Big Ten a cappella groups strut their stuff at concert

Jodi Genshaft

Four Midwestern a cappella groups, categorized by chords and colors, staged a non-competitive showcase Saturday evening in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

The third annual Best of the Midwest College A Cappella Extravaganza drew about 1,050 students and parents, overflowing the concert hall where Northwestern’s Purple Haze lay the scene.

Purple Haze took the stage along with The Xtension Chords, an all-male group from the University of Illinois; Amazin’ Blue, the oldest co-ed group, from the University of Michigan; and The Rip Chords, an all-female group also from U of I. Each group performed four songs, blending pop culture references, vocal percussion, dancing and humor.

Emcees Ryan Harrison and Jess Lacher, both Speech seniors, initially promised that the event would be a “civil war,” but later backed off and applauded non-violent a cappella.

The Xtension Chords, dressed in garage mechanic shirts, led an old-school rendition of Rockapella’s “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” This song, along with Billy Pilgrim’s “Insomniac,” brought laughter to the 15-minute set.

“You’re coming for the humor,” said Jeff Grider, a freshman from U of I. “You’re coming for the shtick.”

Both The Rip Chords and Purple Haze sang Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’,” unaware of the groups’ set lists.

Tobias Singer said Weinberg sophomore Rachel DeShay’s solo sent “tingles down my spine.”

“The dynamic of contrasts caught me off guard,” said Singer, a Michigan freshman. “I haven’t heard that much soul in a long time. She was rockin’.”

Amazin’ Blue ditched its maize and blue colors for a black-tie look. The group closed with an uplifting Boys II Men medley of “America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” to honor the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Although Purple Haze did not compile set lists before the concert, it welcomed the spirited medley, BOTM producer Mario Jobbe said.

“Everyone wants to go out and have a good time and certainly not put this behind them,” said Jobbe, a Weinberg junior. “People want to go on with their lives and have a great (Family) Weekend.”

Speech sophomore and Purple Haze member Michael Mahler mastered Michael Jackson’s moon-walking moves and high-pitched notes in “Billy Jean.”

Grider said the collaboration of three Big Ten schools “speaks volumes” about the a cappella community.

“The audience didn’t come to see The Xtension Chords,” he said. “They didn’t come to see Purple Haze. They came to see the Best of the Midwest.”

BOTM, the brainchild of former Purple Haze member David Lefkowich, Speech ’01, builds community among Midwest a cappella groups, Jobbe said. A cappella music has a longer tradition at East Coast universities, he added.

Purple Haze invited fewer groups this year to keep the show under an hour and a half; last year, seven a cappella groups performed at BOTM.

“We were really going for quality over quantity,” Jobbe said. “We wanted to get a flavor from schools around the Midwest.”

U of I junior Jeremy Little said BOTM 2001 hit all the big Midwest schools that comprise the “top echelon,” but several groups were missing.

Indiana University’s all-male group, Straight No Chaser, backed out two weeks ago, Jobbe said.

Still, the performance gave groups an opportunity to listen to their peers in a non-competitive forum.

“There’s nothing better than singing, taking music out of the ink of the page and into the aesthetic,” Little said.