Country a cappella heartthrobs ‘Home Free’ perform at UB

They’re a little bit silly, a little bit sappy and very, very skilled. Not a bad combination, especially when these attributes landed them a Columbia Record deal.

Of course, I’m talking about Home Free, the Minnesota-based country a cappella group that won the fourth season of NBC’s “The Sing-Off.” Last night, Home Free performed a potpourri of a cappella country and pop covers at the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts stage — their third last stop on their “Crazy Life” CD tour.

While this is their first national tour since “The Sing-Off,” these boys are polished and professional performers. And they should be. They have years of technical musical training and on-the-road practice above their cowboy boots.

Brothers Chris (baritone) and Adam Rupp (percussion) started the group during their years at Gustavus Adolphus College 14 years ago. With the addition of tenor Rob Lundquist, bassist Tim Foust and high tenor Austin Brown, they’ve sang at hundreds of concerts — through fairs, colleges and cruise ships.

They know their audience too.

Although last night’s show was their second time at Center for the Arts (they were here last year on “The Sing-Off” tour), most of the audience was seeing them live for the first time.

“How many people are here because your wives dragged you here?” they asked, followed by a showing of hands.

This opprotunity allowed them to showcase their strengths while addressing the skeptics. Adam Rupp, the group’s resident beat-box, performed a one-man drum solo, mixing and re-mixing sounds and genres with his lips.

It rivals the technical genius of Bo Burnham’s “We Think We Know You.”

Foust showed off his impressive almost five-octave range with a cover of Josh Turner’s “Your Man.” During a particularly high note, Lundquist and Brown berate Foust for overstepping and dipping into their range as tenors.

What makes Home Free hit home is beyond their vocal range though. It’s their performance, self-aware talent, and maybe a little bit of their looks too. Brown and Foust shamelessly give the crowd smoldering stares before the intermission break, hoping to sell some CDs. (Their Holiday CD, “Full of Cheer,” was released on iTunes Sept. 30; “Crazy Life” was released Jan. 13.)

Foust demonstrates his skills as a lyricist. The group performed a few original songs, penned by Foust, including the sweet and sentimental country crooner “I’ve Seen”; and the comedic hit “Champagne Taste (On A Beer Budget).” Foust’s low voice and the high backup vocals makes the latter song seem like a slower musical parody of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (minus the violin, of course).

Like fellow country star Taylor Swift, they can effortlessly cover everything from country to pop, adding their unique country twang. This includes One Direction’s “The Story of My Life,” Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” and Bobby Day’s 1957 single “Rockin’ Robin.”

Their specialty, of course, is their country harmonies, and they showcase them with Kenny Chesney’s “American Kids,” Scotty McCreery’s “Feelin’ It,” Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” Rascal Flatts’ “Life Is A Highway,” Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” the Zac Brown Band’s “Warmer Weather,” and ending with the most ‘country’ classic of all, “God Bless America.”

Now that’s something America can love.

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‘Enter the Haggis’ tells a story

Enter the Haggis playing on July 7 at the HIstoric Riviera Theatre & Performing Arts Center. Photo taken by Qina Liu

The Celtic have a tradition as storytellers — and Canadian Celtic-Rock band Enter the Haggis emulate this skill as they take the stage last Friday night at the Historic Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, N.Y.

“This song has always been kind of an obituary,” singer Brian Buchanan says as he introduces, “The Flood,” one of the band’s newest songs from their C.D. “Whitelake.”

“This song is not about drowning,” Buchanan says ironically; he almost drowned when canoeing after recording this song. “The cheerful note of the story is that I don’t die,” he says.

To this, an audience member cheers.

“The Flood” starts off slow, it’s haunting and somber melody flooding the theatre as Buchanan sings about trying not to drown amid the flood of “commitments and careers.”

“It’s easy to not be afraid and simply close our eyes as we watch the water rise,” he sings.

In a way, these lyrics reflect the story of the band, who decided to do the not easy thing of leaving their record label to record “Whitelake” independently. The stories, like “The Flood,” are more personal, and the overall C.D. sounds more rock, blues and country than the Celtic flavor that riveted fans.

Despite going in a new direction that might disappoint some, Enter the Haggis continues to tell the stories that supported them. These stories included “Noteworthy and Piercy,” which Buchanan describes as the true story of two fisherman from Newfoundland; “The Death of Johnny Mooring”; “One Last Drink”; “Lanigan’s Ball”; “Down with the Ship”; and…

“Gasoline,” someone shouts from the orchestra.

“Where?” Buchanan asks, looking around comically.

Dutifully, Enter the Haggis plays “Gasoline” during their second set, followed by newer songs such as “Whistleblower,” which is about an ex-child soldier returning home; and “Devil’s Son,” which Buchanan describes as the “happy song about Mark Madoff’s suicide.”

The eclectic blend of both older and newer songs and styles only added to the energy of the theatre as Craig Downie virtuosoly juggled among trumpet to bagpipes to harmonica to vocals and Brian traded time among fiddle, keyboard, guitar and microphone. As depressing as the lyrics to Stan Rogers’ “White Squall” might be, the lighthearted banter between the band and the audience raised spirits.

“There’s a bar, you know,” Downie says as he raises a pint of Guinness to his lips.

Later Downie becomes fascinated by a chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the Riviera Theatre, and begins singing from “Phantom of the Opera.”

“You know, when he sings, that chandelier falls, right?” Buchanan quips.

This playful, tongue-in-cheek banter continues as Craig narrates Phantom, calling, “Christine, Christine.”

“The crowd’s yelling for Lady Gaga,” says Buchanan. “Or Andrew Lloyd Beiber.”

Enter the Haggis plays “Cameos” at the Riviera Theatre. Photo taken by Qina Liu.

In reality though, the crowd was yelling for Enter the Haggis, standing and cheering until the band returned. Unplugged from their amps, the five members of the band lined up at the front of the stage and began singing, “Cameos.”

“The story’s told, the credits roll, the lights are up, it’s time to go,” chimed the voices of Buchanan, Downie, Trever Lewington, Mark Abraham and Bruce McCarthy.

“This is a beautiful, beautiful theatre and we’d love to come back someday,” Buchanan says.

With the success of “Whitelake,” Enter the Haggis will be recording another indie album in October.

Ritter ‘rocks’ The Haunt

Josh Ritter delivers an enthused set at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 24 at The Haunt in Ithaca, N.Y. Photograph taken by Qina Liu.

Josh Ritter is an angel — sent from Heaven to entertain on Earth. And in his newest song “Sir Gallahad,” Ritter compares himself to a celestial being, poking fun at the habits of one of the most morally solid knights of the round table.

However, even angels have mortal flaws. Ritter’s “curse” is that no matter how well or how long he performs, the crowd will always wants more. While Ritter revisited favorites such as “Harrisburg,” he also alluded to The Talking Head’s “Once In A Lifetime.” After an exhausting hour-and-40-minute set on Oct. 24 at The Haunt in Ithaca, N.Y., Josh Ritter emerges half-drenched in sweat as the cheers of the crowd escalate.

With his charismatic grin and his high energy, the incandescent creature can certainly charm a crowd “with the light of my lantern.” He had the crowd waving glowsticks, singing choruses, dancing, clapping and cheering for an encore.

The Levon Helm Band captivates audience at The State Theatre

It is not often that one encounters a legend face to face, but when audience members filed in to see Levon Helm perform at 8 p.m. on March 5 in the State Theatre, they were sure to have that experience.

Recovering from his 1998 diagnosis of throat cancer, Levon Helm, who has spent his whole life dedicated to music, was told he would never sing again. But the 69-year-old musician is a true performer. Helm made a consecutive two-time Grammy-winning comeback with his 2007 release of “Dirt Farmer” for best traditional folk album and his 2009 release of “Electric Dirt” for best Americana album. Having worked with musicians like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and influenced others, such as Elton John and Marc Cohn, Levon Helm remains an inspiration.

The Wood Brothers, a two-man band consisting of brothers Chris Wood on bass and Oliver Wood on guitar, provided the opening entertainment for the famed performer. While the duo could not quite match Helm’s skill as a multitalented musician, The Wood Brothers gave a solid performance in their folksy-blues style.

Chris Wood’s fingers created masterful moans with the cello, while his older brother Oliver Wood provided the lyrical and guitar accompaniment to songs such as “Tried and Tempted,” “Lovin’ Arms,” “Chocolate On My Tongue” and “Up Above My Head.”  Often, Chris Wood would play the harmonica or harmonize with his brother’s voice while simultaneously providing the walking bass lines to the songs. The Wood Brother’s hour-long set served as a brilliant opening act for The Levon Helm Band. They relaxed the audience with their mellow soft sounds.

The other members of The Levon Helm Band carried the vocals of most of the songs, but Helm had a maintained a quiet but powerful presence on stage. The original member of the rock group, the rest of the band was always moving with his rhythm as he kept the beat with his skillful drumming.

Brian Mitchell, a singer and musician for the band, whose voice was raspier than Levon’s, pleased the crowd with his frequent chromatic scales on the piano and head banging. While Mitchell switched between playing the piano and accordion between songs, other members of the band carried musical solos: Steven Bernstein on the trumpet, Clark Gayton on the trombone and Jay Collins and Erik Lawrence on the saxophone. They alternated between the brass solos in “Fannie Mae” and gave the song a lively, jazzier feel.

To the delight of audience members dancing in the aisles, The Levon Helm Band also performed some older, popular hits. “Long Black Veil,” originally featured on the band’s 1968 album “Music From Big Pink.” It was a crowd pleaser as Teresa Williams’ and Amy Helm’s powerful country voices belted out the lyrics. The band’s “Remedy” also began with screams of approval from the crowd, as it featured Jimmy Weider on acoustic guitar, with Larry Campbell performing a sick electric guitar riff. The angelic harmonies of Larry Campbell, Amy Helm and Teresa Williams were simply breathtaking when singing their rendition of The Grateful Dead’s “Attics Of My Life.”

Photo taken by Claudia Pietrazak for The Ithacan.

The highlight of the set was when Levon Helm traded his drumsticks for his mandolin and began singing “Deep Elem Blues.” It was endearing to watch Levon Helm and his daughter Amy Helm sway to the music, each leaning into a shared microphone. It was one of the most infectiously spirited tunes.

At the end, The Wood Brother’s were invited back onstage to sing the band’s 1968 hit “The Weight.” Like the performance began, the show ended with a full standing ovation from audience members, who filled the theatre with deafening applause.

Click here to see the article in The Ithacan. For more information on The Levon Helm Band and their Midnight Ramblings, click here.