Plenty of acapella groups these days, especially college acapella groups, revel in the cheekiness of performing unlikely songs in an acapella style. So many, in fact, that the “offbeat” performances are the majority, and the unlikely becomes likely, and the old-timers in the audience long to hear “Heart of My Heart” or “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball” instead of “Carry On My Wayward Son.” This doesn’t make hearing fantastic versions of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” or John Legend’s “It Don’t Have to Change” any less enjoyable, but it does mean that sometimes, acapella groups act more like a DJ whose sets are all about selection instead of technique. Mika’s “Grace Kelly” is not necessarily made good simply because it has been chosen, nor is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” going to further bless an overly “Hallelujah”-ized world due solely to being performed without instruments.
Many of these interesting experiments reside on YouTube, but last night, they arrived live and in-person at Napa Valley Union High School’s theater. The 4th Annual Acapella Extravaganza contained plenty of vocal-only jams by Toto, the Beatles, Eric Carmen and the like, though the real reason I made the one-hour drive was the addition of OC Times, who are currently the world’s greatest barbershop quartet. That’s not just superlatives falling out of my mouth, either; they truly are the world champions according to the foremost authorities: S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A.
Why the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, after existing 76 years with the beautiful acronym S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A., changed its name to “Barbershop Harmony Society” is beyond anyone’s imagination. Refreshingly, a sizable backlash contingent still calls the organization S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A., while the main thing is that there’s even an organization at all that promotes a dying part of our heritage. The core ideals remain the same—sing the hell out of that tag!—and the annual contest is a fine determiner of the barbershop quartet with the most talent and style. So when it was announced that current S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. champions would be performing in Napa, how could I stay away? (Lots of my friends and family have already discovered quite a few reasons, thank you.)
OC Times opened their set with “Oh! Look at Me Now,” from 1941, which paved the way for a concert more Brill Building and less MTV Music Awards. Contemporary hits were limited to “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)” by John Michael Montgomery, from 1995, and then going back to “What a Wonderful World,” which entered the barbershop repertoire long ago. Plenty of 1950s doo-wop songs peppered the set—“So In Love,” “Teddy Bear,” “Sixteen Candles”—but it was classic barbershop arrangements of “Come Fly With Me” and “Blue Skies” that highlighted most a sharp performance.
Part Elvis, part Sinatra; part Nashville and part Los Angeles, OC Times has such a pitch-perfect blending of voices and timbre that it’s no wonder they’re the country’s best. Words can’t really convey how absolutely in step each phrase sounds. A little too-corny patter helps, too, and they keep one of the great S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. traditions alive by holding afterglows (casual receptions with singing and mingling) after their performances. By the time they sang their final number, “A Fool Such As I,” I was glad I made the drive, and ventured back to Santa Rosa with a heart, as they say, full of song.
P.S. One of my favorite acapella renditions right now is Of Montreal’s “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games),” memorized and medleyized by The Stereotypes, from Washington University: