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Saturday, September 21, 2013

MUSICAL DIVERSITY FRONT AND CENTER AT BCCM ALUMNI RECITAL

Clockwise from top: Arf, Down 4 The Count, Karl?, Love4Chello
If there was one thing that could be taken away from last Sunday’s Alumni Recital at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music is that BCCM and its students cannot and will not be pigeonholed or singly defined as a type. The key words on this on this afternoon were MUSICAL DIVERSITY. On a nearly perfect afternoon at the Daniel Recital Hall on campus, six acts featuring alumni and a few current students strutted their stuff in an electric and eclectic two-hour show.

Indie-rock band Squarefish featuring singer-songwriter-guitarist Maggie Boles kicked off the recital nicely thanks in large part to the able backing of Mike Amico (bass and backup vocals), Lauren Pennington (keyboards) and Anthony Vezirian (drums). The band has an edge, but is not overpowering therefore providing an intimate relationship with the audience. Each musician blends with the other and no one gets overshadowed. Vezirian is a solid and consistent drummer that gives Squarefish a good foundation. Pennington quietly does her thing on the keyboards, providing the band with a sound that is larger than the sum of their four components. Amico is a fine bassist who does that tricky thing of playing bass and providing backup vocals. Every band member got a chance to shine and no one was overshadowed. Nevertheless, the center of attention is Boles, whose vocal style is a cross between Nelly Furtado and Joni Mitchell. This is a very good band. Check them out at www.squarefish.com or at ReverbNation.com. I especially like the songs True Romance and Plan B.

Next to the stage was Love4Cello. Seeing this quartet come on stage and setup their cellos, you would have assumed there would be a little Bach, maybe some Mozart. And, there was. But after opening their set with a beautiful classical piece, the group showed its amazing versatility when as the broke into Coldplay’s Clocks. They continued with the Beatles classics Hey Jude and Let it Be and then closed with a rousing rendition of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance. Love4Cello showed remarkable musicianship, combining their big, lush sound with the terrific execution of their snappy arrangements. I can see this group performing at weddings or at the Hollywood Bowl. Yes, they are that versatile and yes, they are that good. Love4Cello is Lucia Cahuantzi, Chris McCarthy, Claire Mehm and Ben Coyte. Their website is www.love4cello.com

Long before a cappella became cool (BPP – Before Pitch Perfect), Down 4 The Count was wowing audiences with their smooth and jazzy vocal stylings. And like fine wine, this amazing quintet gets better with age (and that is not to say that they are old. They’ve just been doing their thing for years). Colleen Keene, Penny Watson, Christine Tavares, Jason Lingle and new bassist Gregg Haueter sound better than ever. Their set on Sunday included a swinging arrangement of Don’t Get Around Much Anymore with Tavares providing the lead vocal; the Colleen Keene original Perfect Crime and the hilarious and wonderful Can’t Get Abducted, E.T. Don’t Dig Me Blues featuring Haueter on solo. Watson’s alto and Keene’s soprano blend beautifully with Tavares’ mezzo and are supported by Haueter’s solid bass. Lingle is a superb vocal percussionist and a steady timekeeper. As good as they are as individuals, they are terrific as a group, crescendoing and decrescendoing as one (and I don’t even think those are real words much less proper English, but you get my drift). I love this group and you will too. www.down4thecount.com

Karl? Is a group that defies categorization. But there are three adjectives that I can use to describe this wonderful band. Hard-driving. Explosive. And sickly talented. Even their warm-up tune sounded cool. Consisting of singer-violinist Rebecca Lynn, lead guitarist Daniel Chavez, percussionist-vocalist Alex Mastrovito, drummer Michael Malinowski and bassist Nick Gonzalez, Karl? ripped through their four-song performance that showed aspects of many artists and genres, but sounded completely original. Karl? is probably one of those bands that lose about ten pounds per performance as they put so much energy into it. The vocal back and forth between Lynn and Mastrovito was not only a joy to listen to but a thrill to watch as they seemed to drive each other to new heights. Though the sound is hard, they never lose their musicality. Chavez lead guitar is powerful. Gonzalez keeps the bottom strong with his smooth bass line. Malinowski fine drum work is a perfect complement to Mastrovito on percussion. And then there is Lynn, whose violin work and singing are only surpassed by her wonderful stage presence. I don’t know the names of the songs they played Sunday, but check them out on SoundCloud and Facebook. Listen to the contrast between Grand Old Party and Where I Must Be.

While Karl? can be considered original, Arf featuring Genevieve Artadi can be called innovative. Singer-songwriter Artadi composes original music for Arf among her other projects (most notably with Knower and her collaboration with Louis Cole). I first saw Arf at this year’s Harmony Sweepstakes and it was great to see them perform again. Joined by some fabulous musicians in Alexandra Domingo, Jessica Freedman, Katherine Hoye, Andrea Calderwood and Sean Fitzpatrick, Arf began their set with the electronic sounds of Cupcake5. They then left the electronics behind to sing the beautiful and mesmerizing From 2 Sides (this won Best Original Song at the Harmony Sweeps this year) I think From 2 Sides is one of the coolest a cappella vocals that I have ever heard and Arf performs it so well with Genevieve on lead vocals and Sean providing excellent vocal percussion. Just about as brilliant was their next tune, the incredible Screen Images. There are no words to this composition. Arf does the entire song by humming. I cannot explain it. You just have to hear it. It is simply remarkable. They finished up with hyper-techno You Know A Place Where I Won’t Feel Dead. Check out their Facebook page. They will be playing The Elastic Hour at Curve Line Space on October 24th.
Honey Whiskey Trio closing out BCCM Alumni Recital

Closing the show was Honey Whiskey Trio. After a whirlwind year that saw them win first place and audience favorite at the Harmony Sweepstakes Nationals, HWT returned home to Cal State Long Beach for their first performance at their alma mater. Strutting onstage in their trademark boots, Courtney Gasque, Ann Louise Thaiss and Christina Wilson opened with their arrangement of Bob Dylan’s He’s Been On The Job Too Long. They continued with one of their sweetest songs to date – Courtney’s original composition If You’ll Be The One For Me, with Ann Louise on guitar and Courtney on mandolin. But it was the vocals that made this song stand out, three-part harmonies that are reminiscent of The Wailing Jennys. The toe-tapping Long Hot Summer Day was next, with all of the girls getting a chance to solo. I felt like the audience was ready to clap along with this song, but this crowd made up of mostly students did not want to detract from the performance. So they listened and enjoyed. The trio closed with one of the signature songs, Freight Train Blues. Not only do they sing this song well, but they perform it with so much style and panache that you can’t help but love it. www.honeywhiskeytrio.com

Honey Whiskey Trio encouraged students to seek out others, develop friendships and begin collaborations. All of the acts began at BCCM. There was something for everyone at this alumni recital. Indie-rock, classical, jazz, alternative, techno and folk. And to think, all of this incredible talent began and was cultivated at the music department of California State University Long Beach. Now more music and more talent is being cultivated at what is now known world-wide as the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music.

Friday, May 24, 2013

2013 HARMONY SWEEPSTAKES NATIONAL FINALS


The 962-seat Marin Veterans Auditorium, site of the Harmony
Sweepstakes National Finals - Photo curtosy of The Rainbows


I know I had promised a recap of the Harmony Sweepstakes within 48 hours of our return, but it’s been a busy week and I caught a case of severe writers block.  So, this may not be all that good, but here are my recollections on the last weekend.   But first, let’s go back to April 6th. 
My wife Nancy and I attended the Harmony Sweepstakes Los Angeles Regionals.  Among the acts performing that evening was Honey Whiskey Trio, a newly-formed group featuring Courtney Gasque, Ann Louise Thaiss and our daughter Christina Wilson.  We had not yet heard their music.  There was nothing on their Facebook page other than pictures and messages, and the website was not yet up and running.  But that night, they blew us away with their tight harmonies and stage presence.  They shocked many – including themselves - by winning first place and audience favorite over some very seasoned competition.  Their victory earned them a spot in the Nationals in San Rafael, California on May 18th.
Nancy and I along with our son Bryan traveled to the Bay Area to meet up with my mother-in-law Elizabeth, sister-in-laws Mary and Linda who call came down from Washington State, and sister-in-law Jan and her new husband Mark who live in nearby Livermore.  We had lunch with Christina and her husband Jesse on Friday, who were finishing up their honeymoon.  We didn’t talk about the competition.  I figured within the next 24 hours she would have plenty of that.  The next day, it was off to San Rafael where we had dinner and a few drinks to take the edge off (I highly recommend Napoli Restaurant if you are ever in Downtown San Rafael).
The event was taking place at the Marin Veterans Auditorium, a beautiful venue in a lovely setting.  As nice as it was, it was cold, so they let us in early.  The auditorium is stunning.  It was constructed perfectly so there is no bad seat in the house.  We ran into the trio at their table where they were selling CDs, stickers and handing out business cards.  They appeared calm, but a little anxious.  I bought a couple of CDs (or maybe it was six), and told them good luck and that I would see them after.  We also caught up with Jesse’s parents Shelly and Hubert who were equally excited about the performance.
The crowd filed in and by 7:55, there was not an empty seat in the place.  We turned our phones off as it was now curtain time.  MC Angie Doctor does her welcomes and acknowledgments and explains the rules.  She then introduces the evening’s host - 2012 winner and reigning National Champions Six Appeal who opens the show with a head-bobbing rendition of Listen to the Music.
First group to perform is Pacific Northwest Champs Rezonate.  It is a tough thing to be first act in an event such as this, but the sextet from Eugene, Oregon who finished third in the 2009 Nationals handled it like pros.  They opened with a cute song called Got No Rhythm.  They also sang a very good Queen medley that started off with the infections We Will Rock You.  This is a group that has opened for The Bobs, so you expect greatness and they delivered.  I thought their set lost a little steam near the end, but they were very good.
Next is Fermata Town from Boston.  This was a big group.  I mean, a really, really big group.  They
Fermata Town - photo by Christopher Cochems
 brought twelve singers with them but per Sweepstakes rules are only allowed eight on stage at a time (their website states they actually have fourteen singers in the group!).  So between songs, they shuttled singers out while bringing new singers in.  It kinda resembled a hockey line change or tag-team wrestling.  But with all the switching of singers, they never lost their cohesiveness.  Vocally, they are excellent.  They do mostly original stuff and their harmonies are multi-layered (I even heard a little Eric Whitacare influences in one of their pieces).  Fermata Town is part pop, part jazz, part rock.  They have a good blend although to an untrained ear, their harmonies may have sounded a bit busy. 

The fabulous Lustre Quarter - photo by Christopher Cochems

Next in line was the Baltimore-based Lustre Quartet, winners of the Mid-Atlantic Region.  First, I have always loved barbershop style singing.  It really is the original a cappella singing and when it’s done right, it can be amazing.  And these ladies definitely did it right.  Gliding onto center stage in their flowing blue gowns, they took their places behind the mikes, got their pitch and let it rip.  Let me just say this……and I believe this to be a technical music term.……….they blew the doors off the place!  Lori Crouter, Lori Dreyer, Jenny Harris and Kate Morrical rocked the house.  Their voices were so strong and harmonies so tight that the audience showed their appreciation by clapping, cheering and stomping their feet.   An absolutely thunderous ovation.  Their bio states that they are the 2013 Sweet Adeline’s International 7th Place Finalist.  I told my sister-in-law Mary, “No way there are six barbershop groups better than these gals…” 
I felt sorry for whomever had to follow Lustre, but it was in the capable hands of the Bay Area’s own Ro Sham Bo.  They came out in 1960s/1970s garb and a board that read “The Dating Game,” referring to the old game show of the time.  One singer acted as the host, one was the bachelor and three were the bachelorettes.  Well, one of the bachelorettes was a male singer in drag, but there are only two females in the group.  So what could they do?  Anyway, they used the bachelor questions to launch into their set that included “All of Me, Feeling Good,” and “Kissing My Love.”  They sounded great.  Good soloists, sharp harmonies.  The guy in drag (sorry I don’t have his name) was an especially good soloist.  I did think the skit aspect took away from their vocals a bit.  But overall, I thought they were very good.

****INTERMISSION********
It’s time to catch our breath, stretch our legs and you know….go to the restroom.  The first half of the show had been fabulous.  We still do not know when the girls are going to perform.  But it will be soon as there are only three groups left.  Coincidentally, the remaining groups are from the nation’s big three cities: Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.  During the break, the buzz in the men’s room (the place where all a cappella intellectuals gather), was about Lustre.  One gentleman said, “They were fabulous.  I don’t see anyone beating them.”  Meanwhile, I continued my eavesdropping in the lobby.  One woman loved the big sound of Fermata Town.  A teenage girl thought the boys of Rezonate were cute.  A man found the Dating Game skit by Ro Sham Bo “hilarious.”  But the consensus was that The Lustre Quartet had won the first part of the show.  And I could not disagree with that.
Intermission is now over, and we are ready for the home stretch. 

The Rainbows - photo by Christopher Cochems

First up was The Rainbows.  Although they were the New York Regional winner, they are actually from Quebec City, Canada (by the way, QC is one of our favorite places on earth).  They each wore different color shirts (hence the name “Rainbows”), and opened with a sassy arrangement of the James Brown classic “I Feel Good,” with the powerful Genevieve Pare on lead vocals.  Soul Man” and “I Thank You” were also part of their performance.  Nicholas Grynzpan performed some nice solo bass work in the middle of the set.  Their harmonies were outstanding and the effervescent Pare did a great job fronting the band.  I liked them a lot.  I thought they were fun, and I got the feeling that they were genuinely happy just to be competing in this event. 
Honey Whiskey Trio singing Freight Train Blues -
photo by Christopher Cochems
And now, the moment that we were waiting for.  Representing Los Angeles, the Honey Whiskey Trio. 
After all of the beat-boxing, big sounds and big-throated soloists, would the audience and judges respond to HWT’s quiet performance and their subtle but complex harmonies?  We were about to find out. 
HWT came onto a stage that looked way too big for their small group.    They appeared relaxed, although Christina admitted later that she was very nervous.  After taking hold of their microphones, Courtney, Ann and Christina launched into Courtney’s hauntingly beautiful arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun.”  You could hear a pin drop.  I knew at that point they had the audience’s attention.  As their set continued, the trio seemed to settle in and gain confidence.  They sang Bob Dylan’s “Freight Train Blues” with style and personality.  And they surprised the audience with a ballad version of “You’re the One That I Want” from the movie Grease.  As they left the stage, the Honey Whiskey Trio received a sustained applause.  Not the raucous one Lustre had, but this was a knowledgeable audience and it was definitely a response of both respect and admiration.  One their Facebook page, Ann Daniels wrote: You completely blew me away this evening. Your version of House of the Rising Sun moved me to tears”
I exhaled, proud of what the girls had accomplished.  I watched this performance – as I always do – from two angles.  First from a technical perspective, they were spot-on.  I am sure they will find fault with parts (perfectionists always do), but the harmonies were sharp, and their execution was flawless.  Then there is the emotional perspective.  I had seen them at the Regionals so I knew what to expect from them.  By now, I knew the songs and it was still an emotional performance.  No matter what happens with the judging, they could be very proud that they went out there and left everything on the stage.
Oh, there was still one group left to perform.
The final act was Chicago’s The Cat’s Pajamas.  With their television appearances (The Sing-Off), their 200-plus bookings in Branson, Missouri and boy-band good looks, they came into the competition the heavily-hyped favorite.  The group ran to center stage and tore into Grand Funk Railroad’s “Some Kinda Wonderful.”  They were full of energy, and were in constant movement.  Then, a near disaster struck.  While singing and dancing to their second song, member Mike Hilliker came down awkwardly on his right leg and went down in a heap.  He tried to get up, but went down again.  Obviously in pain, he finally (and bravely) rose, stayed in character and finished out the rest of the set.  The Cat’s Pajamas were good.  They sang and danced like professionals.  But the act was a little too night-club like for my taste.  The vocals were fine, but they were nowhere near the groups that had performed before them.
The competition was over.  While the judges deliberated, the audience voted for their favorites.  My son Bryan kept an eye on the ballot boxes – just to make sure there was no tampering.  Didn’t want to have to take this to the Supreme Court for a recount.  No hanging chads here…

2012 Champions Six Appeal - photo by Christopher Cochems
Upon returning to our seats, Angie Doctor introduced the 2012 champions Six Appeal, who were by the way spendid this evening.  The high-octane group left no doubt as to why they were last year’s winners.  They were engaging, charismatic and most of all, they could sing their butts off.  They opened with Circle of Life from the Lion King.  Their set included a lovely treatment of Ordinary People (solo by Trey Jones) and a comical send-up of the disco classic I Will Survive.  They closed with funny and energetic dancing, running and jumping version of 500 Miles to which they received the highest compliment – a standing ovation!  For the record, Six Appeal consists of Jordan Roll, Michael Brookens, Trey Jones, Nathan Hickey, Ruben Hushagen and Andrew Berkowitz.

After the crowd settled down, Angie Doctor came to the podium to announce the results. I grab Nancy’s hand, and here we go..
“Your vote for Audience Favorite goes to…….
Honey Whiskey Trio!”
Audience goes wild!  Nancy and I go wild!  Family around us goes wild!  Wow!  What an honor from this audience.  What a super honor.  The ladies come out for an encore and sing their gorgeous take on Grace Potter’s Nothing But The Water.  Again, you can feel the emotion in the audience for HWT.  Huge applause.
The MC brings out all of the groups to the stage and they form a semi-circle.  Angie Doctor continues..
“Best Original Arrangement…..
The Rainbows – I Feel Good”
I am good with this.  It was a fun, and as I mentioned before, sassy arrangement.
“Best Original Song…..
Fermata Town – Starting Line”
Yep, no doubt about this one.  Well deserved.
And now, the placements.  Inhale…..exhale….
“Third place……We have a tie.  That’s a good thing.
Fermata Town!”
And
“The Rainbows!”
Big applause as both groups step forward, exchange hugs and then take a bow as one.  It was a beautiful thing to see.  My heart is starting to beat faster….
“In second place…..
Lustre”
Three of the four ladies come to center stage beaming with pride (one had to leave early).  They were so, so good on this evening.  Once Lustre was announced as the second place winner, I turned to Nancy, but she was in a zone.  When she’s in a zone, I know not to bother her.  I then turned to my sister-in-law Linda who was to my right.  I told her, “I think our girls just won.”
And now, first place and winners of the 2013 Harmony Sweepstakes…….
Honey Whiskey Trio!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Now, I have been going to performances for years and I pride myself on restraint.  But on this night, I totally lost my composure.  I don’t even remember, but the next thing I knew I was on my feet jumping up and down like a damn fool.  I was so proud of them.  The ladies came to center stage and looked stunned.  As the applause continued, they had their arms draped around each other, taking it all in.  The smiles on their faces were priceless.  Once the applause died down, Angie Doctor gave her closing remarks and as is with the Harmony Sweepstakes tradition, all of the groups and the audience would join together to sing the 50s Doo Wop classic “Goodnight Sweetheart.”
 Unbeknownst to them, HWT became the first L.A. champs to win the nationals since the legendary Moira Smiley and VOCO won in 2007.  And they were only the third trio in the history of the event to win.  The others were Plumbers of Rome in 2010 and Pastiche in 1987
 At the regionals, they had shocked Los Angeles.  Now, they had shocked the nation. 
The Honey Whiskey Trio – 2013 Harmony Sweepstakes National Champions!

Honey Whiskey Trio - 2013 Harmony Sweepstakes
National Champions - photo by Christopher Cochems