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Pentatonix proves a capalla music isn’t just for the gleeks

Posted on 23 November 2012 by Midcoast Station

Hugs, handshakes and high fives travel across the crowded floor of Lincoln Hall in waves of excitement and anticipation. Ex-choir members break out into their favorite Top 40 songs, raining intricate roulades upon the rest of the audience as they wait for Pentatonix to take the stage. A young college student next to me turns to her friends — “Oh my God, you guys, I think I’m going to cry.” The lights dim. She cries.

Having devoted my entire high school career to competitive show choir and vocal jazz ensembles that were deemed nerdy by the popular kids and musically reductive by the band geeks, it was a little disorienting to see the hype surrounding acapella music these days. But after a season of flawless performances and an almost unsurprising win on NBC’s reality show The Sing-Off, it’s not hard to see how Pentatonix has garnered such a substantial following.

Acoustic singer-songwriter SJ opened the performance. SJ, accompanied only by drummer Derek Cintron, creates a mellow sound that is part Jack Johnson, part Jerry Garcia. With his casual stage presence and simplistic lyrics such as I like the way you always ask for another song and how we always get along. I like the way you always dress for me. I wish you could see what I see in “I Like You,” SJ seemed like a more appropriate fit for a quaint coffee shop in a small college town than a sold out venue in the heart of Chicago. After a quick plug for his most recent album, Coffee: Strong Brew Edition, SJ closed his set with a mild and tender song titled “Fresh Soul.” Cintron chimed in on the harmonies in a seamless tenor that melted into SJ’s vocals. A somewhat colorless performance, Cintron’s warm timbre sprinkled throughout the performance managed to bring it to life.

Pentatonix took center stage as Kevin Olusola and Avi Kaplan dropped the beat for Usher’s “OMG.” Lead vocalist Scott Hoying charmed the audience with his swoon-worthy voice while singers Kirstie Maldonado and Mitch Grassi provided solid support for him with strong, unusual harmonies. Olusola, known for his almost robotic consistency of flawless beatboxing, spit out perfectly timed beat delays and reverse cymbals, something Usher and Will.i.am needed professional studio software to create.

After their dynamic open, Hoying announced that the evening’s show would be a bit different than their usual performance. Mitch Grassi, a vocalist who packs a powerful falsetto with an impressive range, was sick. The group had to modify their 15 song set to accommodate his lost voice, letting the audience sing along to Mitch’s solo in “We Are Young” by Fun.; including an original song, “Gravity” performed by Maldonado and Kaplan; and featuring Olusola’s internet-famous beatbox cello solo.

From the Justin Beiber-Katy Perry mashup “Long As You Love Me/Wide Awake” to country toe-tapping “Stuck Like Glue,” this vocal ensemble knows how to create smart arrangements that showcase their range and individual talents. Maldonado’s flirty rendition of “Oops I Did It Again” in the Britney Spears medley left jaws dropped (and maybe a few girlfriends hostile) as she grabbed the collars of random men in the audience and serenaded them. In Rihanna’s “You Da One” Hoying lays sweet reggae-tinged vocals over Olusola and Kaplan’s carefully-timed dubstep tracks. The group closed on Beyonce’s “End of Time,” a final demonstration of their insane ability to create stylish arrangements that often sound better than the original.

Pentatonix didn’t make the audience wait long for their anticipated encore. The group administered hugs and handshakes throughout the audience as they performed their ever-popular cover of Nicki Minaj’s “Starships.” Their energy was unrelenting, and the gratitude they expressed to their fans before exiting was truly refreshing.

After a long line of a capella groups like New York Voices and Sweden’s The Real Group whose music never quite translated to the masses, Pentatonix may be the first vocal ensemble to take a capella mainstream. They are true musicians who deliver something more real than studio-crafted, artificial sound, and they are well on their way to revolutionizing how people see pop music.