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Show Review: Pentatonix with SPEAK at The Warfield, 1/27/2013

by Stacy Scales on January 29, 2013

Never heard of Pentatonix? That’s okay, you’re not alone: neither had our editor-in-chief until I mentioned my excitement at covering their sold-out show at the Warfield this past Sunday. While he feared he may be losing his touch (“getting old I am,” said his text), I reassured him that if a cappella groups aren’t his thing and/or he’s never seen a recent episode of NBC’s The Sing-Off, it makes sense that season 3 winners Pentatonix haven’t yet crossed his radar…until now.

I, on the other hand, knew exactly who they were when I saw they were coming our way. Apparently I missed their first tour, but as I don’t often make that mistake twice, I was ready, willing, and able this time around. My mom, a huge fan of the show (and even more so of the headliner) was thrilled to be my date: especially when our box seats turned out to be sitting next to (Pentatonix band member) Scott Hoying’s mom. This worked out well for me: when I was in the pit shooting the band, the moms could chat. I hope Connie enjoyed keeping my mom company as much as my mom did meeting her. Anyway, on with the show!

The night began with opener SPEAK, a band from Austin that Pentatonix themselves chose. After just a few songs, it was easy to hear why: they’re really great. Their sound is a synth-pop/rock, and very catchy. Their energetic set included “Be Reasonable,” “Diane,” the brand new “Ahhhhh” (whose title is subject to change), “Oh Lord,” “81,” the debut of new song “This Much I Know,” “I Should’ve Guessed,” and then a brilliant cover of the BeeGees’ “Stayin’ Alive” before their final song, their single “Carrie.”In my notes I said “don’t mean it as a dis to call them ‘my kind of boyband!’” Let me be clear: I’m in no way implying any kind of connection to the slick singing and dancing pre-fab pop groups. All I mean is, they’re guys in a band, they’re playing instruments and they can sing, and their music is catchy and fun. I thoroughly enjoyed them. Oh, and all of those songs save “Carrie” and “81? are new and will be featured on the EP they’re currently working on…follow them on Twitter to stay in the know.

Between SPEAK and Pentatonix, I couldn’t help but notice what an interesting crowd had filled up the Warfield: I even chatted with another photographer about it. Usually, a band has a specific demographic, but this was a mix of what seemed like high school and college choir kids, moms, dads, and grandparents…and screaming girls. Interesting. But all in good fun. When they finally took the stage, I was impressed at the level of noise coming off the crowd. Because they’re a relatively new band, they’ve only released a self-titled EP so far, (okay, it’s called “PTX, Vol. 1? not “Pentatonix”…but that’s their nickname for themselves. Close enough.) so they still do a lot of covers, but isn’t that what we love from bands like them anyway? (Or so I thought. The original songs prove to be pretty fun too.) Among those featured as the show got under way were Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child,” Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown,” and a medley that included Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me” and Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake.” During one break, original member Mitch explained that they interact with fans a lot via their YouTube channel, and that they often ask fans what they’d like to hear. The result, apparently, for this evening was a 90s medley…featuring their cult(ish) YouTube fave: the music of ‘N Sync. (“Here We Go,” “Pop,” “It’s Gonna Be Me,” “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” and “Bye Bye Bye.”)

Among several shoutouts to fellow “choir nerds,” it was a great time to sit in the back and observe. No, I was never a choir nerd, but I was a theater geek, and we ran in the same circles. It’s fun to see them all come out for a night like this, celebrating who they were and still are, and either living vicariously or hoping to one day follow in the footsteps of these great a cappella-ists. Originally, as Scott told the crowd, three choir nerds went to high school together and started a trio (he, Kirstie, and Mitch). Eventually, they added two “kind of important” members: percussion/fantastic beatboxer Kevin, and holy-balls-can-that-guy-sing bass badass, Avi. Next they performed a song close to their hearts: their “The Sing-Off” audition song, “Lady Gaga featuring my homegirl Beyonce” (according to Scott) hit “Telephone.” Next, the majority of the group got a break while the rest of us were treated to what Kevin refers to as “cello-boxing.” It’s exactly what it sounds like it might be: he plays the cello while simultaneously beat-boxing. As I said verbatim in my notes, “it’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before but is basically the thing that’s been missing from my life.” Naturally, it warranted him the huge applause at its conclusion.

Avi, too, treated the crowd to a little solo, after Scott boasted that he “can sing two parts at once!” They called it “Mongolian overtone throat singing,” and all I noted was “mind blown.” Seriously, I can’t describe it to you, but wow. I’ve never heard it before, and it was ethereal and unreal. The next group song began with a cello intro, and was a cover of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.” After more applause for the solos, Scott asked the crowd for a moment to be “emotionally prepared” for the next song. They do it at every show, he explained, but it’s “music therapy.” He hates to get deep, he said, but “this song does it for me.” They had to wait for Kevin to come back from putting the cello away, though…”no rush. Take your time. Everyone’s waiting…” Kevin came back, insisting, “the cello’s a delicate instrument!” and they began a killer cover of Florence + the Machine’s “Dog Days are Over” that included a phenomenal solo from Mitch.

Avi paused to mention what a great crowd we all were, and that the next song was off their EP, and that he really loves the way Mitch sings it, “like a beautiful angel baby cherub.” They like it, he said, and they “love singing it for you…I’ll just start it for you.” The song, a cover of Imogen Heap’s “Aha!” was all he promised and more: when Mitch’s upper register hit the rafters, I literally got the shivers. I don’t like to say that often because it’s so cliche, but when it really happens…damn, give the kid his due! Wow. Next, Mitch began with a intro from Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy,” which led to original song “The Baddest Girl,” penned by Scott who said “it’s super cool, the coolest feeling ever that the crowd knows the words and loves an original song!” His lead was brilliant, and it reminded me a lot of the beautiful vocal/a cappella stylings of 90s R&B group Shai.

“Good news everyone!” one of the band members said. “It’s time for you to belt it out!” They’ve made it easy for crowds in the past, but they made it really hard for this tour, they warned. “We’ll be listening – good luck!” Knowing that there were lots of choir people (and other singers) in the crowd, the band really loves to have big sing-along moments, they explained. Kevin and Avi stayed on stage to divide the crowd into sections, warning the balcony, “don’t play! We see you!” After we’d been split up into “Team Mitch,” “Team Scott,” and “Team Kirstie,” Kevin said, “wait. Don’t forget this part. Be honest: is there anybody that doesn’t like to sing in front of others?” He beatboxes instead, and Avi claims to not love it either (all evidence to the contrary). But: there’s a “beautiful clapping part,” so no one need be left out. “You got it!” They cheered us on before pulling out a pitch pipe and getting down to business. They taught each section its own part, layering one on the other on the first two, admitting that it might be “a little advanced.” Team Kirstie, they said, was “not damn bad,” and then proclaimed Team Scott great too. Finally they added the claps and the beatbox, and told the crowd to keep singing, and eventually cued the teams out in the reverse order they were layered in, ending back where they started with just Team Kirstie singing. They “sound like angels over here!” We were the second show of the tour, they said, but the first to get it right: “it feels so good! Hope you felt it too.” (I’ll be honest, I expected just some lame little sing-along part for the crowd and the band would come sing over/with it. Instead, it was a chance for a mostly musically-inclined crowd to shine without much of the band at all. It was a cool moment, and wow were there a lot of great voices in that room.)

The next song was a brand new one, about one-sided relationships, an “outcry for justice,” as someone put it. “PREACH!” came from someone in the crowd. The song, a cover of Calvin Harris’s “Sweet Nothing,” was awesome. “Before we move on, I have something to let you know,” Mitch said, slowing down the pace of the show for a moment. “Every one of you is very good looking and beautiful.” He wanted to take a pic, he explained, which he would put on Facebook and Instagram, etc. And after wrapping up a few brief social media plugs, a quick shoutout to opener SPEAK, and a mention of the merch waiting outside after the show, they covered Rihanna’s “You Da One” and then brought a fan named Carla onstage to sing to, taking turns to remind each other that it was a “family show.” “Let’s get it on!” Scott said as they prepared to break into song, which was just that: a wicked cover I’d like to own of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On,” made all the more special by Mitch’s singing the memorable guitar intro part. It was awesome. The boys took turns sitting on Carla’s lap, flirting with and embarrassing her, though I’m sure she loved it. At this point, I realized that were this a little more raunchy of a show I could’ve called my review “Choir Girls Gone Wild.” But no…it was pretty squeaky good clean fun. And that really doesn’t bother me, what with such great vocals and entertaining arrangements. Scott had a cool little soul scat solo, which prompted me to tell myself (via my notes) that I sounded like Dr. Suess, but it was worth mentioning all the same.

“I have something to tell you,” Avi addressed the crowd. “We have just a couple songs left. Don’t be mad; don’t kill the messenger. I love you too!” He explained that they’ve been writing much more originals lately, and that the next song was one he wrote, about giving back. “The fans give so much, come to shows, buy albums,” and follow Pentatonix on their journey. Because of the fans, they get to live their dream, and they’re happy to get to sing with and for such lovely fans. The song, dedicated to the audience “because you do everything for us,” was called “The Peaceful War,” and was beautiful. The lyrics “feels like change has come, feels like we have won” really struck me in particular, as did the sweet melody and always rich harmonies the band boasts. Then, promising to “end the show with a bang,” they asked the room to bring back the hand clapping and we were treated to an energetic cover of Nicki Minaj’s “Starships,” at which point the show came full circle with the band returning to their places on the risers, just where they’d been when the lights first came up. I admit, I didn’t expect an encore, but I was happy to get one, and when it began I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realized they’d saved it for last: how could anyone not love a gorgeous a cappella cover of fun.’s “We are Young?” It was wonderful, and a perfect note to end on, literally. This is one band I look forward to hearing much more from in the future, and I appreciate all the choir nerds sharing them with me for the evening.