Thursday January 31, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Of all the words President Obama has said, one, in particular, resonated with Ilona Miller.

"We did hear him say ‘Smiffenpoofs,’" said Miller, a senior at Smith College and singer with the college a cappella world’s oldest female group.

Celebrating their 76th years, the Smiffenpoofs had been invited to the White House to sing there a few weeks ago at a party honoring the Secret Service. The President and First Lady Michele Obama stopped by and heard them.

"From what I saw, Mr. Obama was very excited to see us," said Miller.

Brattleboro is too. The Smiffenpoofs will be returning to the Latchis Theatre after several years absence for the 10th Annual Collegiate A Cappella Benefit Concert this Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

There they join six other top groups in a concert that has been a local favorite from the get-go and celebrates what is clearly a worldwide mania for a cappella singing.

Worldwide?

Sure. Consider this. While Miller and the Smiffenpoofs were traveling Washington’s corridors of power, the Tufts Beelzebubs, perennial Brattleboro favorites, stars of NBC’s "The Sing-Off" and vocalists for "Glee" were still basking on the glow of a bright international spotlight.

Last spring, the all-male Bubs traveled to Hong Kong at the invitation of the Federation of Youth Groups and got to perform for arena-size crowds you usually associate with rock and roll.

"It had smoke machines, Jumbotrons and colored lights.


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We could pretend we were rock stars," said Michael Grant, the music director of the Beelzebubs. The thousands of screaming high school kids added to the rock-star atmosphere.

Meanwhile, fellow Tufts group, the co-ed Amalgamates, were venturing to Dublin, Ireland, to sing and walk in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Clearly, college a cappella leads to some pretty amazing experiences.

But this weekend, a cappella roads lead to Brattleboro, where the popular annual concert returns to the Latchis. In addition to groups which feature singers with local connections, the concert celebrates its 10th anniversary with the return of three of the groups -- The Smiffenpoofs, The Amalgamates and Quasimodal of Wesleyan -- that were there in the early days.

The concert has sold out every. A handful of tickets were still available as of presstime, available only through www.brattleborotix.com.

Proceeds from the concert benefit the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

Kayla Rice was at Brattleboro Area Middle School for the first college a cappella concerts at the Latchis.

"I just remembered thinking that all of the groups were so cool. I definitely looked up to them," she said.

Now a senior at Syracuse University, majoring in photojournalism with a minor in anthropology, Rice returns with her group, the all-women Mandarins, who made their first appearance at the Latchis last year and pleased the crowd.

It was a chance for Rice to come full circle, from teen in the audience looking up to her role models to college singer doing the same for the next generation.

"Now that I’m where I am, I see it from a different point of view," she said. "It’s good to be a role model."

Rice said the Mandarins are particularly strong this year and working into top form to sing in the ICCA’s -- college a cappella’s equivalent of the NCAA tournament. She and the rest of her group have fond memories of Brattleboro and are looking forward to being back.

"I think it was just a really good experience for us. I think it was the biggest audience we’ve ever performed for and also one of the most ‘into-it’ audiences," Rice said. "They just loved the town of Brattleboro. We were on Main Street, and we saw a man walking a goat. They just loved how quirky it was."

About to discover just how cool, quirky, kind and a cappella-friendly Brattleboro audiences are the Amherst College Zumbyes, who make their first appearance at the Latchis.

An all-male group in its 63rd year, the Zumbyes pride themselves on a mix of repertoire -- they plan to sing The Temptations’ "Can’t Get Next To You," Stevie Wonder’s "I Wish," Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" and the Beatles’ "Blackbird." The New York Times once called them "the most dangerous a cappella group on the planet."

The Zumbyes post area singer Mett Fernald, who grew up in Peterborough, N.H., and become obsessed with a cappella when he first heard a Zumbyes CD when he was 15. Now a senior tenor, Fernald said his a cappella experience has been formative -- in fact, it helped him decide to become a music major.

"There are so many ways for people to get involved and to make it your own. There’s something special about that," said Fernald.

Fans already know there’s something very special about the Beelzebubs of Tufts, who blew away national TV audiences with their runner-up finish on the first season on NBC’s "The Sing-Off" and followed that up with a chance to supply the vocals for the Dalton Warblers on "Glee" the next year, when Brattleboro’s own Penn Rosen was music director.

World travelers, with an appearance at the White House, to boot, the Bubs are pleased to be returning to Brattleboro.

"It’s become such a wonderful, and, in some ways, unexpected, tradition for us," said Michael Grant. "In some ways, Hong Kong and Brattleboro have in common this genuine enthusiasm, this obsession with a cappella.

It’s a big year for the Bubs -- aren’t they all? -- who are finishing up work on a new CD, planning a spring trip to Seattle, Oregon and San Francisco and also celebrating their 50th year.

In true Bubs fashion, they approached the 50th anniversary celebration in a grand way -- extra candles on the cake aren’t good enough. So running now through May 27, the Bubs are highlighted in an exhibit of recordings, photographs, documents and memorabilia at the Tufts University Art Gallery.

And lo and behold, Danny Lichtenfeld, Bubs alum and director of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, was the one who put the exhibit together, with the help of Mara Williams, Christopher Irion and Tim Allen.

"Here’s a group that has a singular record of accomplishment. At every juncture where collegiate a cappella has lurched forward, the Bubs have been right there," said Lichtenfeld, who first joined the Bubs 25 years ago, left Tufts 20 years and has been connected to the group through its strong alumni organization ever since. "It defined my college experience, and I threw myself into it as much as possible. ... My closest friends in the world are guys I sang with."

"It was sort of surreal to see this history in a museum-type format," said Grant, who appreciates that the Bubs have struck a balance between respecting their history without being weighed down by it.

Similarly prestigious and accomplished, the Dartmouth Aires make their third appearance at the concert. A colorful -- to say the least -- and high-energy group, the all-male Aires also appeared on NBC’s "The Sing-Off," finishing second overall, like the Bubs, in 2011.

And like the Bubs, there’s a "Glee" connection. One of their singers, Clark Moore, just landed a role on the hit TV show.

According to Aires Business Manager Danny Freeman, the Brattleboro a cappella concert is the group’s favorite event of the year, and they are thrilled to be returning to such a receptive audience as Brattleboro’s.

Another group of old friends coming back are the Smiffenpoofs, who performed three times in earlier years with local singer Louisa Sullivan.

Now, they’re back, fresh off their White House appearance with two new CDs, one a celebration of their 75th anniversary last year and the other, a live recording.

"We’re really, really excited to come to Brattleboro," said Ilona Miller, whose aunt Carol Oleksiw is a longtime volunteer for the Brattleboro event.

The Smiffenpoofs’ repertoire spans many eras and genres, everything from the 1940s-era hit "Softly" to classics from Led Zeppelin to the latest by Nicki Minaj.

A senior education and English literature major, Miller plans to teach next year, and knows she will miss life in the Smiffenpoofs.

"It’s played a pivotal role in my experience. It’s just wonderful that the group cares so deeply about each other," said Miller. "I’ll always feel like I’m part of the group."

Rounding out the lineup are two groups who were part of the first shows.

Quasimodal of Wesleyan was part of the first three shows, led by local singer John Wesley, whom many credit, along with his sister Carolyn, as being the true founding spirits of the event.

A co-ed group celebrating its 30th year, Quasimodal plans to include Adele’s "Rumor Has It" and Kanye’s "All of the Lights" in its Brattleboro set and is excited to be coming back.

"I’ve heard that it’s a kind of exciting and artistic part of Vermont, and it all makes sense that a cappella would thrive there," said Mariana Quinn-Makwaia, junior and Quasimodal business manager. "A cappella geeks -- we need more of those!"

The group will have copies of its brand new CD, "Release the Kraken" for sale -- Brattleboro is the first place they will be sold.

Another old favorite is the Amalgamates, a co-ed group at Tufts that came to Brattleboro for the first four a cappella concerts with local singer Sean Ryan, who currently teaches elementary school Spanish at The Sustainability Academy and The Integrated Arts Academy in Burlington.

"This is a big deal. I think it’s really awesome that you guys remembered us," said ‘Mates President Morgan Babbs. "It’s so much fun when you sing for people who know who you are and really appreciate college a cappella."

Known for singing in a tight moving and grinding semi-circle they call "the claw," the Amalgamates pride themselves on high-intensity upbeat shows.

"We definitely put out the idea that we have a lot of fun. We’re super-huge on energy," Babbs said.

Remaining tickets are available only in rear orchestra ($28) and balcony ($20) and are available only through brattleborotix.com.

For those of you who can’t get enough a cappella or who don’t manage to get tickets, the High School A Cappella Warm-up concert will be held on Friday, at 8 p.m., at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

Proceeds from the high school show benefit the In-Sight Photography Project, which teaches photography to youth ages 11-18. Tickets are $10, $5 for students, available at the door. For information, call In-Sight Photography Project at 802-251-9960.

Lead sponsors include Brattleboro Savings & Loan, C&S Wholesale Grocers, along with The Richards Group, Business & Tax Consultants and Mary Meyer Corporation. At all the weekend’s shows, there will be a canned goods collection for the Vermont Food Shelf at the Drop In Center, this year it will be in memory of Melinda Bussimo, as well as Mariam Diallo’s Haitian Relief Fund and the Tropical Storm Irene Fund.