BY SELENA FRAGASSI | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
If there was any doubt that reality singing competitions might soon be nearing their end, Pentatonix is sure to silence the noise. The five-member a capella group from Arlington, Texas, cheekily named for the range of scales they can collectively master, was one of the early winners of NBC’s “The Sing Off” in 2011. Since then, Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi, Kirstin Maldonado, Avi Kaplan and Kevin Olusola have gone on to become one of the medium’s top-grossing acts with the fourth best-selling album of 2014, 7.7 million YouTube subscribers and a recent Grammy win that has made their latest tour one of the most anticipated of the season.
At Sunday night’s concert, the first of two sold-out shows at Chicago Theatre (they return to the stage Monday night), the group delivered on the hype with an impressive 18-song performance that mixed pop and electro styles with classical and hip-hop overtones — all executed sans instruments. Instead, a bag of vocal tricks including beat boxing, low bass and high harmonies energized pop covers from Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga and a Daft Punk medley as well as a few select originals. The nonstop 90-minute show garnered the group multiple standing ovations and one woman who needed a fainting chair after she was called on stage to be a special guest during a rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”
“Dina, in the three-and-a-half years we’ve been doing this, we’ve never had anything like that,” said Olusola after the woman’s exaggerated motions of pulling at her hair and ripping off her sweater might have led you to believe she saw the Motown singer come back from the dead rather than a group of 20-somethings engaged in karaoke. It was one of the stranger feelings of the night, knowing that the uproarious applause for songs like Ariana Grande’s “Problem” had an arguably bigger reaction than when the singer herself played Allstate Arena in the same week. Though you can’t blame them — Pentatonix seem to be following a proven formula for Generation Next. Grande herself found increased interest after posting Imogen Heap covers on her YouTube account.
What Pentatonix is doing is not necessarily new. A capella groups have been around since the dawn of time, a fact that was emphasized in a wild “Evolution of Music” medley that mashed up a historic timeline from 11th century Gregorian chants to “Call Me Maybe.” In that sense, Pentatonix is no different from your ‘50s barbershop quartet or ‘90s boy band. What is remarkable though is their nearly non-human pitches and devout concentration and how they could even find each other in the first place.
The story was told by Grassi while Polaroids and videos of their early days played on large screens behind him. He, Hoying and Maldonado originally met in high school and later made “the solid decision” to add the Barry White-sounding Kaplan and beat boxer Olusola whose “cello-boxing” bit (the only time an instrument appeared) was the night’s standout moment.
For all the success Pentatonix has had, the five members seemed firmly grounded to their roots as they moved around the stage’s lit-up risers reminiscent of those old high school bleachers and helped to orchestrate audience sing-a-longs.
“I know all you choir kids are out there,” Hoying shouted before a rash of fans unanimously jumped out of their seats like this was an actual pep rally. While we can celebrate that shows like “The Sing-Off” and even “Glee” have made choirs more popular than ever, it’s also created frequent apathy for instruments and songwriting, as evidenced here. Hopefully what Hoying has said about the band “transitioning into original music” is true — those were the group’s performances that were really begging for encores.
Problem (Ariana Grande cover)
Telephone (Lady Gaga cover)
La La Latch (Sam Smith mashup)
Love You Long Time (Jazmine Sullivan cover)
Rather Be (Clean Bandit cover)
Kevin Olusola “cello-boxing” solo
Papaoutai (Stromae cover)
Aha! (Imogen Heap cover)
Four Five Seconds (Rihanna cover)
Break Free/See Through (Ariana Grande cover)
Uptown Funk (Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars cover)
Let’s Get It On (Marvin Gaye cover)
Evolution of Music medley
On My Way Home
That’s Christmas To Me
Daft Punk medley
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.