The subheading for this piece should read “How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Enjoy A Cappella,” because what Straight No Chaser did inside Shea’s Performing Arts Center last night wasn’t something to be taken lightly. What began as nine guys from Indiana University singing for fun during the second half of the Clinton Administration has blossomed into a full-fledged production featuring video montages and eloquent arrangements guaranteed to make even the most hardened cynic’s heart grow three sizes before the night is over.
Sure, they’re still having fun doing what they love, but the stakes get raised when the CEO of Atlantic Records offers you a record deal. You have to go all-in for the cause or else the threat of becoming another fleeting social media phenomenon hits too close to home. You must adapt and survive in a culture that will turn its back on you as quickly as it celebrated your arrival.
Not only has Straight No Chaser survived 10 years in the limelight, they’ve thrived to the extent that consecutive sold-out shows are now a reality. Buffalo loves them, and, judging by the showstopping performance they turned in, their love for Buffalo runs just as deep.
A clever mashup of Boyz II Men’s “Motownphilly” and Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It” kicked things off as Jerome Collins took his first of many incendiary turns in the front position. He crushed every note on Ike and Tina’s “Proud Mary” and conjured up a wounding interpretation of “When a Man Loves a Woman” that would make the late Percy Sledge proud.
Other gems from the first set included a hysterical dismantling of the Disney songbook and a version of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” that saw baritone Seggie Isho take center stage for an impressive, all-too-rare lead performance.
Following a brief intermission, the guys returned to make sure that everyone got into the Christmas spirit with a collection of snappy seasonal tunes minus the contrivances that often accompany the genre. Their snarky takedown of The Nutcracker was especially resonant, because I’ve always considered Tchaikovsky’s work about as insufferable as others might find an in-depth discussion of Gottlob Frege’s “On Sense and Reference.” If you disagree, well, it’s that healthy difference of opinion that really makes America such a great place to begin with.
Overall, the holiday portion of the evening was an inspired mix of the sacred and the secular highlighted by “We Three Kings” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” songs that carry more emotional weight than Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas is You” ever could. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy their rousing rendition of “Please Christmas Don’t Be Late,” I just appreciate the fact that they haven’t succumbed to the mainstream pressure to take the Christ out of Christmas. When they put down the microphones for “Mary, Did You Know?,” it was as if they were willing the audience into feeling a little better about the outside world than when they came in, and, once again, Jerome Collins killed it.
Because of how good each member of Straight No Chaser is at what they do, the argument could be made that many of the original artists wouldn’t be able to nail this material sans auto-tune or instruments of any kind. The chemistry is real, and, while I can’t claim to have been a fan since day one, I consider myself one now.