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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: January 23, 2017

Singers are front and center in Vocalosity show coming to Portland

Written by: Ray Routhier
Ecko Vox, a local a cappella group has been picked to open a traveling a cappella show called Vocalosity. Group members are (front left), Christina Siravo, Eliza Ruth Watson, Warren McPherson, and Lindsay Hamilton, (back left) Alex Pratt, Ben Toppi, and Roger Marcotte. Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Ecko Vox, a local a cappella group has been picked to open a traveling a cappella show called Vocalosity. Group members are (front left), Christina Siravo, Eliza Ruth Watson, Warren McPherson, and Lindsay Hamilton, (back left) Alex Pratt, Ben Toppi, and Roger Marcotte.
Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Contemporary a cappella music sounds like a magic trick.

“Groups can do pop songs, using vocal percussion or singing a guitar solo, and people can’t believe there are no instruments,” said Warren McPherson, of the Maine a cappella group EckoVox. “When they realize it’s all done with only voices, it blows their minds.”

A cappella music is not exactly new, since people have been singing without instruments since, well, before instruments were invented. In the last century, choral groups and barbershop quartets became the public faces of a cappella. But in the last decade or so, there’s been a boom in contemporary a cappella groups, fueled by TV shows like “The Sing-Off” on NBC and the blockbuster hit film series “Pitch Perfect,” starring Portland native Anna Kendrick. They do current hit songs, and can make their voices sound like every amplified instrument imaginable.

Vocalosity, a 10-voice show of contemporary a cappella music, will be at Portland's Merrill Auditorium on Sunday.

Vocalosity, a 10-voice show of contemporary a cappella music, will be at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium on Thursday.
Vocalosity photo by Jeremy Daniel

The man who coached groups on “The Sing-Off” and is the music director for the “Perfect Pitch” films, Deke Sharon, is now taking a cappella music across the country with a live show. His 10-voice Vocalosity will come to Portland’s Merrill Auditorium Thursday. The show is presented by Portland Ovations.

In each city Vocalosity plays, Sharon’s staff asks local a cappella groups to send in video auditions, then picks one to be the opening act. In Portland, the opening slot goes to the seven members of EckoVox, who impressed the show’s producers with their soulful rendition of the Van Morrison tune “Crazy Love.” The group only formed in December, so McPherson and the others can’t believe their good luck. Well, maybe a little bit.

“I felt pretty confident about how we sounded,” said McPherson. “We’d really like to use this opportunity to get a foothold in the Portland area and establish ourselves as a contemporary a cappella group.”

The Vocalosity show includes 10 young singers from various backgrounds, none of them household names. Yet.

Watch some sensational Vocalosity clips from 2015 performances.

Bass singer James C. Jones spent 10 years in a Boston a cappella group, Ball in the House, whose gigs included singing on a Cool Whip TV commercial and with Jessica Simpson, Nick Jonas and others.

Soprano Amy Whitcomb was in two groups that competed on “The Sing-Off,” and as a solo singer, she was on the NBC show “The Voice.” Others have performed in musical theater, on TV and with a range of music groups.

The performances will be theatrical and choreographed, like many on “The Sing-Off,” Sharon said. While traditional a cappella shows might feature a fairly stationary group looking right at the audience, Vocalosity has a lot of movement, energy and acting, Sharon said.

One number focuses on a young woman who thinks she’s auditioning for the part of Maria in “West Side Story” but is actually trying out to be Maria in “The Sound of Music.” One’s Puerto Rican, one’s Austrian, and the songs are very different. So the singer sings about her confusion and panic.

Another number uses a range of Motown hits from the ’60s and ’70s to tell the story of the several stages of a romantic relationship.

“There are songs about boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back,” said Sharon, 49. “And when they’re finally together for good, (the cast) sings ‘Singed, Sealed & Delivered’ (by Stevie Wonder).”

Sharon began singing a cappella arrangements in college, at Tufts University in Massachusetts, in the 1980s. At the time, college a cappella groups were doing pop songs occasionally, but mostly ones that already sounded old-timey, like Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time.”

But Sharon wanted to start doing edgier songs off the radio, so he wrote an arrangement for “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel.

After college, he formed a contemporary a cappella group called House of Jacks, which did original songs and was known at the time as “the rock band without instruments.” The band released seven albums.

As music director of the “Pitch Perfect” movies, he meets with all the actors individually to go over arrangements and rehearse. For this interview, he spoke from the filming of “Pitch Perfect 3” in Atlanta, where he is working with Kendrick.

“She’s always the first one ready with her music, she’s very conscientious,” said Sharon.

Another Portlander, singer Michael Odokara-Okigbo, also benefited from one of Sharon’s projects, “The Sing-Off.” Odokara-Okigbo was a featured singer in a Dartmouth College group that came in second on the show in 2011. The winner was Pentatonix, a group that’s gone to major success, including a hit Christmas album.

But the show launched Odokara-Okigbo’s solo career, and he now performs as Michael O. He even landed a small role in “Pitch Perfect 2.”

Sharon said his love of a cappella music, and one of the reasons why he thinks it’s so popular right now, is because “it’s everybody’s music.”

“Everyone judges singers and everyone’s a critic, I’d like to change that about our culture,” said Sharon. “With a cappella, I say, if you want to sing, and it looks like fun, join a group. Start singing.”

In fact, Sharon said he’ll help people find a group, and they can email him directly at deke@dekesharon.com.

McPherson, a piano teacher who grew up singing a cappella music in his church in Jamaica, said he had a hard time finding a contemporary a cappella group here in southern Maine. There are barbershop groups and choruses, and college groups. Bowdoin College in Brunswick has six groups, two all-male, two all-female and two co-ed.

But McPherson, 31, is out of college, and he wasn’t looking for barbershop or a large chorus. So he started his own group, by putting the word out and getting in touch with other singers.

But even though a cappella music is changing, it is still, at its core, about good singing. Tim Wyant, who has been singing barbershop-style in the Maine-based Downeasters Chorus for more than 30 years, loves what his group sings. But he also has tickets to see Vocalosity and loves what contemporary performers can do with just their voices.

“There are a different styles but we all share and learn from each other,” said Wyant, 68. “Being part of a group is really rewarding. The group has all these disparate human voices, making a sound much bigger than the sum of its parts.”

VOCALOSITY

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $45 to $50
INFO: Portlandovations.org
WHAT ELSE: EckoVox, a contemporary a cappella singing group based in southern Maine, will open the show

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