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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Top Notch Performances Mark 30th Annual Harmony Sweepstakes

2014 HARMONY SWEEPSTAKES NATIONAL FINALS – May 17th 2014
The fact that the Harmony Sweepstakes was celebrating its 30th anniversary, you knew that the evening would be special.  What few knew is that this year’s competition would not only be special, but it would be a scintillating show that would bring the crowd to its feet on more than one occasion.  On the way out of the auditorium, I heard one veteran Sweeps watcher state, “That is the best nationals in quite some time.”

On a typically brisk San Rafael evening, a sold out crowd of nearly 2,000 a cappella enthusiasts packed the Marin Veterans Auditorium to witness the national finals of the influential singing contest that has been the launching pad for such groups as M-Pact, Groove for Thought and Sing-Off kings Home Free.  At 8:00pm sharp, the lights dimmed and the stage spotlight focused directly on center stage where three microphones stood.  Then the public address announcer stated:

“Please welcome the 2013 Harmony Sweepstakes national Champions.  The Honey Whiskey Trio.”

The Los Angeles-based group consisting of Courtney Gasque, Ann Louise Thaiss and Christina Wilson who would serve as hosts this evening walked onto stage wearing comfortable looking yet fashionable dresses and their now trademark boots.  Appropriately, they opened the show with These Boots are Made for Walking in their unique foot-stomping style.

Tonight’s Mistress of Ceremonies is veteran singer Angie Doctor.  She was stunning in her blue full-length sparkly gown (I am sure there is a technical term, but we will go with “sparkly” for the purposes of this review).  She took care of the welcomes, explanation of the rules and introduced the five individuals who had the difficult task of judging this competition.  The judges were Bill Hare, Raz Kennedy, Craig Knudsen, Stephanie Lawson and Annie Stocking.  She also took a moment to mention the passing of long-time Sweeps photographer and friend Chris Cochems.  After the brief tribute and warm applause, Angie turned to his widow Helen who was on hand and said, “I know he could hear that.”

Catatonic began the competition - Photo by AcaFanBase
Now, it was onto the competition.  Christina Wilson announced the first group, Mid-Atlantic champs Catatonic.  The Atlanta-bred sextet opened with the swinging Love Gun with the soulful Tye Tavaras singing the lead.  The set continued with Tammy Parkinson and John Robinson’s arrangement of Never Close Our Eyes.  They then transitioned into the lovely ballad Pretty Hurts with alternating lead vocals between Parkinson, Tavares and Carrie Leonard.  They closed with a rocking and rollicking rendition of Lucky Strike.  Although the ladies were front and center, the guys – John Robinson, Steve Ryan and Andrew Leonard provided great backing vocals.  A darn good opening act by Catatonic that was well received by the audience.

PNW Champs SeaNote - Photo by AcaFanBase
Next to perform was SeaNote, winners of the Pacific Northwest Region.  This group made up of friends from the University of Washington who happen to be all basses and second altos.  An odd combination but it works.  They came out with member Shaheer Aftab mimicking the sounds of radio static in search of a station, briefly stopping on the overly-covered Royals before settling on a fine arrangement of I Knew You Were Trouble.  They continued with a beautifully executed All of Me, complete with fine leads and lush harmonies.  SeaNote finished their set with Dark Horse, arranged by bassist Michael Kibbe.  The group’s vocals combined with their sunny personalities wowed the crowd.

3AM performs Thank You - Photo by AcaFanBase
The third act was – ironically - called 3AM, a gospel/R&B group out of Florida that took the Chicago regionals.  These dapper gentlemen in matching blazers introduced themselves with their original We are 3AM.  Next was a strong, rich treatment of R&B hit Thank You that had the audience tapping their toes.  3AM then took the audience to church with the gospel Have a Talk.  You could hear the distinct influence of groups like Take 6 and Naturally 7 in their sound and style.  The beautiful Bless This House was next, showcasing the group’s harmonic ability.  They closed with Pharrell Williams mega-hit Happy that got the audience to clap along.  All-in-all, a solid performance by 3AM.

Women of the World close out first half - Photo by AcaFanBase
Now taking the stage was Boston champion Women of the World.  The quartet who met at the Berklee College of Music represent four countries - Italy, Japan, India and Haiti and combine world, folk, classical and jazz.   They wore colorful, ethnic gowns that looked gorgeous under the house lights.  The group began with the jazzy and playful Walkin’ Down The Street, complete with simultaneous scat solos.  Their performance continued to elevate with their renditions of Iyo Siwelele, Kafal Sviri and the original Samba in G.  Their final songs were the beautiful Sakura Sakura, and Rhy-dhun which began slowly and then built to a marvelous vocal explosion.  When they sang their final note, the audience poured out its emotion, giving the quartet a well-deserved standing ovation.  The singers looked a bit stunned by the response as they walked off the stage, waving to the crowd.

**********INTERMISSION****************

And not a minute too soon, as an exhausted audience had to gather itself after a breathtaking first half.  As I made my way around the lobby eavesdropping as always, everyone was talking about the stunning performance by Women of the World.  “Wow,” was the most used adjective, and that is interesting as “Wow” is what the group uses as part of its twitter handle.  But all the groups got kudos and I overheard one woman say, “Whomever performs after intermission has their work cut out for them.  All the groups have been amazing.”  I bumped into SeaNote at the Honey Whiskey Trio table in the lobby and they were on top of the world, saying that this has been an incredible experience and they were having the time of their lives.

Bay Area Champs Prime Time - Photo by AcaFanBase
With intermission over, Ann Louise Thaiss of The Honey Whiskey Trio introduced the home-town favorite – Prime Time, winners of the Bay Area Regional.  If there was one thing that Prime Time seemed to be intent on accomplishing was to let everyone know that they are versatile.  The veteran group immediately brought energy to the stage as they sang the Hall & Oats classic You Make My Dreams Come True that was a whole lot of fun.  They moved onto a lovely arrangement of Mia Makaroff’s Butterfly, showcasing their musicianship.  Very innovative vocal technique was evident in their performance of Katy Perry’s Wide Awake.  As bassist John Rae-Grant explained that the group had to figure out how to sing a song and not to go over the Sweeps time limit (while he was explaining, the bamboo pole appeared signifying the one minute warning).  They concluded with a brief and comical take on Everything is Awesome from the Lego Movie. Nicely done, Prime Time.  You did the Bay Area proud.

L.A.s #FOURTYFOURB - Photo by AcaFanBase
Courtney Gasque introduced Los Angeles Champions and HWT protégés #FourtyFourB.  The seven-member group who has its origins at the University of California Irvine was playful with the audience, even teaching us a UCI cheer (ZOT....ZOT....ZOT!)  They opened with a superb delivery of Adele's Rumor Has It, striking just the right balance between vocals and vocal percussion.  Next was a Stevie Wonder mashup of Isn’t She Lovely sprinkled with My Cheri Amour.  This was a nice bridge between the first and third songs and appealed to the older members of the audience.  They finished with a smooth as silk rendering of John Legend’s Heaven that had heads bobbing throughout the audience.  Besides their obvious talent, #FourtyFourB has an easygoing confidence about them that made them very relatable. 

Pride of the Republic of Georgia Quintessential Five
The last performers of the evening were Quintessential Five.  They were perhaps the most intriguing act in the competition.  The New York Regional Champions are from The Republic of Georgia and they are young.  And when I say young, I mean really young, falling between the ages of 13 and 17.  But on the stage, there is nothing childlike about them.  They opened with a beautiful and highly complex Georgian folk song Krimanchuli.  The group flawlessly executed its rapid-fire lyrics and the audience was immediately blown away.  The amazement continued with the jazz standard Senor Blues.  I had never heard this song vocalized before, and these kids knocked it out of the park.  And just when you thought it could not get any better, they performed an original song called Tales of War, and dedicated it to the victims in Ukraine, the home country Georgia and to the lives lost on 9/11.  The song is indescribable.  The performance was remarkable.  And the audience rose to its feet in appreciation. 

2013 Champs Honey Whiskey Trio 
The competition was compete.  Now the judges had to deliberate and the audience would get its turn to vote for its favorite.  After a brief 15 minute break for the voting, everyone settled back into their seats and The Honey Whiskey Trio took the stage for the final time as national champions.  They performed songs from their just release LP Honey Whiskey Trio: Stories of Love, Death and Spirits, including My Love, Courtney’s gorgeous arrangement of the Everly Brothers All I have to do is Dream (which earned them their first standing ovation and the crowd’s ultimate tribute of thunderous stomping), and It’s a Sin To Tell A Lie, featuring a vocal trumpet solo by Ann Louise.  HWT did a little tribute to last year’s hosts and 2012 national champs Six Appeal by performing 500 Miles.  But Christina warned everyone, “We are out of shape, so there will be no running or jumping….”  Instead, the Honeys sang a gorgeous, almost unrecognizable version of the song that earned them their second standing O.  They closed their performance with the upbeat Wine Blues.  A third standing ovation and more stomping ensued.  The Honeys had been charming hosts.  What an incredible Harmony Sweepstakes swan song for the Honey Whiskey Trio!

Angie Doctor returned to the stage and it was time to announce the results.

Audience Favorite……WOMEN OF THE WORLD!

Huge applause as the ladies from Boston come out for the encore.  I am sorry that I don’t know the song they sang, but it was beautiful as their entire performance had been.

Angie now brought out all of the performers in show order.  Catatonic, SeaNote, 3AM, Women of the World, Prime Time, #FourtyFourB, and Quintessential Five.  They formed a semi-circle upstage and waited for Angie to announce the winners.  All of the work, audition tapes, winning of the regionals.  And it all came down to this.

Here we go……

Best Arrangement……GRAYSON VILLANUEVA FOR HEAVEN BY #FOURTYFOURB!
This is what I was hoping for and the judges in my opinion made the right choice.  Perfectly arranged for the group’s voices

Best Original Song…..BUKA KARTOZIA FOR TALES OF WAR BY QUINTESSENTIAL FIVE
No question about this. A stunningly beautiful song that although in a different language, you really got the gist of what the song was saying.

And now, the placements:

Third place goes to…………SEANOTE!
I was actually a little surprised by this selection, but pleasantly so.  They had performed beautifully and were very deserving of the placement. 

Second place goes to……………….QUINTESSENTIAL FIVE!
On one hand, I was so happy for these kids because their performance was near perfect and in this environment in front of this audience, it was an incredible feat.  On the other hand, they finished second.  Nothing to be ashamed of.  But I am sure they wanted to win.  Who doesn’t?

First place, and the 2014 Harmony Sweepstakes National Champions……..WOMEN OF THE WORLD!

The four women walked to center stage with their arms around each other and took in the applause, and the standing ovation.  They were beaming, with that feeling that only a national champion can feel.  Once the applause died down, it was time for the traditional group singing of the doo-wop classic Goodnight Sweetheart.  One thing that is very unique about the Sweeps is that many in the audience are singers.  And when the crowd joins in for this song, it sounds pretty good.  People are even harmonizing!

Goodnight Sweetheart - Photo by AcaFanBase
With that, the 30th Annual Harmony Sweepstakes is a wrap.  It was a wonderful and diverse competition, with many style and genres represented.  Oddly, for one of the few times in Sweeps history, barbershop was not represented.  But consider the night consisted of indie, pop, gospel, R&B, world music, classical, jazz and folk.  Amazing.  Congratulations to all of the participating groups for putting on a wonderful show.  A special tip of the hat to Women of the World.  For the second year in a row, an all-female group (and rather non-traditional ones at that) has taken top prize.  Enjoy the ride, Women of the World.  Well done……

And to my friend and fellow writer Stacy who could not make it this year, thanks for allowing me to fill in for you.  Until we meet again next year, I am signing off.

Glenn Wilson

Corona, CA

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