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 July 24, 2015
At first glance, Ellington Ratliff may seem like the odd man in the pop rock band R5. He's the only one who's not a member of the Lynch family. He's the only one with a first name that doesn't begin with R (Riker, Rocky, Ross and Rydel make up the rest), and he's the only bandmate not born and raised in Colorado. Instead, Ratliff was born out in Los Angeles and split time in Wisconsin, making the band's Riverside gig Friday night a return of sorts.
Published July 23, 2015
If the last two days have proven anything, it's that Milwaukee will freaking lose their mind over the mere idea of a lion. At least, local movie fans Stephen Milek and Christopher Kai House certainly hope that is the case, as the two film buffs attempt to bring the notoriously insane 1981 thriller/borderline snuff film "Roar" to town.
Published July 22, 2015
Bookended by AJ Bombers and Water Street Brewery, Water Street is famous for three Bs: bars, burgers and bros. The tightly packed combination of those things has made the area a popular nighttime hot spot. Yet amongst all of the bars and clubs is something unexpected: A. Werner Silversmith, a buried treasure - quite literally considering its glass cases and shelves containing shimmering, beautifully repaired silver pieces - hiding in plain sight.
Published July 20, 2015
Brooklyn-based indie band Lazyeyes guitarist and singer Jason Abrishami has never been to Milwaukee - let alone any part of the Midwest really. He admits he hasn't even heard that much about the Cream City, but he'll learn about the city firsthand Wednesday night when the band and its shoegaze-laced dream rock makes its maiden trip to the city via a gig at The Mad Planet.
Published July 19, 2015
Tarsem Singh is a man who spent about four years and much of his own money traveling the globe's most outrageously beautiful locales in order to make his magnum opus "The Fall." So how'd he end up standing behind the camera of "Self/Less," an utterly anonymous and impact-free immortality action-thriller that - much like the fresh if not quite new bodies being peddled in the film - seems "alive only in the most basic sense"?
Published July 18, 2015
What if? It's two simple words, not even adding up 10 letters, but that seemingly innocent question has likely haunted every single person that's walked this planet at some point or another. And it's a question that fascinates Milwaukee native Cynthia Swanson, so much so that she made that idea the cornerstone for her debut novel, "The Bookseller."
Published July 17, 2015
Every band has at least a small group of devoted fans cheering it on and supporting it on its way to the spotlight. The retro "nu-wop" family band The Bronx Wanderers, coming to Festa Italiana this weekend, is no different - except some of those devoted fans just happen to be entertainment icons from their hometown neighborhood, including Dion DiMucci, Tony Orlando and Oscar-nominated actors Chazz Palminteri and Danny Aiello.
Published July 15, 2015
When Festa Italiana starts up this Friday at Henry Maier Festival Park, many will flock down to the lakefront to gulp down some real authentic Italian food and wine. Yet some of the most revered tastes of Italian culture coming to town this weekend are wholly inedible: the lovingly crafted and almost identical replicas of the country's most famous sites - this year including a 50-foot duplicate of the iconic Trevi Fountain.
Published July 12, 2015
Whenever some pop cultural hallmark gets a shiny new Hollywood remake or reboot, the Internet's response is always the same, to the point that you might as well give it its own key on the keyboard: "They're destroying my childhood!" In all cases, it's complete hyperbolic fanboy spazzing - all, except for maybe the case of "Terminator: Genisys" (the silly bonus y nicely echoing my main line of thought while watching the movie).
Published July 11, 2015
Channing Tatum must've heard your laments concerning the first "Magic Mike" film and brought most of the gang back together for "Magic Mike XXL," the best possible version of the sexy, silly male stripper movie audiences thought they were getting the first time though.