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Pentatonix shows the power of the voice at Agganis


MARCH 17, 2015

The world of contemporary a cappella has broken out of its former college dining hall confines in a big way over the last few years thanks to “Glee” and “Pitch Perfect,” not to mention the distributive power of online video. The five-person a cappella outfit Pentatonix, which headlined the Agganis Arena on Monday, won the third season of “The Sing-Off,” NBC’s foray into competitive a cappella; noted during a brief biographical sketch midway through the group’s set, that victory was soon followed by being dropped from its label. But through gumption and a slew of YouTube clips showcasing their mettle, the group rebuilt, and grew strong enough to headline big rooms, score a million-selling album, and sell a lot of merch.

Contemporary a cappella, as put forth by Pentatonix and other groups that crowd the playlists of WERS’s weekend shows spotlighting the genre, acts as a sort of midway point between musical theater and hip-hop. Groups arrange pop hits to spotlight brassy singing and prodigious vocal technique, as well as a healthy amount of swagger. On Monday night, Pentatonix sprinted through the charts, with a heavy bent toward artists often described as being able to “really sing!” by people wary of admitting affection for top-40 hits: Beyoncé, Sam Smith, Ariana Grande. The Rihanna/Kanye West/Paul McCartney campfire sing-along “FourFiveSeconds,” during which the quintet hopped into the crowd to commune with the extremely excited showgoers, was also on the docket, as was just enough of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’s space jam “Uptown Funk!” to get the crowd popping.

At times, though, all the arrangement-futzing and quick forays into other artists’ music hid the humanity behind Pentatonix’s individual voices. “Evolution of Music,” a trip through songcraft from Gregorian chant to “Call Me Maybe,” might have been huge on YouTube, but its posturing was a bit wearying live. On the other hand, “Julie-O,” which showcased member Kevin Olusola’s ability to play cello and beatbox simultaneously, was one of the night’s best marriages of pure talent and individual artistry.

The show’s most satisfying moment came at the end, when Pentatonix abandoned their mikes and performed the title track of its first platinum album to a nearly silent arena. The members’ voices melded so well, it almost didn’t even matter that the album in question was “That’s Christmas to Me.” On the cusp of a long-awaited spring, the fact that their voices could conjure the spirit of December and not inspire groaning, but reverent silence that gave way to wild applause, signaled the unique, and sometimes surprising, power of the human voice.