Pentatonix thrill at Warfield

Kevin Foote/Senior Staff

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From soul to hip-hop to dubstep and to reggae, vocal sensations Pentatonix effortlessly cross and blend genres, revitalizing a singing style seldom heard outside of churches or choir halls.  The five-part a cappella group took the stage at The Warfield in San Francisco on Sunday night, voicing their rallying call, “Choir nerds unite!”

Avi Kaplan, Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, Mitch Grassi and Kevin Olusola began performing together as Pentatonix on the third season of NBC’s a cappella singing competition “The Sing-Off.” Week after week, the band impressed the judges with cleverly reimagined renditions of pop hits like “OMG” (Usher), “Love Lockdown” (Kanye West) and “E.T.” (Katy Perry). Judge Shawn Stockman, of Boyz II Men fame, told the group, “I think you guys were sent back from the future to save a cappella and do it in a futuristic way,” after their innovative performance of The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The quintet went on to win the entire competition, have since released their debut EP, PTX Vol. 1 and are currently on their second national headlining tour.

Although they now perform with the polish of established a cappella predecessors The Manhattan Transfer or The Hi-Lo’s, all five members of the band did not meet properly until 24 hours before their audition for “The Sing-Off.” The original trio — Hoying, Maldonado and Grassi —  began singing together in high school and garnered some positive attention on YouTube with their a cappella version of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” In a phone interview, bassist Avi Kaplan explained how the rest of the group got together.

“(Scott) wanted to try out for ‘The Sing-Off,’ but he needed a bass and a beat boxer,” Kaplan said.  “They found Kevin on YouTube. He had a video of him playing cello and beatboxing at the same time. They found me through a mutual friend and we all got together the day before the audition … things definitely clicked right away.”

Their chemistry may have been instantaneous, but the band is not necessarily looking for the immediate fame of other television singing competition winners like Kelly Clarkson or One Direction.

“I think that our success is different than theirs,” Kaplan said. “We’re kind of trying to build it slowly, build our fan base, and just do it our own way.”

Their own way seems to be working, if a sold-out show at the Warfield is any indication. As soon as Olusola dropped the first beat of the Swedish House Mafia opener, the entire venue (filled, for the most part, with adoring “choir nerds”) exploded with enthusiasm. Expertly coordinated lights flashed on and off to complement pauses in the music, while brightly colored lasers stayed right on pace with Olusola’s robotically consistent beatboxing.  With one headlining tour already under their belts, Pentatonix wanted to improve upon their live performance and expand the entertainment level of their shows.

Kaplan was enthusiastic about the changes, saying: “The live shows are totally different. We try to make it sound like a full band and I feel like we really pull that off.  I think the musical factor is something that keeps people really engaged, but now we also want to have a visual factor … For our last tour, we really didn’t have very much choreography, but for this one we have choreography and staging and lighting.”

The set list for the night included numbers from “The Sing-Off” as well as covers from the Pentatonix YouTube channel, like renditions of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” and the brilliant Justin Bieber-Katy Perry mash-up, “As Long As You Love Me/Wide Awake.” Always eager to appease their fans (who call themselves Pentaholics), the group took a poll on their Facebook page to pick a band to cover. ’N Sync won out, resulting in a deliciously infectious pop medley of the boy band’s greatest hits, including “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” “Bye Bye Bye” and “Pop.”

Although known for their covers, Pentatonix also performed several original songs which were written by members of the band. Kaplan described their song writing as “a really organic process” — one which he hopes will lead to heightened popularity for the group.

“We really want to try to break into the mainstream and try to get our original songs on the radio. We just want to be looked at as separate artists, not as an a cappella group. Basically, we see ourselves as a band that just happens to use their voices.”

Unlike traditional pop bands, with Pentatonix, it’s impossible to pick a favorite. Each vocalist adds something special to the impressive wall of sound. Throughout the night, all five singers got their time to shine. Hoying, despite being a self-declared “choir nerd,” showed off his swoon-worthy, soulful vocals while singing lead on almost every song. Grassi delighted the crowd with his falsetto “wah-wahs” on the opening of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” while Maldonado held her own as the group’s only female with some impressive belting on “Dog Days Are Over.” Olusola combined a classical cello performance with his signature beat boxing and Kaplan showed off his ability to sing two vocal parts at once, a feat otherwise known as Mongolian throat singing.

The show ended with a dynamic version of Nicki Minaj’s “Starships,” adorably censored with Grassi’s quip, “Bad Mitches like me is hard to come by.” As the audience filed out of the venue with tour merchandise in hand, pockets of inspired singing erupted along Market Street. Pentatonix may not have a mainstream following yet, but with their boundary-pushing sound and flawless live performance, these “choir nerds” may just be the next big thing in pop.

Contact Grace at [email protected].