacks definitely saved the best for last.  After the guys took a “final” bow, the crowd, predictably, wouldn’t let them leave.  Jake came out by himself and gave us one thing we knew we’d been missing, a extended drum solo that had some folks whooping in exuberance, while others (like me) merely sat slack-jawed and amazed.

But they didn’t stop there.  The rest of the guys came out again, put down their mics, and got off the stage, walking up to within 3-4 feet of the front row of the audience… and they sang “Georgia On My Mind” entirely acoustic.  Even a vocal harmony geek like me cannot describe what a gift that was.  Some may have described it as icing on the cake, but for me, that IS the cake – the bare, essential, complete sound of voices, just voices, blending together the way they are meant to do.  As a friend of mine who was also in attendance said, “You can't say anything but ‘wow’ when it's done like that.”  Wow indeed.

In the past year or so, the little gold rush town of Grass Valley has suddenly sprung up on the map as a place for some great musical acts to appear.  The Bobs, EDLOS, Asleep at the Wheel, the Smothers Brothers, Nanci Griffith, Loudon Wainwright III – and the House Jacks.  Who knows why we've popped up on the radar like this?  But I sure hope it keeps up, and that it brings the House Jacks back again… and again.


About the author:
Melinda L. Thomas was a piano performance major at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at San Francisco State University.  She has been singing all her life as well, and has performed with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Conservatory Opera Theatre, Sacred and Profane Chamber Chorus, and was a founding member of Voci women's chamber chorus.  She has also been a music director for many theatrical productions, including Godspell, Grease, Pippin, West Side Story, and Dracula: The Musical?  These days, she sings with an early music a cappella quintet called Harmonium.