The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Lights Low with The Afterglow - March 3, 2017
by Dick Frantzreb
College a cappella groups have been around since The Whiffenpoofs invented the genre in 1909 at Yale University. If you're a student or spend much time on a campus, you'll be familiar with local offerings. But if you're outside the college community, the a cappella are probably completely off your radar. UC Davis has 5 a cappella groups (that I know of), and I've long been curious about them. So I've decided to take you with me on a quest to learn more about the first on my list, The Afterglow.
"Lights Low with The Afterglow" in an annual show, and by monitoring the Afterglow Facebook page, I found out about this performance in time to be in the audience on this Friday night. The Sciences Lecture Hall at UC Davis is clearly a classroom, and a very large one, seating maybe 700 people, and it was about 20% full on this occasion. The room has steeply raked seating, and the top of the 20-foot high front wall is dominated by two side-by-side, giant periodic tables. The Afterglow tried to add a little decoration ― black balloons widely spaced on black crepe paper running up the sides of the room, but it didn't much help the starkness of the venue.
The audience seemed to be exclusively college students, except maybe one set of parents and one middle-age man. And there were far more young women than young men. Also it felt like many audience members were friends of the performers because they were extraordinarily enthusiastic throughout the show. In fact, there were times when it all seemed like a big party, with high-spirited interactions between the hosts or performers and the audience.
This was clearly a show, as opposed to a concert: there were no programs, and two hosts introduced each musical number and provided patter between them. The 2-hour event started 20 minutes late, and even then, it felt like the introduction by the hosts took a full 5 minutes. One was a member of The Afterglow, and the other an apparent student with an outgoing personality, and for whom I didn't catch any background. I'm guessing that one or both had improv or acting experience because they were generally at ease in front of the audience. They had a few prepared "bits," but mostly it felt like they were improvising on last-minute plans. Their mission was humor, and it generally worked on the young audience. There were a few times when even I found myself laughing.
The Afterglow is UC Davis's only all-male a cappella group. Their Facebook page shows 12 members, but I'm guessing they generally perform as an octet, though on this occasion there were only 7 of them. As I recall, they all performed in ties, though their dress was not uniform. I believe the first number was titled, "We Found Love Right Where We Are," and if that's not the title it was certainly the repeated lyric. It was a gentle, rocking song which I enjoyed: the lead singer was strong, and the harmony was solid. There was beatboxing with this song, as (I think) with every other ensemble number I heard this evening: some pretty good, some not so good. All the singers were on mic whenever they sang, though there were occasional problems: for at least one of the the mics, there was an annoying buzz when a singer got too close.
I believe the next song was "Is There Anyone Out There? ('Cause It's Getting Harder and Harder to Breathe)." The energy was ramped up in this song, with more aggressive beatboxing, and a bit of rap-style lyrics. Although not the kind of music I listen to casually, it was certainly entertaining, and I noted good styling by the lead singer.
That was all for the full Afterglow ensemble until the end of the show. Much of the subsequent performances were duets and solos by Afterglow members, each accompanied by keyboard or electric guitar. A couple of the songs were in a language I couldn't quite catch: Chinese, I believe. Throughout the duration of the show there were 7 numbers like this, some better than others. Occasionally, I was genuinely impressed with the talent of a singer (e.g. Daivik and Christian) or the guitarist (Sean). However, I came primed for a cappella ensemble singing, so I was disappointed not to hear more of it.
I get the impression that groups like The Afterglow put on shows of their own, maybe just a couple of times a year, and when they do, they invite guest groups to fill the program. That was certainly true tonight, and the first of the two guest groups were The Hightones from UC Santa Cruz. This is a 14-member all-female a cappella group (13 of whom made the trip tonight). They came out in non-identical green-and-black outfits and delivered their 3-song set with a lot of energy, and a good blend. I'll confess to a little disappointment that a lot of the college a cappella performances I've seen seem to rely very heavily on a lead singer. When that happens, sometimes the interest goes out of the ensemble (as I felt it did on their third song tonight), and the harmony, which is the great part of a cappella singing gets downplayed. I couldn't match what I heard from The Hightones tonight with the repertoire on their website, but I really enjoyed their first two songs, one of which was original, I believe.
After a couple of duets featuring Afterglow members, there was a 10-minute intermission, then a couple of solos and the other guest group, the California Golden Overtones from UC Berkeley ― another all-female group. These ladies had an air of committed performers: they all wore identical white tops with black slacks, open jackets, silver-collar necklaces ― and high-heels. Once again, I couldn't be sure of the titles in their 3-song set, but they were the most polished performers of the evening. Each song had elaborate, attention-getting choreography, but I was also very impressed with the quality of their very listenable sound.
The evening closed out with a 3-song set by The Afterglow. I couldn't make out the name of the first piece, but the second was a big surprise: the barbershop standard, "Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby." Then they performed the Roberta Flack classic, "Killing Me Softly With His Song" ― a concert-ending tradition for this group. In honor of the occasion they invited 3 Afterglow alumni in the audience to come down and join them. The song began gently, styled like the original, and then took off in an up-tempo, down-and-dirty style that raised the excitement level in the room.
So ended my introduction to The Afterglow. Now to see what other UC Davis a cappella groups can do!