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VAN Reviews

New York Regionals
Harmony Sweepstakes

February 17, 2001, 7:00pm
Symphony Space, New York
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Reviewed by Dan Rosenbaum
Web posted February 23, 2001

Most concerts don’t end with a winner being declared. For that matter, most concerts give the acts on the bill more than eight minutes on stage. And most concerts have significantly fewer acts than the eight that perform at the typical Harmony Sweepstakes.

All of which somewhat blunts the formal critical impulse. The event, after all, claims to be self-reviewing, ending with a champion being crowned. In the best case, that’s indeed what happens. Yet talent shows – particularly the New York Sweeps – have an odd way of ending in a somewhat skewed manner, with the results not always tallying with what happened on stage.

Happily, the 2001 edition of the New York Sweeps played true throughout. Vox Bop, the six-year-old jazz quartet featuring intricate and cerebral arrangements by David Deschamps, was deservedly named the winner both by judges and audience. In addition, Deschamps’s “Slinky Variations,” a seven-and-a-half minute survey of a cappella styles based on the Slinky jingle, was named best arrangement of the evening.

The group will represent the New York region at the National Harmony Sweepstakes in San Mateo, CA on May 5.

The result visibly surprised the group, which had performed well in earlier Sweeps but finished consistently out of the money. This year, the group’s performance swung perhaps more than usual, and harmonies were particularly well locked-in. Vox Bop is never a particularly demonstrative group, but the members’ comfort in the environment and solid mastery of the complex arrangement let them project a sense of warmth and ease. The audience responded to a song that was essentially a string of inside jokes that played well to an audience of vocal insiders.

Finishing in second place was PhilHarmonix, one of two mixed barbershop jazz quartets. I always look forward to hearing barbershoppers in the Sweeps; they are used to competitive singing, understand the importance of stage presence, and almost without exception sing spectacularly in tune. PhilHarmonix, which claims to have had its first rehearsal at 2am under an escalator in a Columbus, Ohio hotel lobby, did not disappoint. The quartet opened with the best arrangement runner-up, a version of Spanky & Our Gang’s ‘60s hit “Lazy Day,” and followed up with a silky “Lullaby of Broadway.” Put me on the mailing list.

The Flatiron 5 was awarded Honorable Mention. Performing in the difficult final spot, the six-man group (they never did explain that sixth person) was clearly performing in the annoying post-collegiate tradition, with one singer on the end pumping his arm to keep time. The group opened with “Coney Island Baby” and closed with a similar chestnut. Low degree-of-difficulty points, and only a middling performance.

NexTime, the other mixed barbershop jazz group, impressed with a funny if somewhat rushed novelty song “’Cause I’m a Blond.” Like PhilHarmonix, the performance was professional and polished. I could happily have heard more.

Voxy, a female septet, had the unenviable job of opening the evening and took a crucial two minutes or so to find its groove. They eventually found it, but by that time it was too late. The group’s vocal percussion could use more work, too.

Mystery Date has performed in earlier sweeps under the name Sons & Lovers. Same personnel, much of the same material; they brought back the B-52’s “Rock Lobster,” which they had performed in a previous appearance. The group is steadily getting more polished and confident, though I’d like to hear some new material.

Dobsonfly is a new spin-out of the late DooWaZoo, anchored by Warren Bloom. Much of its material sounded like recycled DWZ, however, and its staging has not yet jelled. This will be an interesting group to watch develop, but they are clearly not there yet.

All About Buford is a Boston import, and a puzzling one. There seemed to be two different groups working on stage. The men, including the frantic vocal percussionist Shah Salmi, appeared to be in an entirely different show than the women. The women did better: a cappella vet Amy Malkoff got off a couple of terrific licks that amply demonstrated that she needs a better group to support her.

Jeff LaGreca, of the comedy a cappella group Minimum Wage, was an able and entertaining master of ceremonies, keeping the well-paced evening moving along smartly. Jeff Thacher, the vocal percussionist of Rockapella, had the thankless job of mixing sound for eight groups in a single evening with all the critical choices that entailed. That he occasionally missed a balance is more an indication of the impossibility of the task than of any lack of skill. The Ex-Boyfriends performed inter-act skits while James Caran untangled mic cords. And producer Townsend Belisle merits full marks for providing a high-quality entertainment that, for the first time in many years, fully conformed to prevailing rules of the national competition.

One complaint: the program for the evening was far too small, and printed in such a way as to make it barely legible in full light – let alone in a darkened auditorium. Tiny black type on 3-by-5-inch chartreuse paper is a bad design decision.

Judges for the evening (who were not introduced, though they were credited in the program) were jazz producer Sandra Arnold; Gerard Brown III, who co-executive produced the seminal PBS special Do It A Cappella; New York CASA Ambassador Lisa Dawson; Margaret Dorn, leader of past champion The Accidentals; agent Jeff Hyman; music educator Francisco Nuñez, and Groove Barber member Kevin Weist.

(Conflict disclosure: VAN founder Steve Friedman acted as web publicist for the Sweeps and assisted in the selection of the eight groups chosen to perform. In addition, the reviewer is a personal friend of performers in several groups: Vox Bop, Mystery Date, Voxy, and Dobsonfly.)


Dan Rosenbaum is a former music critic for Digital Audio and CD Review magazines, and his reviews have also appeared in Audio magazine and the Schwann Catalog. He is a widely known technology journalist, and sings tenor in several New York groups.

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Content Contact: Dan Rosenbaum.
Revision Date: June 19, 2002.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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