The Friday Arts in the Park entertainment was a performance by Minneapolis a cappella group Tonic Sol-Fa. Some version of the quartet began recording in 1995, but there have been personnel changes. In the wildest instance, a baritone was caught embezzling $27,154 from the group five years ago.
But that’s wilder than the story of this concert. Tonic Sol-Fa performed 22 songs, most of them with doo-wop or spiritual feels. Many of the songs, particularly in the first set, were original to them.
The replacement baritone, Theo Brown, mimicked drum sounds during a fair proportion of the numbers and played percussion instruments with his hands on some others. There was a fair amount of patter, a lot of this commercial in nature.
So in lots of ways TSF’s performance felt familiar to those of us who have seen the rise of pop a cappella groups while attending McCain series attractions over the last five years. The middling-size AIP crowd heard the show during a relatively cool and fairly calm evening that was as little distracting as would have been circumstances indoors.
But the show didn’t have the calculated drama that we’ve come to expect from this sort of group of male singers, perhaps partly because we had daylight through the first set. Drama needs darkness. Instead of bring dramatic, the Tonic Sol-Fa members, at least the two tenors, were puckish.
Working with no more props than percussion instruments (why bring out the washboard if you’re not going to play it?), mic stands, and the conventional tall stools, the foursome added in a little horn section imitation (on soul ballad “Mistakes,” during the first set) and did Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation” after announcing that it had been unfamiliar to them until fairly recently.
Kids, eh? They asked if any of us had heard of Marty Robbins or Johnny Horton, then did a very short version of “El Paso” (which sounded pretty good) and a “North to Alaska” with minor alterations to the tune.
They sang “Cry Me a River” without milking it and a surprisingly austere “Eleanor Rigby.” They had a song about beer consumption sung to the tune of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Do Re Mi.” That song reminded us of the group’s name, which also is the name of the business of replacing tone notes with verbal expressions like the ones in the song’s title.
Bass Jared Dove added some “rap” to a late number. Tenor Shaun Johnson gave us a little Buddy Holly voice hiccup — just one — in “Crazy About the North Side Girl” late in the show.
And then the concert ended with a song with walking bass and drum box, a doo wop number called “Riding on Top of the World” which, we were assured, was the group’s best tune.
It was a decent show as Arts in the Park stuff goes. We heard less music than we sometimes do, partly because of the verbal introductions to songs, the encouragement of audience participation, the group self-evaluations, and the “merchandising,” including the setting up of a contest held for those audience members who “texted” a code to a number.
All of this sort of thing is, unfortunately, habitual with the pop a cappella groups we’ve seen in MHK the last couple of years. Compare the flow of the show and the portion of time allotted to talking during Tonic Sol-Fa’s performance with that a week before by their fellow Minnesotans in rock band G.B. Leighton. The gab-less Leighton show had at least half an hour more music in it.
But comparing like to like, Tonic Sol-Fa gave us a decent pop a cappella show that entertained most everybody who showed up that night at the bandshell. It just wasn’t a particularly efficient or in any way “wild” show. So what did we expect?