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The Sound

Tonic Sol Fa’s Christmas tradition


Tonic Sol Fa is scheduled to perform a holiday show at Hoyt Sherman Place on Friday, Dec. 20 and Saturday, Dec. 21.

Tonic Sol Fa is scheduled to perform a holiday show at Hoyt Sherman Place on Friday, Dec. 20 and Saturday, Dec. 21.

Remember high school? For many of us, it was a time for bad skin, Drakkar Noir and a capella groups like The Nylons and Rockapella. Once we graduated and set out into whatever reflection of the real world we chose, most of us left the trappings of high-school life behind. The rest joined a capella groups of their own.

There’s no confirmation on whether or not Tonic Sol Fa’s members still wear Drakkar Noir, but they do cop to being inspired by those ‘80s and early ‘90s groups.

“I’ve always loved a capella groups,” said founding member Mark McGowan in an interview. “It was brought on first in college by The Nylons, then Take 6; I just loved that kind of music.”

The high water mark of the 1990s not withstanding, a capella music has always been a niche market and a difficult sell. Every so often a group will come along — as Pentatonix is showing now — that will spark a revival in the genre, but sustained success has always been an elusive siren for groups to follow.

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“I don’t understand why a capella music is so hard to sell to the public in general,” McGowan lamented. “After playing in front of some of the most influential people in music… they like it, they enjoy it, but they don’t feel like there’s a place for it on mainstream radio.

“I hope that we can break through that, and show that a capella could be more mainstream and could be played more on the radio as music in and of itself, as opposed to a novelty.”

And while Tonic Sol Fa hasn’t done much to crack a capella’s glass ceilings, they have still managed to find success with an Emmy award to go along with more than 1 million album sales and an induction into the Midwest Music Hall of Fame.

The group has released 15 albums in its 18 years but has really found its place with holiday shows. After performing its first televised holiday special in 2007, the group has become more and more on demand each Christmas season, and routinely performs 20-30 shows this time of year. After wrapping up the holiday tours on New Year’s Eve, Tonic Sol Fa will begin planning the next year’s tour in January and usually have the music set by the following spring. Over the years, the group has learned to strike a balance between offering fresh shows each tour, while remaining true to what fans love.

“There are things you definitely need to have in the show,” said tenor Greg Bannwarth. “We always try to make it new for those who have seen it before while keeping to our traditions.”

This year’s show centers around the group’s album, “The Earth Stood Still,” and features a look for the band that’s more “grown up” than in the past.

“It’s true,” said Bannwarth. “We’re about as dressed up as you’ve ever seen us.”

But all cosmetics aside, the shows are ultimately about music, and Tonic Sol Fa puts a lot of care into song selection and into putting its own stamp on songs fans have heard a thousand times before.

“We also grew up on these same songs,” Bannwarth said. “And while they’re wonderful, and they get you in the mood, you listen to it and you say in your head, ‘I wish it was done this way.’ You just try to make a different interpretation of the song itself.” CV

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