Flash in the Viral Youtube Pan – or Here to Stay?
You probably know their story. They were a college men's a cappella group, very popular on Indiana University campus and in the a cappella competition circuit. Then they graduated and went their separate ways. Six years later, in 2007, one of the members posted on Youtube their 1998 live performance of a very amusing "12 Days of Christmas." Seven million hits later, Atlantic Records came calling. The video is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Fe11OlMiz8 It's now at over 12 million hits.
As these viral things go, I first saw it during the Christmas season of 2008, and loved it. I downloaded The Straight No Chaser Christmas album "Holiday Spirits," and also purchased one as a gift for my work colleague Tammy. Her daughter is the original Christmas music fan, and played the music year round. So when her daughter (now a sophomore in high school) heard that SNC was bringing their national tour to Rochester last November, Tammy suggested the three of us make it a girls night concert.
I was curious to see what the audience would be like – and a bit concerned that they were booked into the huge Auditorium Theater. Sure, people linked to their online videos – but would they pay 30 to 60 bucks for tickets to an actual performance?
Straight No Chaser filled the huge Rochester Auditorium Theatre. The place was swarming with "Chasers" as the fans are known. And what an interesting mix – young, middle age, old – major female component, though. I guess that should not be a surprise, considering you have 10 nice young men making beautiful sounds in really, really shiny suits. (Seriously – one member described the suit's material make up as 40 percent polyester, 60 percent shiny.)
So enough of the anthropological study – what about the music?
Let's just get this out of the way: I loved the concert, had a really great time. It was a good two hours (with an intermission) that seemed to fly by. To pull off a cappella, you need excellent vocalists who are also good listeners, and are willing to blend. Straight No Chaser has that, and a very mellow sound. They shine in letting their individual personalities each have a chance to showcase during the concert. Their logo incorporates the standing mikes each singer employs. No over the ear mikes or pasted on lavaliers – they want you to remember that they are making every sound you hear, with their voices, into those big microphones.
SNC's musical arrangements are – diverse. They offer such a wide ranging playlist I hardly know where to start. They are firmly planted in the pop world – as in "popular music." We were treated to a lovely mashup of I'm Yours and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Really hopping jive version of You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three. As if that was not hopping enough - "Joy to the World – of the Jeremiah bullfrog fame." Singers Michael Luginbill and Jerome Collins took the leads on a touching rendition of "Fix You."
It would be very easy for SNC to slip into the a cappella trap of "Look Ma, No Instruments!" For my taste, they come a little too close with gimmicky mashups of TV theme songs of the 1980's – and their "Christmas Can-Can" doesn't have the "12 Days of Christmas" magic – at least, not for me. But then they come back with a haunting rendition of "Under the Bridge" - and you don't really care if there are instruments on the stage or not. You just know you're hearing glorious, heartbreaking music.
The singers paid tribute to the source of their "overnight success." Before the intermission they brought up the houselights, and one member came forward and took photos of the audience. They posted the images on their Facebook page during the intermission, and invited us to tag ourselves, and keep the viral social network thing going. You can see every audience of their summer/fall tour on their website, if you like.
Of course they had an encore. Of course, it was their viral mega hit, all 12 days of it. After much screaming (did I mention it was a heavily female audience?) and applause, they returned for encore number two - without their microphones. Over 2,000 people fell silent as Straight No Chaser once again filled that huge Rochester Auditorium Theatre – with an unplugged, powerful and totally unaffected "O Holy Night."
As long as these 10 men, formerly of Indiana University, can pull off musical moments like that, they will continue to be more than a viral one-hit sensation.
- Cindy Boyer