By James Doy
Date / Venue: Saturday September 10th, 2016 - Vector Arena, Auckland
EDITED 12 September to fix errors.
Pentatonix are big at our house. My wife and I (geeks that we are), first saw them on “The Sing Off”, which is a singing competition for A Capella groups masterminded by indie singer/songwriter Ben Folds. No, it was never on TV here – but it should have been.
Pentatonix were the winners of Series 3, and unlike most winners of reality TV singing competitions, went on to forge a career for themselves. They appeared in Pitch Perfect 2 (as the Canadian team), they’ve won 2 Grammy Awards, and they have the 13th most subscribed music channel on YouTube. Our daughters love them for their guest appearance on Sesame Street (well worth a watch). And last night, that broad demographic appeal was certainly represented in their audience – lots of families, one very tired toddler (dressed as Elsa from Frozen) being carried out at the end, as well as a lot of very excited tweens and teens.
Vector was in its intimate configuration – the stage well forward, and the curtains in. As the show had been transferred from the Town Hall due to unexpected demand, this isn’t really surprising! The opening act was Chris Sebastian, another reality TV alumni (Guy Sebastian’s brother, and contestant on the Voice Australia). With a very stripped down set – just him and his guitarist – his strong vocal and sense of humour were well received. He had to apologise on Twitter (@chrisebastian) as he sold out of his CDs at the merchandise table, so hopefully he found a new audience.
After a half hour interval, it was time for the main event. A brief cameo on the large digital screens, and then Pentatonix took the stage. As the name implies, there are 5 of them. The core of the group, Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying and Kirstin Maldonado, came together at College, and they recruited the final two members, Kevin Olusola and Avi Kaplan when they entered The Sing Off. It’s these two final members that make all the difference. Kevin is a phenomenal beat boxer, and Avi Kaplan has the most ridiculous bass voice you have ever heard. His regular “Thank You’s” must have resounded out to sea – I’m sure any passing whales were very confused. Working together to put down the most insane grooves, these two provided the bedrock for the show.
Scott is often perceived as the front man of the group, and has a very agile voice, riffing through his tenor range with ease. Kristen is also an amazing vocalist, but I felt she was a little underused in this show – certainly not the feature that she was in their contest days. Fortunately, Grassi has stepped up. A genuine counter-tenor, he was often on the highest harmony, and provided some of the most powerful moments of the night.
The set list was a carefully crafted run through of their own hits and some of their most popular covers. Having neglected to make notes during the show (I was having far too much fun) – I’m relieved to see they tweeted the set list – you can see it HERE if you’re interested!
Every member had their own featured moment, and took time to talk to the audience. Although it’s almost a cliché at this point, they seemed genuinely happy to be here, on the other side of the world, with such a receptive audience.
While they may be seen by some as a gimmick act, we found ourselves so swept away by the show that we had to keep reminding ourselves to appreciate the fact that there was no instrumentation other than the five voices – the sound they produced was huge. As the show went on, they did make use of a stomp box (basically a pad with a pickup in it that makes a sound like a big bass drum), and made a feature of a choir of voices provided by fans of their YouTube channel. The only time a real instrument made an appearance was when Kevin brought out his cello for a performance of a Bach prelude – simultaneously providing his own beatbox accompaniment. The cello stayed on for the next number, a medley of 'Radioactive', 'Say' and 'Papa'.
The dedicated fans were well prepared for what has become a Pentatonix concert staple – beanbags are brought out on the stage, and 5 fans are invited up to join the band for a performance of 'Misbehavin'. One lucky lady had the birthday of a lifetime as the group (and 5,000 audience members) serenaded her with “Happy Birthday dear Krysta” before they moved on to the song.
The inevitable encore provided one of the highlights of the night – an intimate performance of 'Light in the Hallway' through just one microphone, followed by the bands biggest hit to date, Sing. The musicianship and vocal stamina on display throughout the night was truly impressive, it was a fantastic experience.