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Pentatonix returns to its roots this weekend

Published on August 31st, 2012 | Robert Philpot

It has been less than a year since NBC's a cappella competition The Sing-Off introduced Arlington-rooted Pentatonix to a national audience, and barely nine months since the group was revealed as the show's Season 3 winner. Since then, things have been happening blurringly fast for the five singers, who are about to begin a concert tour with a Sunday show at Arlington's Levitt Pavilion and a Thursday show at House of Blues Dallas.

"Our lives have changed a lot," says Kirstie Maldonado, one of the three members of the quintet who is originally from Arlington. "We've cultivated our sound a lot more. We've gone through a lot. We all moved to California, and that was a huge change. Then we worked on an EP and made our sound better and really worked on how we arranged."

For those who saw Pentatonix on The Sing-Off, improvement might not seem necessary. On the show, the group, which also includes Arlington's Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi and later additions Avi Kaplan and Kevin Olusola, scored early on with a knockout version of the Buggles' Video Killed the Radio Star that led judge Shawn Stockman (of Boyz II Men) to say that the group must have been sent back from the future to save a cappella music. From there, the group consistently impressed the judges (and often left Stockman speechless) on a run that ended with Pentatonix winning the competition.

Although NBC canceled The Sing-Off after the third season, the group has seen an increased interest in a cappella during its appearances.

"When we meet our fans afterward, there's always at least one person that says, 'I formed an a cappella group at my high school,' or, 'I formed an a cappella group at college,'" Maldonado says during a phone interview.

Martin High roots A brief recap: Maldonado, Grassi and Hoying, the group's lead singers, are all graduates of Martin High School in Arlington. After Hoying graduated from Martin in 2010, he went to the University of Southern California, where he joined SoCal VoCals and met some Sing-Off alumni. Encouraged to give the show a try, he told Grassi and Maldonado about the idea. At first they thought he was kidding, but when they realized he was serious, they decided to give it a go.

Because the minimum size for a Sing-Off group was five, the trio had to find two more members. They recruited Kaplan, whom they met through a mutual friend, and Olusola, whom they found via YouTube. Kaplan and Olusola turned out to be a big part of Pentatonix's modern version of a cappella, providing beat-box-style bass-and-drum rhythm vocals that give a contemporary freshness to their sound.

Since winning The Sing-Off, the group has released a six-song EP, PTX Volume 1, which debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart; made YouTube videos of covers of Nicki Minaj's Starships and Maroon 5's Payphone; and appeared onstage with American Idol Season 6 winner Jordin Sparks.

Pentatonix also did a brooding version of Gotye's oft-covered and oft-parodied Somebody That I Used to Know; Gotye himself did a mash-up video of covers called Somebodies, and Pentatonix appears around the five-minute mark.

A cappella music has a strong visual element that an audio recording can't capture, so the group was pleasantly surprised at how well the EP (which includes a couple of original songs) performed on the charts. And many shows on the tour, which runs through December, are already sold out, including the HOB Dallas show. Even at relatively small venues, this is unusual for an a cappella act, but Pentatonix's contemporary, dance-influenced take on the style has helped it attract a strong following.

"It's different when you put a song on YouTube and people go and see it, and when you release an album that you've worked half a year on," Maldonado says. "What's cool about the tour is we know that people are buying our music, but it's awesome that we can see where our fans are based and where shows are selling out. We get a lot of support from our fans, so we're really excited to see them."

Grassi, who was on the same phone call as Maldonado, says that there are other potential projects besides recording and touring in the band's future.

"We've gotten a lot of offers for theme songs and such," Grassi says. "We even got an offer to do a movie score, but a lot of it is still in the works."

Coming home

Grassi and Maldonado both say they're looking forward to the Arlington show, not just because it's their homecoming but because they've received so much support from their Arlington fans (shortly after The Sing-Off's finale, they played two sold-out shows at Martin High in December). After the North Texas shows, they'll head off to Philadelphia and begin a Northeast swing before crisscrossing the country (they return to North Texas for an Oct. 18 show at the McKinney Performing Arts Center). The schedule looks a little grueling, but the group says it's designed for them to be able to pace themselves.

"This is our first time doing something like this," Grassi says. "We're all a little bit worried, especially for our voices. But we have each other to keep each other in check, and make sure we don't stay up too late and drink plenty of water. I think we're getting mentally prepared as well. But mostly, I think we're all just looking forward to it, because it's going to be a lot of fun."