Release Date: April 19, 2010
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ask the 13 University at Buffalo students in the award-winning, high-flying, history-making, musical zone-dwelling, universally charming, suddenly famous Buffalo Chips a cappella group whether they now believe the truth of that familiar musical adage: A good song can take you far.
This Saturday -- it's just a few days away now -- the Buffalo Chips will stand in the rarefied stage space of Alice Tully Hall in the incomparable majesty of New York City's Lincoln Center and take a stand to make UB history. For the first time, a UB a cappella group has the chance to become the No. 1 collegiate a cappella group in the country.
The Buffalo Chips, the all-male edition of UB's a cappella groups, is already at a level where no UB a cappella group has ever been. They placed second in the quarterfinals on Feb. 20 at the University at Pittsburgh, earning the right to advance in the tournament. Then on April 2 they were named Mid-Atlantic champs in the ICCC semifinals at Rutgers University, the first time the Chips -- or any UB a cappella group for that matter -- ever got that far.
"We've just been having an adrenalin rush ever since," says Bryan Dwyer, a communications major from Amherst whose musical credits include a high school rock band to more recent gigs singing in an Irish band with his father. "And we just couldn't be any more excited about it."
(To see video of the Chips in action, go to http://www.youtube.com/thebuffalochips.)
And if the Chips sang in relative obscurity before, those days may be over for good. On April 16, they got rave reviews and a long TV news feature from WGRZ-TV's Marissa Bailey. Two days later, The Buffalo News' classical music critic Mary Kunz Goldman's glowing Chips story with its four accompanying photos occupied virtually the entire first two pages of the Sunday Spotlight section. The boys still found time to sing that same day for the Time Warner 24-hour news station YNN.
And that was before their five-day countdown to Manhattan had begun. It's been more than a year since David Letterman's 90-second shout-out to UB after the Bulls beat Dave's alma mater Ball State in the Mid-American Conference championship football game. But if the Chips win Saturday night, who knows, maybe a gig on Letterman could be next.
So this is crunch time for the Chips, the combined Super Bowl/Stanley Cup finals of a cappella singing. And for their shot at history, they have adopted another competition motto to follow when the stakes are high: "You go with what got you there."
"Every time we go on stage, the last thing we say is 'Have a ball, man,'" says Mike Donahue, the Chips' musical director and a UB engineering major, who wore a do-rag during a recent group rehearsal held until just before midnight in Dance Studio 75 in the basement of Alumni Arena. "If we're going to win this, we're going to win this having fun. That's why we do this. That's why we are here. If we ever lost sight of that, we'd lose the quality in our music."
So the mood in the basement of Alumni Arena that evening was loose, indeed. There were Yankee caps on the heads of some of the Chips. Several wore gym pants ripped off below the knee. In between songs, the Chips kicked around a water bottle cap, and traded one-liners from "The Office." The Chips' sliding and dipping dancing moves shared time with simulations of a quarterback dropping back in the pocket and throwing a pass (one member who takes classes at UB and Buffalo State College is trying out for the Buffalo State football team). Because it's a cappella, the only device resembling a musical instrument around at the rehearsal was Donahue's cell phone, with its pitch pipe app. And despite the hour and the semi-abandoned feel of late-night Alumni Arena, there was -- as soon as the singing began -- an unmistakable and transforming energy in the room.
Here's the musical thing with the Chips: Anyone who has ever heard an a cappella or barbershop quarter concert understands a little of the nuances and richness of a well-tuned singing group that relies on nothing but the human voice. To watch these sounds coming from college students who occupy that transition territory between adolescence and maturity provides another dimension.
And they don't just sing. Part of the appeal and the competition is what a cappella groups call "visual simulation," dance moves fitting the song. It's the "choreo," in Chips jargon, which Donahue describes as "a delicate balance" between the music and visuals. So picture a really good halftime show at an NBA game. The Chips have moves, and it's as if their arms and legs and necks are on hinges. There are coordinated pushes with feet and arms, and pulls and slides and an N Sync-esque expression that merges the song with dance.
Then there are Matt Smith and Marc Hoffman, who supply the percussion sounds for all songs -- bass, snares, high hats and other drum sounds all done with their voices.
"The two of us do pretty well for ourselves," says Smith, a communications major (not one of the Chips is a music or performance major).
But for the Chips themselves, the experience the audience grasps is ramped up. A lot. If the subtle graduations of the sounds please those listening in the seats -- and a cappella groups, particularly those at colleges, are still riding a 20-year revival -- being in the middle of all these musical buildups and breakdowns is a whole other sensation. The entire mood and psychic texture of Dance Studio Room 75 changed as soon as the Chips started singing.
"It's a zone of hearing everyone," says soloist James Eckert, who solos for the groups' Ben Folds homage "Army," one of three songs the Chips will perform Saturday night at the Lincoln Center. "It all goes together. It's so easy, once you get into it."
"It's just another day," says Donahue. "Once you get confident and confidence in the guys you're singing with, it's nice to know they've got your back. You look around the group and say, 'All right, man. We're doing it.'"
"You're like a bird riding the warm current of our harmonies," Darren Cotton suggested to Eckert, who was trying to describe what it felt like to be surrounded by all that sound.
"Yeah, it's good," Eckert said. "It feels like I'm riding that sound."
If anyone was tired by the late hour, or stressed by upcoming finals, or down by the scene of a mostly empty gym on a weekday night, that all changes as soon as they start to sing.
"We're in high definition," says Hoffman, an MBA student who sang with an a cappella group as an undergraduate student at SUNY Potsdam before coming to UB.
"So much is about the energy, the camaraderie, the music; that's what drove me back. It's a separate place where you're being entertained. You're not thinking of anything else. You're in the moment with us, and to watch our energy gives people in the audience energy."
And when you add in the contact high the group gets from an involved audience -- "the smiles on their faces, seeing their eyes light up when they watch us, seeing people's attention," Hoffman says -- then it's something that approaches musical grace. And once you experience that, the Chips say, it's hard to be without it.
"We see the glow in our audience," said Hoffman. "It's almost magic to perform and see how people change, how they're moved by our performance. To hear our sound and to watch our choreo, the whole package gives people an idea of how powerful 13 guys singing in a group can be."
These are self-described performance junkies. They've performed everywhere: The memorial service for UB's beloved and recently passed President William R. Greiner, alumni awards receptions, weddings, birthday parties. Wherever crowds gather. The Buffalo Chips have sung outside HSBC Arena before Buffalo Sabres hockey games, without having tickets to the game. They just show up. They planned to do it again before the April 17 Sabres playoff game, but turned back at the last minute because they were worried the bad weather might have risked their voices. They were one of four local a cappella groups to perform for Ben Folds when he played Kleinhans Music Hall last year, doing for him the "Army" song they chose for the national competition.
These guys are a portable band, and following the footsteps of other a cappella groups, they have a habit of breaking into song whether they go.
"We were at the Family Tree Restaurant last week," said Hoffman. "We had lunch, and we thought we'd be nice to the waitress and give her a show. That's a lot of appeal to the group. We can bring it out wherever ever we go."
They'll compete against five other finalists: Pitch Slapped from the Berklee College of Music, the Accidentals from the University of Georgia, Purple Haze from Northwestern University, the SoCals VoCals from the University of Southern California and Divisi from the University of Oregon.
Picking their three songs for the Final Six of the national competition was tough. After much consideration, Donahue decided to go with "Fireflies" by Owl City with Owen Correnti singing lead, "Drive" by Incubus with Donahue getting the solo, then the Folds' "Army" led by Eckert.
With that issue put to rest, one question remains:
Do they use this to meet girls?
"Absolutely," several Chips say almost simultaneously.
"I met my wife this way," says Hoffman.