At Rogers Arena on Tuesday, July 2
You wouldn’t often expect an a cappella group to be big enough to embark on a 51-city stadium tour, but after eight years of spinning pop hits into instrument-free arrangements and absolutely dominating the Christmas season, Pentatonix is finally on that level.
In terms of Vancouver shows, the quintet have upgraded over the years from the Vogue Theatre to Pacific Coliseum to a sold-out Rogers Arena show on Tuesday night.
As the profile of Pentatonix has grown, the group has definitely settled into a bit of a formula. Band members Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi, Kirstie Maldonado, Kevin Olusola, and Matt Sallee have toned down some of the creative spark in both their originals and covers in favour of loud and powerful performances of uplifting and inspirational material.
All the same, hearing Pentatonix’s career-spanning set list in a venue as big as Rogers Arena was quite surreal when reflecting back on how far the group has come. There were definitely some incredible moments when it was easy to forget that the sheer power being generated on-stage came from only five voices standing up there alone.
Before the final song, beatboxer Kevin Olusola beamed out at the audience and said, “it never gets old to see this many people at an a cappella show,” and honestly, achieving that alone is impressive.
Pentatonix baritone Scott Hoying is a former member of the University of Southern California’s SoCal VoCals, the most accomplished collegiate a cappella group of all time, and he put together an all-female quintet of their alumni to serve as opener Citizen Queen.
The band’s five members stepped out looking like a '90s girl group, which proved appropriate as soon as Citizen Queen dropped into an extended medley of songs by girl groups spanning seven decades, taking the crowd on a journey from the Chordettes’ 1954 hit “Mr. Sandman” to Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home”.
It was easy to see why they captured the VoCals’ record-setting fifth title at the International Collegiate Championships of A Cappella last year.
The feel-good vibes continued when human sunbeam Rachel Platten bounded onto the stage with a starry-eyed smile. As an opener, Platten’s music was an appropriate introduction for Pentatonix’s new uplifting direction—it’s surprising that the group hasn’t covered her perennially motivational anthem “Fight Song” yet.
The crowd response for her smash hit might honestly have been slightly bigger than anything the headliners got. The remainder of her set was full of derivative pop tracks, but her striking singing voice and endlessly cheerful attitude got the crowd appropriately ready for Pentatonix’s arrival.
Platten’s energy—when she wasn’t hugging security guards she was headbanging at her keyboard—became all the more admirable after she explained that she had brought her five-month-old baby on tour with her.
Initially hidden behind a curtain, Pentatonix introduced the crowd to their powerful voices with a grandiose introduction that sounded like a Hans Zimmer score, blue lights flashing in sync with Olusola’s beats.
Dressed in vaguely futuristic black-and-white uniforms, it took them a couple songs to catch up to the level of energy they promised with their intro, but as soon as they settled into the groove of hits like “High Hopes” and “Havana” the crowd was fully on their side.
“Havana” was one of the better visual moments of the night, as stagehands brought on a couple tables and the lighting flashed a dim red to evoke the Cuban restaurant of Camila Cabello’s music video for the song, the singers walking around and flirting with each other. Olusola mimed playing his microphone like a trumpet while mimicking the instrument with his vocals.
Each member of Pentatonix got their own full song to display some star power, whether it was the group’s only female member Kirstie Maldonado belting out “Shallow” or the extended mid-song applause every time tenor Mitch Grassi let out one of his climactic high notes. It was great to hear the talents of each individual member and appreciate even more how they come together to make up the full sound of the group.
There was even a standing ovation for Olusola’s “celloboxing” routine, a staple at Pentatonix shows where he takes out a loop pedal and beatboxes while playing the cello. This time, he hit us with the Game of Thrones theme song.
The newest member of the group after the departure of original member Avi Kaplan, Matt Sallee gave a speech to the crowd expressing how grateful he was to sing with Pentatonix, after sitting at home on the couch watching the group win The Sing-Off like most of the people in attendance.
The Sing-Off was an ill-fated a cappella singing competition show on NBC that saw Pentatonix win its third season and the record contract that came along with the top-spot placing. Some unfortunate label exec made the decision to drop the future superstars only a week later, as Maldonado explained to the crowd, prompting a flurry of boos.
Maldonado’s speech introduced one of the most fascinating segments of the show for original fans of the group, running through brief snippets of older material that didn’t make the set list. The songs dated all the way back to the group’s high-school days, through The Sing-Off and their early EPs.
Hearing the songs they performed on The Sing-Off all those years ago—especially their breakout performance of “Video Killed the Radio Star” that all but guaranteed their victory—was particularly chills-inducing, considering the group is now playing to some of the biggest crowds of its career.
The best segment of the show came after Hoying shouted out all his fellow choir and theatre nerds in the audience, introducing a block of songs with traditional choral and theatrical influence—the Imogen Heap track “Aha!”, Cosmo Sheldrake’s “Come Along”, which Hoying called “one of our weirder arrangements”, and the best moment in the show, a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”.
For the former two tracks, their twitchy, off-kilter choreography was both eerie and enchanting and called back to a time when the group was the new, subversive a cappella group on the popular-music scene.
During “The Sound of Silence”, though, standing perfectly still in five matching power stances proved that you don’t always need theatrics to create a powerful moment. Pentatonix’s members let their voices do all of the dramatic heavy lifting.
Hoying’s lower range verged on menacing as he sang the opening lines, the song ultimately exploding in beautiful four-part harmony as each singer seemingly stretched their vocals to a breaking point.
Pentatonix’s ability to bring this kind of grandiose higher gear to songs that many regard as untouchable classics is one of the group’s greatest strengths, which was proven again later on in the show with “Bohemian Rhapsody”, in which the members stood in the classic formation from Queen’s music video.
Crowd engagement was also a major part of the night, with Olusola and Sallee leading a sing-along segment that spotlighted greatest songs of all time to drunkenly sing along to in a massive crowd, including “Sweet Caroline”, “Stand by Me”, and, what else, “Old Town Road”.
But the real moment that showed just how much Pentatonix had captured the audience came when they returned without microphones for the encore. Their 2014 original “Run to You” was delivered in true, real-life a cappella fashion… and people actually quieted down to hear them.
You’d expect maybe one overzealous fan to squeak out an “I love you,” but there wasn’t a single noise to be heard throughout the entire song.
Since Pentatonix has upgraded in venue size every time it’s come back to Vancouver, who knows, maybe next time the band touches down in the city we’ll be seeing an a cappella group take B.C. Place. The group certainly has the raw talent to make it work.