The Sacramento Choral Calendar



Concert Review

The Spokes

HellaCappella - April 21, 2017

by Dick Frantzreb

This was the 13th annual HellaCappella College A Cappella Showcase. I last attended this event in 2013, so I was due for an update — and for me, this was a better show than the one I attended 4 years ago. HellaCappella is hosted by The Spokes, an all-female group of UC Davis undergraduates, and apart from their success in organizing this very large event, they perform with a lot of talent and showmanship. Looking at the average age of tonight’s audience and considering the probable average age of people who might read reviews in the Sacramento Choral Calendar, I’m guessing you weren’t at this performance and might be interested to know what it was like.

Mondavi Center is big (1801 seats), and it was nearly sold out for this show. I chose to sit in the fifth row, and when I first sat down, I was wondering if it might have been a mistake. It wasn’t. The music coming out of the stage wasn’t overly loud, and it was good to be able to see the facial expressions of the performers. Looking around me, it seemed that, for many, this was a social experience, as evidenced by the hugs, cheers and even screams — all before the show began.

(Click here to open the program in a new window.)

As I said, The Spokes were the hosts of the event, and it seemed to me that they luxuriated in the attention. While the audience was being seated, rock music was being played and candid pictures of Spokes members were displayed on a big screen on the stage, ending with individual shots of each member with background on them, such as their year and major. The Spokes opened and closed the show, and, as the home team, they got the warmest response from the audience. So who else was there?

The Cal Jazz Choir, from UC Berkeley (men and women)
The High Tones, from UC Santa Cruz (all women)
On the Rocks, from the University of Oregon (all men)
Asli Baat, from the University of Southern California (men and women)
Fleet Street, from Stanford University (all men)
Cloud 9, from UC Santa Cruz (men and women)

There were also two emcees, young men introduced as boyfriends of Spokes singers (one current, one past). They didn’t have a lot of stage time, and most of their attempts at humor fell flat. Still, I could see potential in them, and they could have enhanced the show, if they had invested a bit more time in planning and rehearsal. It was sad, though, that they weren’t credited in the program or even acknowledged in the thank-yous at the end of the show.

I won’t try to describe each musical set in detail, but I will offer some overall observations: essentially “what I learned about college a cappella tonight.” For a start, it looked like each college a cappella group has to have 13 members, as 4 of these groups did tonight. Two groups had 12 members, but I’m guessing that it was because someone was sick.

I got the impression that nearly all the music I heard was arranged by members of these groups. Also, it seemed that most of the music was familiar to the younger people in the audience as covers of popular songs. For myself, there were only two songs all night that I recognized. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a lot of good music — there was. But it was all “first impression” for me.

Nearly every song involved beatboxing. I have no problem with that. In fact I think it enhances the performance of upbeat, popular songs. But ultimately, it’s an art form in itself and can be done well or poorly. Also every singer tonight was on mic, which I’ve come to learn is the standard for vocal jazz groups, as well. I must say, though, that I’m not sure that the mics were balanced before the show for each singer in each group, and that led to some imbalance in harmonies.

One more thing I observed is that nearly all the songs I heard were built around solo performances by one or more singers in the group. Some of these people had great voices and styling — some not so much so. But the result of this practice is that for most of each song, the rest of the singers were reduced to a back-up group for the soloist, often performing pretty simple music. That wasn’t always the case, though, and on this evening, I heard a lot of challenging, sophisticated multi-part singing.

Each group performed a 3-song set, starting with The Spokes. It became apparent to me that these ladies are entertainers through-and-through. They began and ended each set of songs with a posed tableau, and there was a lot of emphasis on hip choreography. More than that, they just projected the persona of people who are acting for the audience — as much as singing for them. The music was mostly very upbeat, and it seemed to me that they enjoyed being (if you’ll excuse the word) a little naughty, as in one of their numbers which I think was called “Make Your Move on Me.” And the audience ate it up — except maybe in the case of one of these young women whose parents happened to be sitting in front of me.

The Cal Jazz Choir followed The Spokes, and they were exactly what their name implies: a jazz choir. Although some of the other groups tonight showed a bit of jazz styling now and then, this group was different from all of them — and very much like other vocal jazz groups I’ve seen — performing complex chords and rhythms with scat solos and quite a bit of vocal gymnastics.

Next were the women of the UC Santa Cruz High Tones. Dressed differently, but each in green and black, what distinguished them from tonight’s other groups was a country sound in most of their music. They slowly generated a lot of excitement, accentuated by foot-stomping choreography in their last song. By the time they ended, they had noticeably won over the audience.

The University of Oregon’s On the Rocks came out dressed in white shirts, ties and suspenders, and charged up with energy. Two of their songs had elaborate choreography, and throughout it seemed to me that they were playing to the young women in the audience. Before coming tonight, I noticed in The Bee that Thunder from Down Under would be performing at the Thunder Valley Casino — and I’m sure that On the Rocks had a lot of their same moves. Like The Spokes, these men were good singers, but even more committed as entertainers. Their last song had hip-hop style and choreography, with a rap solo and ended with the singers modeling the arm-waving from side to side that is so characteristic of big-name concerts. Much of the audience took their cue, and the excitement in the room rose to a new level.

The Spokes returned to close out the first half of the show with a couple of songs. In this second appearance, I noticed their outfits: tight pants and skirts, in pink and black leather. It got me thinking, especially after the performance by On the Rocks, that a lot of a show like this is about sex appeal. It’s standard for the popular solo singers and groups that these young people watch, so it’s no surprise that there was a strong sexual undercurrent in the performance of many of tonight’s groups. But not all.

The first group after intermission was Asli Baat, USC students who call their music “South-Asian fusion,” including “both classical and contemporary South-Asian music with Western musical styles, including Hip Hop, R&B, Pop and Top 40 songs.” To me, their music wasn’t distinctly ethnic, except I noticed that the lyric of the last song was in a language other than English. Rather, their music and choreography was much like the rest of what I heard tonight, though their presentation was distinctive, with the men all in black except for gold bow ties, and the women in long black dresses with elaborate gold accents.

As a Stanford alumnus and parent, I was hoping that Fleet Street would do well, so I was disappointed when their first number was “On the Street Where You Live.” Sure, it was a sophisticated arrangement, well sung, but it was pretty pallid in comparison with the other popular-sounding music I’d been hearing. In my notes, I wrote that it was “audience enthusiasm-killing.” The second song was interesting in its absence of solo and emphasis on harmony. Then there was “College,” a humorous song they had written to reflect the ups and downs of college. Toward the end, the “down” was expressed in a low grade that would cause the “student” to take 6 years to graduate. Then the “instructor” came forward to announce (in song all the while) that the “student” would get his diploma on time anyway. The “student” expressed surprise, to which the “instructor” answered: “Did you think this was a real college?” Then everyone said or sang (I don’t remember which): “Welcome to UC Berkeley!” At this, the audience exploded in laughter. Everyone seemed to be well aware of the Stanford-Berkeley rivalry, and this marked the funniest moment of the evening, and for the moment at least, Fleet Street was the audience favorite.

Cloud 9 from UC Santa Cruz was next, and they won the prize for the most outrageous costumes. Their theme was space, and each singer was dressed in some way to reflect the idea: one singer was decorated with stars (Christmas lights), two others had cut-outs of Jupiter and the moon hung around their necks, another was sporting a replica of a Milky Way candy bar wrapper, and there was outrageous make-up, hair styles, and other accoutrements. Before they sang, one person said “Look, a comet!” and one more singer ran in wearing the image of a Comet cleanser can. Despite trying too hard with their costume idea, Cloud 9’s singing was solid, and much like that of tonight’s other groups.

As hosts, The Spokes closed out the show with a 3-song set. They had changed to all-black, more sophisticated (but all different) costumes. Included in this set was a farewell ceremony for 3 graduating seniors and thank-yous for a number of behind-the-scenes people. Their music, as before, involved quite a bit of elaborate choreography with sultry singing, ending with an emotional song that might have been a theme song for them and that I think could have been called “Freedom.”

So what was my overall impression? In recent months, the Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival has been taking place throughout the US, with the national finals coming up next month in San Rafael. I have an idea what it takes to compete in this festival, and I don’t think any of tonight’s groups could meet that standard. They have their own festival anyway, the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (and there may be others). But that isn’t to say that HellaCappella wasn’t thoroughly entertaining: it was. And I plan to be back at Mondavi for next year’s “14th Annual.”

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