The jaded, angry old man in me first looks at something like Pentatonix as what’s wrong with pop music. It seems like an overproduced, homogenized ploy to get some quick streams, chart a few singles and make as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time before the fans’ attention leaks to the next thing. Pentatonix first gained national attention by nearly winning a game show, something most artists kind of frown on as if the singers were gifted an opportunistic shortcut. They didn’t pay their dues, or something to that effect.
Most of what I know about Pentatonix, I learned at their show. The members do not shy away from telling their story. But once the house lights go down and the group takes the stage, how they got there matters far less than the immediacy of actual performance, and Pentatonix is pretty good.
They use many of the bells and whistles of pop music, matching costumes, elaborate lighting and stage visuals, choreographed dances, but it’s all ancillary to the acapella singing and accompanying beat-boxing. The bells and whistles enhance the show without ever overpowering the music.
Pentatonix sings several cover songs, picking hits from the everyone from Rihanna to John Lennon, but they sprinkle in enough of their own songs to keep from pandering too much. Each member finds moments in songs or during stage banter to show a little personality and individuality. Kevin Olusola performed a cello/beatboxing solo that showed off the talents that brought him enough YouTube fame to get the founding members to coax him into auditioning for the band. Newest member, Matt Sailee told the story of once sitting in the front row of a Pentatonix concert dreaming of one day performing on stage with the band, and somehow making that happen. Pentatonix is nothing if not appreciative of their fans. They thank them often and promote positive messages of diversity, acceptance, following your dreams, and being who you are. It may feel corny to cynical old guys, but resonates with the target demographic.
Each member is talented, but they are clearly stronger as an ensemble. They are well practiced and professional. It’s tough to maintain a full headline show doing acapella, but they pull it off. It ran a little long for me, but my soon-to-be-nine-year-old couldn’t get enough. The crowd was diverse with many young fans singing and dancing along enjoying every minute of high-energy show. The purest in me struggles seeing a group stage their big moments of their show around cover songs like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. It seems hokey and cliche since it’s been done so many times by so many artists--but for many of these fans, the first time they hear the song, it may be the Pentatonix version. It’s easy to defer to snobbery and turn your nose up at this--but most people first stumbled on Jeff Buckley's version before ever knowing Cohen first wrote and performed the song. We all have to start somewhere.
Pentatonix closed the night with their version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. That they fall short of Freddie Mercury is not the worst sin. They did the song justice and delivered a solid show for their fans. The vast majority of people at the show seemed to walk away excited by what they saw.