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Friday, May 24, 2013


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.

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!”
“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…..
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


  1. Yup, that is the event I photographed, and very well described. Honey Whiskey Trio has a CD available for purchase and it gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from me. I agree completely with what Glenn has written.I would like to add that these young women are just as wonderful as they are talented. They are warm, open and incredibly friendly.

  2. I am so happy that you documented this for me to read and re-read so that I could relive all of the emotion of that evening. It was quite a magical experience. So thankful that most of my family was there to share this night with us. That made even more special. Also very thankful that we have the wonderful photos from Christopher Cochems. Was shocked to learn of his passing. He was a great photographer. He will be sorely missed.