Pentatonix may sound like a thrash metal band but they are, in fact, an American a cappella quintet that have been taking the US by storm following winning the third season of NBC’s The Sing-Off reality TV show back in 2011, which resulted in the group winning a recording contract with Sony. They’ve since gone on to win multiple Grammy awards, release four well-received EPs and three further albums including last year’s eponymous US chart-topping effort.
Comprised of Texans Scott Hoying, Kirstin Maldonado and counter-tenor Mitch Grassi along with Visalia, California-native Avi Kaplan on bass vocals and Owensboro, Kentucky-born Kevin “K.O.” Olusola rounding out the five-piece with his beatboxing skills and rather non-a cappella cello talents, the group returned to the London stage following a 2014 Shepherd’s Bush Empire visit, this time at the grander Brixton Academy venue.
Bursting onto the Brixton stage the quintet began the show with latest album track Cracked, edging closer to the front of the stage with album opener Na Na Na, the second cut allowing each of the group to show off their unique vocal talents. The screams reached a new peak as OMI cover Cheerleader was aired, the crowd being sure to sing along between screams.
“London! We’re so excited to play this show” said group leader Scott Hoying. “We’re only three songs in and I’m completely obsessed with you” he continued before breaking into second Pentatonix single Can’t Sleep Love.
“We are so happy to see all y’all here, we just came from the United States to see all y’all here tonight” said beatboxer Kevin Olusola before the group began their homage to Michael Jackson, a refreshing medley kicking off with Jackson Five hit I Want You Back and charting the King of Pop’s career from Rock With You and Billie Jean, through Thriller and Bad all the way to Heal The World, the fivesome weaving the medley neatly, with each of them taking turns at lead vocals, the only female in the group Kirstin Maldonado taking on the higher notes with the result happily satisfying.
“This next song, we had to learn specifically for this tour” said Avi Kaplan in his ultra-deep voice, introducing a cover of Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself, which had the very audible younger contingent of the audience singing along and the nearer to middle-aged folks near me eventually twigging, someone near me conceding sheepishly “I do know this song”.
Inviting Carissa and Michael Alvarado of support act Us The Duo back on stage, Maldonado introduced a cover of Shai’s 1992 hit R&B tune If I Ever Fall in Love, going from five voices to seven was certainly a sight (or rather sound) to behold.
The group departed the stage leaving Olusola alone sat behind an electric cello. The group’s rhythm section went on to introduce one of his favourite pieces of orchestral music – Bach’s Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1. And while the piece began as the instantly recognisable cello part, the 27-year-old added his beatboxing on top to form a unique “celloboxing” rendition of the Bach classic.
Meghan Trainor’s hit single NO was tackled next by the group, Olusola’s beats coupled with Kaplan’s deep bass really rounding out the sound and making you rarely realise the complete lack of instrumentation.
For Pentatonix cut Misbehavin’, huge beanbags were brought out to the stage as the group invited a handful of audience members to join them. “Do you know this song?” Hoying asked of one of the lucky fans. “‘cause if you don’t, this would be really awkward for you!” he joked, enticing a ripple of laughter across the crowd.
Imogen Heap cover Aha! with a choral arrangement of Christus Factus Est lead-in, allowed Kaplan to reach undoubtedly his lowest note of the evening and Grassi his highest. A Medley of Daft Punk hits including One More Time and Get Lucky featured later in the set, really getting the crowd pumped while demonstrating the wide range of influences the group draw upon, these a cappella renditions hitting the mark more often than missing.
Rose Gold and New Year’s Day rounded out the main set and the quintet departed the Brixton stage only to return to chants of “PTX” from the crowd moments later, huddled around a single lightbulb, hushing the 5,000-strong crowd into near pin drop silence for an unamplified take on latest album cut Light In The Hallway, an incredible feat achieved to stunning effect.
Single Sing upped the tempo for the group’s finale and had the Brixton crowd both singing and clapping along as each of the five group members took turns to lead and get closer to the crowd, Hoying descending into the crowd to sing some of his parts.
This was certainly a fun pop show of a very different kind. There were no instruments or backing tracks. No grand stage theatrics or costume changes. But simply the sheer vocal talents of five very gifted singers putting out both their own material alongside delicately re-worked popular songs.
Pentatonix take their show on an extensive 19-date tour of Continental Europe next before heading back for 22 dates across the US via Japan’s Summer Sonic Festival.
Live review of Pentatonix @ Brixton Academy by Kalpesh Patel on 26th May 2016.
Kalpesh has more music photography up on his flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/somethingforkate