Boulder Vocal Rock Band Finally ‘Makes It’
Nice guys don’t always finish first, but they do tend to finish well. That’s the payoff for the persistent craftsmanship of the men who’ve been part of Face Vocal Band. For fifteen years, they’ve carved out time from their work and family lives in and around Boulder to forge new music, an approach so unique they had to name it themselves — vocal rock, a propulsive, amplified a cappella act that’s not a Pitch Perfect knockoff, nor doo-wop, nor barbershop nor show-tune medleys nor Gregorian chants – with stunning agility and rich depth of sound. They just rock.
“‘There’s nobody doing what you’re doing,’” the group’s “vocal drummer,” Mark Megibow, says he gets told.
Face consists of four singers – tenors Ryan Driver and Cody Qualls, baritone/countertenor Stephen Ross, bass Forest Kelly – and “vocal drummer” Megibow. The band is an increasingly visible part of the musical landscape in the area and beyond. On September 10, the musicians held a gala fifteenth-anniversary concert at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, featuring guests such as Wendy Woo, the Colorado Children’s Chorale, and Side by Side Dance Company. They released their sixth album, Connections: Live in Europe, last year. They head off for a second European tour after a “Bon Voyage” concert at Loveland’s historic Rialto Theater this Friday, November 4, then return for a holiday-time trifecta of shows at three major Front Range venue: the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins, the Pikes Peak Center in Colorado Springs, and Denver’s Paramount Theatre.
So what took so long?
“There was always the desire to do a lot,” says Megibow, backstage at Lafayette’s Centaurus High School after the group’s afternoon of workshops with students, to be followed by a fundraising concert for the music program in the evening. “We had big goals from the beginning. And we’ve done many different kinds of projects. We’ve worked with Hazel Miller, Rachel Amidei, Hannah Holbrook from Shel, Nina Storey, Rob Drabkin. But we’ve had other jobs, families. So we subscribed to slow growth.”
“And we’re already beyond what we’ve envisioned,” says Qualls.
“For the first two or three years, we didn’t even have a website,” says Megibow.
In 2000, baritone Ben Lunstad and tenor Joseph DiMasi met in graduate school at the University of Colorado Boulder while singing with the a cappella group In the Buff there. They founded what eventually became Face over a two-year period, adding Kelly, Megibow and Qualls. (DiMasi bowed out in 2004; Lunstad retired from the group in January.) All told, ten singers have shifted in and out of the group since its inception; some of them came to join in September’s big anniversary concert.
Face persisted. They’ve sung the national anthem for the Broncos and the Rockies. They appeared on NBC’s first season of The Sing-Off in 2009, released albums with dogged regularity, and kept growing the number of gigs they worked per year. In December 2013, stuck with other passengers in an ice storm at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, they sang Christmas carols just for fun. YouTube uploads of their spontaneous concert garnered them national attention.
In 2014, they broke the 100-gigs-a-year barrier, and the momentum keeps building.
A cappella music shouldered its way to the forefront in recent years on the popularity of TV shows such as Glee, and the High School Musical and Pitch Perfect film series, spawning an interest that’s generated hundreds of new recordings in the genre. Most of this kind of work involves singing covers. Face does its share of those, and can lean into almost any genre – jazz, country, pop, traditional – but its members craft originals, as well, such as “How Was the Show Last Night” and “The (Hu)Man Dance.”
Their concerts are family-friendly. Maybe that’s part of the reason they’re no overnight sensations: These are life-affirming guys, and they don’t make transgressive music. Can you be socially acceptable and still rock?
What makes Face different is the honest power the act releases in performance. There are vocal pyrotechnics and moments of breakaway virtuosity, when individual voices flare into life — but everything is based on an engaging, energetic style and a smooth, full, disciplined coordination of voices, that unearthly state of listening, breathing and releasing sound as one that distinguishes the extraordinary singing group.
The group prefers to work with amplification, and percussion is the beneficiary of that approach. Megibow is a classically trained percussionist who spent thirty years in “loud, obnoxious rock bands,” he says. As a vocal drummer, he punctuates and propels the songs, pummeling the air without special effects or sampling – just whatever comes out of his mouth.
“There are certain things I can’t do vocally that I could do with a drum set,” he says. “There’s more you can do with four limbs, and things you can sustain that you just can’t vocally,” he says. “That being said, there are lots of things I can do vocally that I can’t traditionally.”
“We hit the big time – for us,” says Qualls. “We’re getting to share our songs now with an international fan base. It’s fun to go, but after a while we’re like, ‘I’m ready to go home.’”
“I think we strike that balance between the artistic and the everyday,” says Megibow. “There’s a virtue in working on it, weekend to weekend, walking on solid ground. That approach has promise. We can have it all.”
Published on November 1, 2016 at westword.com by Brad Weismann