By MIKE CHAIKEN
Live harmonies can be a tricky thing for pop performers.
Crosby, Stills, and Nash are renowned for their harmonies. On record, they are impeccable. The voices instruments themselves, relegating the electric guitars, bass, and drums to the background where they should be.
However, in the mid-1980s, I saw CSN at Lake Compounce, where they performed in an open air setting, and the harmonies were a disaster. The voices were out of sync or out-of-tune. And it was so awful, it ruined their reputation in my eyes.
Boys II Men also is a group that made its reputation on their harmonies. But a few months ago, I saw the group in a live setting and the harmonies were shrill and dissonant—- and not deliberately. The group sweetened the harmonies with backing tracks or electronic trickery… and it made it sound even worse.
In a live setting, more times than not, the voices are willing—but the technology is not. If you get the wrong sound mix—the monitors aren’t turned up enough, the earpieces providing the wrong sonic information from your bandmates—the ship of harmony hits the rocks.
However, when the harmonies are spot on, with the sound of those human voices meshing together for melodies and chords, it’s pure magic.
So, I was curious to see how Straight No Chaser would handle a cavernous venue like the Mohegan Sun Arena. Arenas are tough for vocalists because of their size. The vocals leave the stage and then return to the stage as echoes a few microseconds later. And it’s enough to toss you off your game if you allow yourself to be distracted.
And Straight No Chaser is all vocals—an a cappella group that performs sans band and who uses the human voices to perform every part of the arrangements, right down to the percussion
I’m happy to say Straight No Chaser found the magic.
The 10-man group’s harmonies were spot on. They hit the notes. They were in sync. The sound was full and sweet. And at no point did I even notice that there was no band on stage to fill out the sonic proceedings.
Whether they were performing something as rhythmic as their cover version of the Bruno Mars-Mark Ronson hit “Uptown Funk” mashed up with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or they were more laidback with Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” or their medley of Christmas classics such as “Silver Bells” or “Silent Night,” Straight No Chaser demonstrated how lovely the human voice can be – even in an arena more at home to a women’s basketball team and an indoor lacrosse team.
Musically, there were so many highlights, it’s hard to pick out one. Throughout the evening, Straight No Chaser caught my ear and took me—and the entire audience for that matter—on a wonderful musical trip.
The other dimension of Straight No Chaser that made the show so great is their sense of humor. They take the music extremely seriously, but they are not afraid to have a good time and give the audience a laugh. For me, since I’ve never seen them live, it was entirely unexpected.
Straight No Chaser began the evening immediately by making the audience in the sold-out arena laugh. They opened with a video where the group parodied shows such as “Naked and Afraid” and “Shark Tank.” And their choreography as they sang throughout the night—which is an amazing feat in itself—often injected humor into the proceedings. This was especially evident in their cover of “All About the Bass” (countered with “No Tenors” instead of “No Treble”) where there was some good natured competition between bass, tenor, and baritone sections. Also, their encore with their holiday mash-up of the “12 Days of Christmas” (which launched their career) was a laugh a minute.
At the Mohegan Sun Arena on Dec. 4, the 10 men in Straight No Chaser, first of all proved again and again to masterful vocalists. Secondly, the proved they are consummate entertainers who gave the audience their money’s worth.
At the end of the night, the crowd gave the group a standing ovation. It was a well-deserved reward for a fabulous evening out.
I give Straight No Chaser at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Dec. 4 four out of four stars.
PHOTOS by MIKE CHAIKEN