Perhaps The Nicest “Away In A Manger,” Ever!

Tonic Sol Fa

The house lights go down. The stage is shrouded in darkness. Suddenly there’s a mighty gust of reverberation that lets loose with bits of unique percussion interspersed with four-part harmony. If it’s your first time you feel a rush. I’m told you get a rush even the fourth time around.

This was my first time. I was in awe.

The house lights come up and where you thought there might be a large group of musicians there are four guys on stage. No instruments except for a tambourine, an occasional egg shaker and sometimes bells. The entire background accompaniment comes from in and around their Adam’s apples.

When they broke into “Angels We Have Heard on High,” I thought, wow! Knowing what I know now I told Jared Dove afterwards that I wasn’t suggesting they raise their ticket prices but I’d pay even more than $25 next time. And Jared, the bass singer, said in his deep voice, “Well, next time maybe we’ll raise it 12 cents.”

I’m speaking here of Tonic Sol Fa, the a cappella group that appeared at the Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks Tuesday night. If you missed it, I’m sorry. What a Christmas goodie this was. In their 10-year history these guys have played the Empire once before. They’ve also played the Chester Fritz Auditorium once.

Left to right: Jared Dove, bass; Greg Bannwarth, tenor; Shaun Johnson, lead; Mark McGowan, baritone, having a grand time with autograph seekers after the show.

These guys have been named one of the top must see groups in America. They’ve been awarded many original song and album awards in pop, gospel and holiday genres. They average 150 shows per year, have toured 48 states and recently won their first Emmy Award in the “musical composition/arrangement category” for a song performed in a Toys for Tots public service announcement.

Still they are almost our own home town boys: two live in St. Cloud, one in St. Paul and one in Woodbury, Minn. Now on their holiday tour, Shaun, lead singer, said Grand Forks was their 30th stop.

Shaun also stated that they draw inspiration from the front row. He zeroed in on a Scott and a Brent, both city workers in Grafton, N.D. Tonic Sol Fa proceeded to have a very good time needling Scott and Brent who were asked to stand up. Shaun told them that whoever did the best dance during their next song would win a CD. Both guys really shook their booties during, “Just Haven’t Met You Yet,” and in the end both were gifted with the group’s latest CD.

Among their songs were: “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” “Away in a Manger,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “Last Christmas,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Away in a Manger,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Deck the Halls,” “O Christmas Tree,” “Carol of the Bells,” and the beautiful, “All Will Be Well.”

Greg did a very fun version of, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and Jared also showed his deepness during, “North to Alaska.”

It was an especially enjoyable evening for me because I sat next to Gwen Crawford of Grand Forks whom I had never met. We had a lovely time getting to know one another. Gwen especially liked Jared’s bass voice. “The edges of his notes are so mellow,” she said

After intermission, Greg and Mark came out in what you might call “workout leotards,” for a dazzling rendition of the “Sugar Plum Fairy,” from The Nutcracker.

And what could be better than, “Little Drummer Boy,” for an encore?

In the lobby after the show I bumped into Dick and Phyllis Clark, formerly of Forest River, N.D., now of Grand Forks. They have seen Tonic Sol Fa several times. “They do those songs differently and they don’t ruin them,” Dick said. “And ‘Away in a Manger,’ I’ve never heard it nicer than that.” The Clarks have sent Tonic Sol Fa CDs to their West Coast daughter. “She said she’d drive 500 miles to see them,” Dick added.

Come to think of it, I would too. But, I sure hope the Empire brings them back next year.

Until Soon