'There's nothing like Brattleboro'
BRATTLEBORO -- How do you top 10 days on Oahu in January?
How about one night in Brattleboro in February?
That seems to be OK with the Tufts Beelzebubs, the college a cappella powerhouse, whose members recently returned from a musical junket to Hawaii licking their chops for a chance to sing once again at the Latchis Theatre this Saturday night.
"Going to Brattleboro is definitely one of our favorite gigs of the year," said Vinny Amaru, business manager of the ‘Bubs, as they are called, and a big fan of our town. "What sets Brattleboro apart is that the crowd is so excited. To me, there's nothing like Brattleboro. We feed off the energy of the crowd. The crowd's on your side. They want to see you succeed."
There's no doubt Brattleboro has got a bad case of A Cappella-Mania. Saturday marks the 11th year of the Collegiate A Cappella Concert to benefit the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, and the 11th year the concert has sold out the Latchis Theatre.
For those of you lucky enough to have tickets, this year's concert, which begins at 7:30 p.m., features six top college groups -- and a nice mix of the old and the new. Three groups, the all-male Bubs, Dartmouth Aires and Amherst Zumbyes, return from last year's lineup. The all-women Cat's Meow of the University of Vermont charmed Brattleboro audiences in 2008 and 2009 and are back this year. And two co-ed groups -- the Ephlats of Williams College and the Clark Bars of Clark University -- make their Brattleboro debuts.
Eager to make her college a cappella show debut is Julia Stevens, a 2013 graduate of Brattleboro Union High School and member of the Clark Bars. A big fan of the show from years past, Stevens had a musically rich experience growing up in Brattleboro, singing with the Brattleboro Union High School Chorus and Madrigals and also with Spiralia, an all-girl student-led a cappella group.
"I felt fairly prepared to sing a cappella in college, although I never thought too much about singing a cappella in college. I signed up to audition because I figured ‘Why not?' -- and I ended up happy that I did," stated Stevens in an e-mail to the Reformer.
In recent years, Stevens had been part of Brattleboro's two-day a cappella-palooza, singing in the Friday night High School A Cappella Warm-up show at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. Now she's ready for the bigger stage.
"I'm not nervous. I've been to the concert many times, and I know the audience is always great," Stevens stated. "This is our biggest show of the year, and we've been working really hard."
Working hard, yes. But also having plenty of fun. "Being in an a cappella group in college isn't that much different from what I thought it would be. Everyone is so great and was incredibly welcoming to all the newbies earlier in the year, and they're a great group of people to make music with," said Stevens.
Audiences nationwide, not just in Brattleboro, have caught on to the fun vibe of college a cappella. In case you haven't noticed, a cappella has become a very big deal, muscling its way into the pop culture conversation thanks to the TV show "Glee," the movie "Pitch Perfect" and the NBC competition "The Sing-Off," whose finale in December drew more than 5 million viewers. It seems the rest of the country has finally caught up to Brattleboro, which has been insanely into a cappella since the Latchis concert debuted in 2004.
"What's crazy is that Brattleboro, as a community, seems to love a cappella more than average," observed Nate Davis, the senior music director of the Dartmouth Aires, which finished second on "The Sing-Off" in 2011. "Brattleboro is a special performance for the group."
Like the Aires, the Bubs also finished second in their season on "The Sing-Off" in 2009 and later served as the real-live voices of the fictional Dalton Academy Warblers on "Glee." Their local popularity has grown to mammoth proportions -- this year marks the seventh year they have sung at the Latchis -- bolstered by the presence of Bubs alumni like Brattleboro native Penn Rosen, Brattleboro Museum & Art Center Director Danny Lichtenfeld, Putney School Director of Admissions John Barrengos and Saxtons River physician Dr. Gary Clay.
But their following spans the globe, thanks to tours all over, including their recent 10-day spin through Oahu, where they braved temperatures in the mid-70s and clear blue skies on the beaches. They sang concerts and led workshops, including a day at President Barack Obama's former school, and worked with kids of all ages, from kindergarten on up.
"We always take things like that very seriously. They're the future of what we're doing," said Amaru.
This year the Bubs will be arriving in Brattleboro sporting suntans and a new CD, "Helix," which was released in October. Copies of the CD will be for sale at the Latchis, but for those who can't wait, it's also available at bubs.com and on iTunes.
Like the Bubs, the Dartmouth Aires have not rested on their "Sing-Off" laurels. Last spring they toured Aruba, but this year during spring break, they will be staying in Hanover, N.H., to spend time in the recording studio making a new album.
Although only three Aires remain from the group which dazzled audiences and judges on "The Sing-Off," the lessons have remained engrained.
"What we learned was, beyond being technically incredible, what people really want out of a performance is to glean some kind of feeling," said Davis.
Singing, Davis said, is "a huge part of campus life" at Dartmouth, which sports 11 a cappella groups, meaning roughly one out of every 20 undergrads is in one.
The same ratio holds at Amherst College, which boasts six groups among its 1,800 students. "We've been dubbed ‘the singing college,'" said Albert Joo, music director of the Zumbyes. "I think a cappella has a pretty big scene on campus."
Once called "the most dangerous a cappella group on the planet" by the New York Times, the Zumbyes, who specialize in old-time soul, R&B and jazz but embrace other genres, have been making the scene in some very special places. They recently sang for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in Washington, D.C., and also sang at a private event for executives of the Lilly Pulitzer fashion empire. They all received designer Lilly Pulitzer neckties as gifts. Some of the Zumbyes will no doubt be sporting their Lilly Pulitzers in Brattleboro.
"Brattleboro was definitely one of the biggest shows we've been to. Performing there was a blast," said Joo. "We are big believers in having high energy on stage. A great audience does wonders for us. I felt that in Brattleboro last year."
Looking forward to reconnecting with Brattleboro audiences are the ladies of UVM's Cat's Meow. Crowd-pleasers in 2008 and 2009, the group has been sharpening its chops lately, testing themselves at competitions like Boston Sings last year.
"As a group, we're very excited," said Courtney Casper, the group's business manager, a senior majoring in community and international development.
She's had a chance to practice a little community development with the Cat's Meow, which has welcomed many new members this year and has been working hard on gelling as a group.
"We're all so close as individuals. We love being around each other. We make each other laugh," said Casper, who did a lot of musical theater in high school and wanted to be in an a cappella group when she got to college. "This was something I definitely sought out in college. ... Hopping into a cappella was one of the best things. I was leery of all-girls. There's a lot of estrogen in one place."
She has no regrets.
"It's awesome to see the powerhouse that a women's group can be," said Casper, who will be sad to leave the Cat's Meow behind when she graduates this spring. "Honestly, I'll miss being able to get together with a group of girls, and we can laugh and be together and talk about the weekend and also break into song. It's a really beautiful thing."
Rebecca Comella, a senior with the Williams College Ephlats, echoed those warm fuzzy feelings about the people she sings with.
"I adore this group. I consider each and every one of the members we have as family. ... We treat each other like sisters and brothers," said Comella.
Like their mates in other groups, the Ephlats, who derive their name from the Williams College mascot, a purple cow named Ephelia, these singers have toured some fun-filled places, including a spring break swing through Florida.
But the most significant gigs for Comella are the ones like the singing they did in a Boston pediatric hospital. After that one, a Williams alum, whose little nephew was one of the patients, wrote a letter thanking the Ephlats for bringing a little sunshine to the youngsters' lives.
"That really touched me," said Comella.
Like the other colleges, Williams is practically awash in a cappella with 10 groups, including one that specializes in Asian music and another that's an all-Disney group.
"Generally, there's a lot of support for the a cappella groups. We just kind of want everybody to do well," she said.
And that's the vibe of the Brattleboro show, which has brought singers together now to raise their voices for a good cause -- the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.
Friday night's High School A Cappella Warm-up at the museum at 7:30 p.m., features top area high school singers and raises money for the In-Sight Photography Project.
In addition, Saturday concert-goers are asked to bring a canned good or non-perishable food item for the Brattleboro Area Drop-In Center.
For more information on Saturday's concert, which is sold-out, visit www.brattleboromuseum.org or call 802-254-0124.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.