Soaring harmonies and silly mouth noises


April 7, 2009 by 8junebugs

Best part of attending a Birchmere show by yourself? Front-row seat for music best heard loud. As a party of one, I had my choice of single seats between groups. I sat with a grandmother, mom, and daughter, all of whom got the a cappella bug when the daughter fell in love with a boy in one of JMU’s many a cappella groups. The relationship came and went, but you never really get over your first voices-only concert.

I can sit and listen to voices harmonizing all day long — throw in a beatbox and I’m undone. Friends, roommates, and relatives can all attest to this. I don’t stop grinning until the day after the show.

I sang when I was younger (at home, on the bus…wherever, whenever), then moved to a school without a choral program. (Or study hall.  I’d wondered how I would squeeze an eight-period academic schedule into six periods, but voila! Take away the singing and the screwing around, and, magically, I was an FHS student.)

I felt a little lost for a while — I’d been starting to get more serious about it, starting to spend more time singing than dancing. We’d gotten a new teacher, and, although most people seemed to think she was a bitch, she was good. She was the one who started teaching us to sight read and said we never have to sing “Kokomo” ever again.

In 1991, that new teacher popped in a VHS tape of Spike & Company Do It A Cappella, the special that I think premiered in 1988. Spike Lee, with Debbie Allen, highlighted Rockapella, Take 6, The Persuasions, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and two other groups I lost track of: The Mint Juleps and True Image. I was completely entranced.

But I was also a teenager. I moved to a school where I couldn’t sing, and I got entranced with other things. Also, this was pre-interwebs — there was no Google, no Amazon, no Ticketmaster.

I know. Can you believe we actually had indoor plumbing?

In 1995, though, a friend of a friend (who became a good friend in his own right) turned up with a King’s Singers CD, and it all came back. We’d all been singers — Jon and I built our friendship on shared outrage that Foothill had no choir, and it has endured TO THIS DAY.

Jon’s the one who fed my returning obsession, though. He went off to Stanford and joined the Stanford Harmonics, and I drowned in collegiate a cappella for a while. It was phenomenal. Of all the groups I saw in that Spike Lee special, Rockapella was my favorite, and so many collegiate groups had the same hilarious approach — they could nail the singing and do the soaring harmonies, but they also did parodies and mashed songs together and explored the ridiculous lengths to which one can push the human voice.

And they were LOUD. I love loud. I love, too, that there are no bounds on a cappella. There’s no “right” look or sound or behavior — if you can make your voice do it and it sounds interesting or pretty or provocative, it’s worth a shot. It turns expectations on their heads… No one expects the bass to take the lead on the Star Spangled Banner, but it’ll give you chills if he does it right.

For years, I went to shows at Stanford. And Hayward. And Berkeley (where I freaked because Jon had a solo I wasn’t expecting, and the boyfriend who was there to Meet Jon panicked a little). I met the House Jacks and M-PACT and saw SoVoSo… I tried to get others to go with me, and success seemed to depend entirely on gender or genetic similarity to me — KidBrother loves a cappella, by the way, and Mom used to get a kick out of blaring Rockapella’s “Zombie Jamboree” from the car stereo.

“People look at you funny!” she’d say. And then she’d rewind and do it again.

So Saturday night was a big night for me. It had been so long since I’d seen an a cappella performance… Since 2002, I’ve seen a lot of Rush, and Pearl Jam, and Audioslave, and a whole lot of Yankee games. But even with the Mid-Atlantic Harmony Sweeps in walking distance every year, it never made the list.

This year, it was first on the list. I watched last year’s winners, vocaldente, sing such a range of music, from a boy-band medley (“Step By Step.” SERIOUSLY) to a 1930s German tune to “Juegalo” to “Footloose” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”

Six groups competed — all but one were outstanding in their own way. My favorite neither won nor got the “audience favorite” designation, but they’re coming back for a show in September, so I’ll get over it.


Jon never stopped singing, by the way, but he did change his specialty. He helped found vocal band Hookslide and continues to redefine vocal percussion and create contemporary arrangements of songs you didn’t even know could sound like that. Hookslide goes further than a lot of vocal bands, recording and performing original songs as well as covers. Because of when I moved back East, though, I’m sorry to say I’ve only seen them live at his wedding. (Dude, may I request a concert date in late June?) 😉

Also, you know that episode of Mythbusters where a guy snuffs a candle with nothing but the sound waves (not breath) from his voice? That’s Jon.

I know, right?!


5 thoughts on “Soaring harmonies and silly mouth noises

  1. Tammy says:

    YOU, my friend, got me hooked on a cappella… SoVoSo. I still have, and listen to often, their cd I purchased that day in San Francisco. That was the first time I’d heard them. They blew me away…and that one guy in the group made me have naughty thoughts.

  2. 8junebugs says:

    Yeah. Singing like that makes even the goofiest guys smoking hot.

    But then, I’ve got a thing for musicians.

  3. jon says:

    If you’re coming out here, get me the dates and I will book a venue. Seriously.

  4. 8junebugs says:

    Wow. I’m…the most gratefulest fan ever!

    I’m supposed to be in Monterey for a wedding the last weekend in June. Dates, duration, and other details are way, way up in the air and dependent on many things, but I’ll let you know if I’ll be nearby enough for long enough to make this work.

  5. jon says:

    to tide you over.

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