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December 3, 2005

Tonic Sol Fa delivers with upgraded production

Souix City Journal (IA):

There's a new recipe for holiday Tonic this year and it ain't bad. Although the "four guys and a van" concept has always been appealing, an upgraded, high-tech production backing Tonic Sol-fa was more than welcome Thursday night, suggesting the a cappella group may be edging even closer to getting that big national break. The songs were solid -- particularly three from their new album, "Boston to Beijing" -- and the Christmas vibe was just as jolly as ever. Our only complaint? Someone skimped on spotlights. With a new video screen behind them, it was often difficult to see the four. At times, too, the videos that accompanied the songs were difficult to discern. Still, that's all fixable. The songs, the harmonies were brighter than ever.

Led by Shaun Johnson, the four have developed a style that cuts across all generations. Kids love the goofiness of Greg Bannwarth (heck, even old guys like me enjoy it); parents warm to the boy-next-door charm of Mark McGowan and grandparents appreciate the bone-thumping bass of Jared Dove. Thrown in Johnson's songwriting skills and well-honed voice and the group is pretty good at just about everything. Thursday's show included a few favorites from past holiday efforts ("Joseph's Song" is still effective, "I'm Gettin' Nothin' for Christmas" may be ready for retirement), a nice arrangement of "Happy Holidays" and a funny bit done to "Adeste Fideles."

Bannwarth, known for prancing about in Christmas tights, did so while conducting the others singing the Christmas classic. As their topper to his reveal, they pulled off their pants and were wearing tights, too. Bannwarth got two good bits with Plastic Santa as well. It's about time, though, that Tonic Sol-fa uses Plastic Santa (yup, that's what he is, a plastic Santa Claus lawn ornament) to host the show. Now, he's kind of a shill for the quartet's charity work. But at one point, Bannwarth (who provides his voice) suggested that we were going to see a Plastic Santa travelogue. Great idea. Like those lawn gnomes, he could visit all sorts of landmarks with the boys in the back. Then, with a little bit of big screen magic, he could introduce most of the show.

Now that Tonic Sol-fa has the electronic equipment, it's just a matter of time. While Johnson and Bannwarth got an audience member to join them for one number, they didn't play with the crowd as much as they could have. Quite skilled with ad libs, the two had more fun in the past. Nonetheless, less chatter meant more music. "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" gave Dove a good showcase; "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" continued the good will and led to Plastic Santa's arrival.

"Grace," a cut from the new album was a fitting addition and "Save a Horse, Ride a Reindeer" meshed nicely with the group's personality. For those who have seen Tonic Sol-fa in the past (and let's face it, if you haven't you haven't lived in Siouxland very long), the Christmas show is like a visit from the kids. You see how they've changed, you appreciate how they've grown and you rejoice that they haven't forgotten their roots.

Posted by acapnews at December 3, 2005 12:18 AM