Rediscovering the House Jacks
If you think there is no way you could possibly enjoy a House Jacks show more than you already do, try this: go with someone who has never seen them perform live before. I guarantee you’ll feel as giddy as a schoolgirl.
Okay, maybe not the schoolgirl part, I exaggerate. But on Friday, May 20, I went to the Grass Valley Center for the Arts (CA) to see “ma boyz” and brought my friend Martha – she’d seen a YouTube of them before but otherwise, a total newbie. She was in for a treat, and watching her discovery made it even better for me as well.
In case there’s anyone not up to speed on the House Jacks, they are – in no particular order – Austin Willacy, Roopak Ahuja (aka “Roo”), Deke Sharon, Troy Horne, and Jake Moulton.
Austin’s stratospheric tenor is awesome to behold; Roo’s clear tone with just the slightest husky edge is captivating; Troy’s bass lines are rock solid, as are his somewhat higher-pitched solo turns; Jake is a beatboxer extraordinaire whose repertoire of sounds is unmatched; and Deke… well, if you read my review of the previous Grass Valley HJ show, you know I think he’s an a cappella deity. So… onward.
Two things were immediately evident when the guys took the stage on Friday. First, they were dressed alike, in jeans and similar-toned plaid shirts – looking just individual enough that it could have been a coincidence, but alike enough that I found myself thinking, “Hey, costumes!” I’m not sure that was what they were going for, but as a theatre person, that’s sort of how my mind works sometimes.
The second thing was something less mundane and far more alarming… there were only four of them. It seems that Jake had been horribly delayed at LAX and was, at that moment, careening up the highway in his rental car from Sacramento Airport. Deke explained that they would be starting off with their “VH1 Unplugged set,” and that Jake would join them for the second set.
As the four of them began singing, I could tell Martha was impressed. It was probably the breathless “wow” I kept hearing her mutter under her breath that made me think that, but who can be sure? From my own standpoint, it was a treat to hear how the guys handled the situation professionally, with grace and humor. Also, did I mention they sing like gangbusters?
After a few tunes, a figure burst out of the stage-right wings and zoomed across the stage, coming to a stop at stage left with a Tom Cruise-like slide – Jake was here! Without missing a beat, the full complement of House Jackitude launched into a new song, “Got What You Wanted.” My first thought was, “Oh, yeah, now THAT’S what I came for…” And Martha just about fell out of her chair, a phenomenon that occurred several other times throughout the evening.
The contrast from four to five singers was about much more than just the addition of the percussion line, and the difference was far more striking than just adding 25% more energy. It was an exponential difference – from sounding merely terrific to “Whoa. Dude.”
From there on out, they simply rocked the house. Charming, relaxed, silly, serious, lyrical, funky, virtuosic – they gave the small but very enthusiastic and multigenerational crowd a show to remember. Much of the material was taken from their latest album, Level, which won three Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards this year. In contrast to the show I saw last year when they came to Grass Valley, which focused mostly on lead vocals by Austin and Roo, this program was far more evenly distributed, so we got to hear star turns from all five guys, including an unbearably sweet one-voice rendition of his original song, “Goodbye” (found on the new album) by Troy to end the first set.
As always, the audience request portion of the program brought great hilarity, but continued to amaze, as the Jacks improvised fully-realized harmonic and rhythmic renditions of songs they’d had no idea they’d be performing. The songs requested ranged all over the map – Garth Brooks, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Beach Boys, and more – and the guys just flowed from one to the next with all good humor.
One other “discovery moment” worth mentioning came during the second set when Deke took center stage to do a cool jazzy arrangement of Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” When he broke into his “vocal trumpet” solo, I actually heard a member of the audience spontaneously shout out in wonderment, “OMG!! No way!!” I found myself hoping that Deke had heard the outburst too – such an honest, unguarded, and genuine reaction.
The second set ended with “You Were Everything,” a driving, powerful piece with passionate intensity and an irresistible rhythmic hook. You’ll find it on the new album, but the live performance is unmatched and electrifying. Evidently, it’s also the song that plays on “The Sing-Off” when Nick Lachey comes on stage – I’ve watched every moment of the show since it began and for some reason I didn’t know that. That probably has more to do with my feelings about Nick Lachey than anything else, but that’s a topic for another time.
When the guys left the stage, the audience wouldn’t let up, so Jake came out to give us our percussion solo fix, and he did not disappoint. I’m not sure what Martha thought about it because frankly, I couldn’t tear my attention away. I’ve said it before about Jake, and it’s still true – I’m not sure he’s human. He makes sounds that shouldn’t be possible. All kidding aside, though, he’s a beatboxer in the elite class.
After Jake’s solo came what’s always my favorite part: the acoustic selection, where the guys come out, get as close to the audience as they can, and just sing – leaving their mics on the stage. Just them, the music, and us… and the gift they gave this time was the Sam Cooke classic “What a Wonderful World (This Would Be)” with Troy singing lead. Just lovely, and such a sweet way to end the evening.
For anyone who is a fan of contemporary a cappella music, it wouldn’t be easy to find a group that does it better than the House Jacks. I’m already looking forward to next time – and I know Martha is too. Maybe she’ll bring her own newbie along.photo: House Jacks in Kauai, June 2011www.housejacks.comAbout the author:
Melinda L. Thomas was a piano performance major at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at San Francisco State University. She has been singing all her life as well, and has performed with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Conservatory Opera Theatre, Sacred and Profane Chamber Chorus, and was a founding member of Voci women's chamber chorus. She has also been a music director for many theatrical productions, including Godspell, Grease, Pippin, West Side Story, and Dracula: The Musical? These days, she sings with an early music a cappella quintet called Harmonium. She is also a Northern California CASA Ambassador.
Last edited by Amy Malkoff
on Tue Jun 28, 2011 11:52 am, edited 3 times in total.