Winning a reality television competition doesn’t guarantee career success. Just ask the majority of celebrated American Idol victors. It’s even more incredible for success to a group of five musicians who don’t incorporate any instruments in their music. A cappella quintet Pentatonix – Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi, Avi Kaplan, Kirstie Maldonado and beatboxer Kevin Olusola – won season three of NBC’s The Sing-Off, in 2011.
The group parlayed their success into millions of subscribers to their YouTube channel. Last year the group released its fourth EP and two studio albums, as well as its second holiday record, That’s Christmas To Me.
The holiday offering came out of nowhere to go platinum, becoming the highest-charting holiday album by a group since 1962. It also went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and was also the third best selling album of the year, according to Billboard.
But that was not the pinnacle. Thanks to a rule change by the Recording Academy that the Grammy category for best instrumental arrangement category would include a cappella for the first time, Pentatonix were nominated, and earlier this month won the award with “Daft Punk,” a medley of Daft Punk tunes.
Wednesday, they kicked off a nearly sold-out national tour with the first of two shows at the Fox Theater in Oakland. Out of 21 dates, only one show in Utah has tickets remaining for purchase. The second show is tonight.
Over the course of a nearly 90-minute performance, the five-piece performed their arrangements as covers and medleys to a packed house that, if judging by the intensity of the high-pitched screams, was there to see a boy band or a pop starlet rather than an a cappella group.
Whether the Grammy win improved ticket sales is unclear. But a win would be a step in the right direction toward mainstream acceptance and approval as a true music genre, Hoying said one hour prior to the group’s triumph at the Grammy Awards, at a Los Angeles hotel café on February 8.
“But, honestly, we are on our way there, and on our way there fast,” he said. “People want to see something new, refreshing, organic. I think there’s something humble (and) super fun about a cappella.”
Wednesday’s show wasn’t lacking on energy or entertainment value. Pentatonix performed arrangements of songs by Beyonce, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Disclosure, and Sam Smith (“Latch”), an early favorite, and others. A faithful arrangement of the Kanye West, Rihanna and Paul McCartney tune “FourFiveSeconds,” went over well as the group paraded down the aisles of the theater. And encore closer “Daft Punk,” was recreated with bits of the group’s video playing behind them. Each song or medley gave every member a solo or other chance to shine.
And just when one began to wonder how the five would survive for such a long performance without musical instruments to give their vocal chords a break, the question was answered by an extended Olusola cello performance – while beatboxing.
A cappella was once a genre just storied as any other. Barbershop quartets paved the way for Motown harmonizing; to the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s. Along the line, lyricizing lost a bit of its importance.
“Once music got more angsty and got more sexual and ‘rock ‘n’ roll,’ I think it deviated away from something super wholesome,” Grassi said.
Added Hoying: “ I guess (a cappella) was a little cheesy. But the thing is, cheesy is kind of on its way back in.”
Pentatonix threw choreographed dance moves and Motown shimmies into their performance Wednesday. But they also showed a cappella can be sexual. The group pulled a female fan onto the stage, and then serenaded her with “Let’s Get It On,” while taking turns dancing around – and on – her as she sat in a chair.
A medley called “Evolution of Music,” followed and over the course of a few minutes, transitioned from 11th century Gregorian chanting to modern fare. The number would have made Jimmy Fallon blush.
Winning a Grammy has been a longtime dream for Pentatonix, as a group and individually, Hoying said.
“When I was 12 years old, I made a vision board, and winning a Grammy was on it,” he said. “And now it’s about to come true 10 years later. I knew I wanted to be a singer and tour.”
The dream to win as a cappella vocalists started about three years ago, Mitch Grassi added. When the Recording Academy allowed groups such as them to be eligible for the category, in June 2014, they were thrilled.
“But when we were actually nominated, it was so surreal,” Grassi said. “When we found out, we all started crying and calling our parents. It was such a moment for us.”
Hoying hopes that the respect that comes with winning an award will legitimize the genre.
Added Grassi: “It would allow people to see us more as an actual band, a musical entity rather than just a novelty artist.”
The members have other musical talents. Besides Olusola’s cello exploits, Kaplan is a guitarist. Hoying and Grassi both play piano. Excluding instruments from their music is a creative choice.
“There’s something really special about singing with no instruments. It feels really good, and it’s really fun, so we never get sick of it,” Hoying said.
But a cappella is a visual music genre. To get the full effect of the performance, it is important to watch it live; to see the full, rich sound being created with no instruments or other assistance.
And here is where Wednesday’s performance could have been better, at least for those not in the front few rows. Even though on-stage cameras were available for ever group member, only during one song did they take advantage of their strongest weapon. During the rest of the show, the giant video screen behind the group showed the arty graphics typical of other performances.
At the conclusion of the tour, the band will return to the studio, this time with perhaps the biggest challenge they’ve yet faced: Recording an album of original material. They will be tasked with writing songs people don’t already know in a genre that many still don’t listen.
Releasing their takes on existing and already popular songs has helped them in the past. That advantage will no longer be there. Additionally, the group will need to create songs that balance vocal abilities with a sound rich enough for radio – another challenge of “making it.”
They will have to “make it accessible, hold on to our integrity and keep what our fans love about us,” Hoying said.
8 p.m., Thursday
Fox Theater, 1805 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
Tickets: $35-$45 (Sold out)