When the Summerfest headliners were originally announced, wildly popular a cappella group Pentatonix was one of the most intriguing names headed to the Big Gig. I knew I wanted to see the show, partly because, back in college, I was in a cappella group and partly because I saw the band back at its first show in Milwaukee at The Pabst Theater – and even further back when they won NBC’s "The Sing Off" – and was rather impressed.
The main reason, however, was simple fascination. I wanted to know how a five-person a cappella group, one that relies on insanely tight harmonies and arrangements, would fare in an outdoor festival environment, not exactly a place where perfectly tuned mixing and ideal audio conditions are common.
Would they be able to keep those tight harmonies? Would their music be lost, buried underneath the rest of Summerfest’s noise? And am I going to be able to see them through this Stephen King-like misty fog that’s squatted on top of Milwaukee for the past week?
As it turns out, I and the massive, ecstatic young crowd gathered at the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard Thursday night had nothing to worry about, as the incredibly talented quintet put on a complete show of totally in-tune entertainment. Indoors or outdoors, sun or mist, there seems to be little to stop Pentatonix’s climb to the top of the a cappella world – and possibly the pop world.
The group opened with its Daft Punk medley, one of several YouTube covers to go viral for the Texas-based singers. The mix was a little on the bass heavy side, though I was very close to a stage speaker, which may have distorted my personal take. When I went further back a song later, it seemed as though the audio leveled out perfectly and stayed that way for the rest of the night. Even with the bass on high, though, the unique and unpredictable arrangement still stood out, and the band’s choreography sells a song well, energetically bounding and dancing all across the stage.
Pentatonix continued on into one of its few original songs, "Hey Momma" with a brief appearance by "Hit the Road Jack," and "Telephone," which main vocalist Scott Hoying informed the crowd was the first song the group performed together. In both cases, the complex, complicated arrangements came through almost perfectly with very little lost in the open festival setting. Instead, there was merely plenty to marvel at, whether it be bassist Avi Kaplan’s bottom-of-the-ocean deep bass, tenor Mitch Grassi’s explosive yet crystal clear falsetto or beatboxer Kevin Olusola’s insane, seemingly inhuman vocal percussion.
Covers of "Video Killed the Radio Star," seemingly Beyonce’s entire catalogue on turbo (complete with Kaplan singing a brief verse from "Bootylicious," predictably sending the crowd nuts) and "I Need Your Love" soon followed, with the night mist creeping up onto the stage. Calling the tunes merely covers, however, feels like selling Pentatonix short. Each song is recognizable, yet also wholly original and unpredictable. When the band wrapped up the show with "Can’t Hold Us" and an encore of "Thrift Shop" and "We Are Young," it was as though you were hooked on the hits all over again – even after their mind-drubbingly omnipresent radio airplay rendered those songs almost unlistenable.
Much like their first Milwaukee visit, the middle of the show was a kind of talent show-and-tell. Hoying told charming stories of how the group came together (including a fun fact about searching YouTube for beatboxers and an impression of Kaplan that sounded more like Dr. Claw from "Inspector Gadget"). And speaking of Kaplan, the man is clearly the fan favorite. Considering his voice is like blankets dipped in chocolate for the ears, the love is understandable. It seems the appreciation is returned as well, since Kaplan couldn’t stop saying, "I really like you guys a lot" throughout the evening.
The band, as a whole, was pleasantly chatty – even dropping the tidbit that they'll be appearing in the upcoming "Pitch Perfect 2."
After Kaplan briefly performed some overtone singing, remarkably producing two notes at the same time, he handed the stage over to Olusola, who showed off his simultaneous cello/beatboxing chops – a skill on display in a recent Coke ad – with an original song, "Renegade," that he wrote. The crowd was deathly quiet – and luckily, so was the rest of Summerfest other than a little loose sound coming from the show over at the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse – certainly more bedazzled than bored.
Pentatonix went into the home stretch after that, cranking out terrific, surprisingly full renditions of "Say Something" featuring Olusola on cello, "Natural Disaster" (an original song, complete with an audience sing-a-long component that was too complex for this has-been college a cappella benchwarmer), Imogen Heap’s "Aha!," the evolution of music, "Royals" and a smooth groovin’ version of "Let’s Get It On," playfully sung as is tradition to a girl from the crowd brought on stage. Kaplan sat on her lap; swoons and screams predictably ensued.
When the 80-minute set came to a close, time seemed to have flown. It was such a light, loose performance that it would be easy to take what Pentatonix just did – uniting simply five people’s voices and creating a full sound that filled an outdoor festival stage without sacrificing the harmonies and unique twists that make their music above and beyond the rest of a cappella – for granted.
During "Say Something," the combination of the stage lights and the creeping fog almost gave some band members a heavenly glow. Considering the show they just put on, it fit.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Dec. 19, 2014
"The Interview" was canceled this past week amongst hack attacks and terrorist threats. It doesn't matter that this happened to THIS particular movie. What matters is what this means for ALL movies. And what this moment represents is a terrible precedent for the future of film and art altogether.
Published Dec. 17, 2014
When I arrived to interview Harlem Globetrotter Sweet J Ekworomadu - the 12th female player in the team's 89-year history - in advance of their traditional New Year's Eve game at the BC, I was asked if I wanted to play a game of horse with Sweet J. Considering I hadn't shot a basketball since probably middle school, I couldn't turn down the opportunity fast enough. I was, however, able to ask some one-on-one questions with Ekworomadu.
Published Dec. 16, 2014
The story behind "It's a Wonderful Life" is now almost as well-known as the story of George Bailey himself. The movie performed below expectations back in 1946, but several decades later, as the movie made its way into the public domain, "It's a Wonderful Life" grew into a holiday classic. Now there's many renditions of the story, including a staged radio show version - complete with old school sound effects - coming to the Marcus Center.
Published Dec. 15, 2014
Fans have been routinely left waiting for a Chris Rock movie that truly plays up to the standard of Chris Rock. Luckily, the wait is over with the arrival of "Top Five," a loose-limbed comedy about celebrity that feels like a movie worthy of its star - in both its voice and its significant supply of laughs.
Published Dec. 12, 2014
2014 is coming to a close, which means it's time to put my first full calendar year as an official working, adult member of society in the books (well, jury's still out on the adult part). Here are some of the most memorable moments - both good and bad - from a most memorable year.
Published Dec. 10, 2014
Luckily, what's currently housed and featured at the Racine Art Museum is just as interesting and compelling as the building itself: an expansive two-part exhibition called "in(Organic)," a compilation of art works that combine the natural and unnatural - in terms of thematic meaning and artistic medium - in ways both beautiful and often unnerving.
Published Dec. 9, 2014
What doesn't kill you supposedly makes you stronger. In the case of the sneakily incisive new Swedish dark comedy "Force Majeure," however, what doesn't kill you reveals your deepest faults to all of your loved ones. And they are not impressed.
Published Dec. 8, 2014
2014 was the year of the selfie. In the beginning of the year, there was the great Oscars selfie, a photo that literally broke Twitter for a few seconds. The word existed before, but after that, suddenly news stations and outlets were attempting to cram it into every headline (similar to "twerk" in 2013) and everybody was getting on board with the word. A part of that selfie insanity was the irony-drenched EDM hit "#Selfie" from The Chainsmokers.
Published Dec. 7, 2014
When it comes to the classic story of "A Christmas Carol," Scrooge has always been the star. But just as important to the story are the Cratchits, who embody the Christmas spirit and the human spirit so essential to Dickens's fable. For the past few years, the two characters have been played in the Milwaukee Rep's annual production by the same two Milwaukee actors: Jonathan Wainwright and Marti Gobel.
Published Dec. 6, 2014
In late July, Wisconsin-based author Lesley Kagen released the e-novella "The Undertaking of Tess." The brief story played the role of a charming and intriguing little introduction to the young Finley sisters Tessie and Birdie. That e-novella was merely the appetizer, however; "The Resurrection of Tess Blessing" serves as the full course.