In February of 2018, After Hours applied to sing in this years Toronto Buskerfest. After several emails enquiring as to the status of our application, we were only one month out and noticed while other acts were now on the website, we were not and therefore assumed we weren't accepted. Glenn made arrangements to see his mom in Winnipeg and the rest of us just assumed we'd have the labour day weekend off.
Literally the day AFTER Glenn bought his ticket, Buskerfest got back to us and said they'd love to have us. Glenn, being the intelligent gentlemen he is, suggested we ask John Davis to replace him, just as he replaced Jon this past June when we sang at the Oakville Sidewalk Sale.
John was able to juggle a few things around and made himself available for the Friday and Saturday, which was good enough for the people at Buskerfest.
And then something interesting happened. Out of nowhere, I got a message from Luke Hobbs saying he was in town and wanted to come to a rehearsal to see the guys and do some singing! For those of you new to After Hours or didn't know us back in 2011 and 2012, the old After Hours line up used to be, Yee Kuang, John, Luke and myself!
And what you may also not know, was our name was synonymous with Buskerfest and that was one of our biggest gigs for those two years.
So John suggested if Luke was in town, perhaps we should also ask him to sing at Buskerfest with us, which we did and he agreed. So, six years later, the old line up of After Hours was going to be back at Buskerfest but also, adding our bass Jonathan Pong to the roster. So now not only we were going to back to the old Buskerfest line up of 2011 and 2012 with John and Luke there, now we were going back to singing as a quintet, something we hadn't really done much of since we ceased being a quintet in 2008!
Even though six years had past, in our first of only two rehearsals together, as Buskerfest didn't give us much warning, I was blown away by how my mind just switched tracks as if no time had passed and it seemed the same with John and Luke. Our old hits like "I'm Yours", "Hey There Delilah" and "What Goes Around Comes Around" we're right there on the tip of our tongues and sounded pretty much exactly like they used to.
Luke joined After Hours in 2009 and he made a lot of history when he did. He was the first "outsider" to ever join our group, he was not an immediate friend to anyone in the group; After Hours had always been somewhat of a clique leading up to that, with four of the five of us at that time being friends from high school. He also joined at the tender age of 20 (when the rest of us were in our 30's) making him the youngest member ever to join the group. And then mere months after he joined, we became a quartet from a quintet, which was the first time in After Hours history. And it was because of Luke's voice and knowledge of arranging that allowed us to do that and he sang with us from 2009 until the end of 2012 before departing for Japan.
Founding member George Scott left in late 2010 and his big shoes needed filling. At first he was replaced with a guy named Miguel Hubert who had a great voice but unfortunately in a conversation with me, he told me he found doo-wop "boring" and only wanted to sing Mariah Carey covers. So you could say, he wasn't a great fit. Miguel had answered an ad that we had posted online. John Davis also answered that ad... on the day we gave the spot to Miguel. But after six weeks with Miguel we reached out to John to ask him to come audition. John came to the audition sick but he still nailed it and won us over with his English charm and amazing accent.
Luke and John had great chemistry together and made After Hours young again. Yee Kuang and I pushed the two of them to the forefront of the group and let them lead pretty much everything while we provided bass and bari back-up. The team of Davis and Hobbs was truly magical and was a line-up I really loved for the two short years we were together.
Fast forward six years to August 2018 and just like that, just like old times, we pulled in big crowds in the scorching heat at Toronto Buskerfest, this time along with our bass Jon.
These are the moments I live for, to cheat time, to go back and relive something you think will never happen again. It was truly an honour to be on stage with these guys again; John who's married with a daughter now, Luke who spent the last few years travelling the world, opening Uncle Tetsu Cheesecake stores and of course Yee Kuang and Jon who keep the After Hours wheels turning... Yee Kuang celebrates his 20th year in After Hours next year!
It seemed such a fitting way to close the chapter on Toronto Buskerfest, to have the old group that started singing at Buskerfest back together one last time there. But while we say good-bye to Buskerfest, I know we aren't saying good-bye to John and Luke. We hope to sing with them again very soon and as such important figures in the history of After Hours, our door will always be open to them.
Did you know After Hours has nearly 160 videos on YouTube? And once all the videos of our most recent show go up, it will be closer to 170?
What *I* didn't know is you can sort your videos by "most viewed" and I was kind of surprised at some of the videos that have more views than others. Obviously videos that have been online longer stand a better chance of catching more views but this isn't always the case. And it's not always the obvious songs that have the most views! And most of our views (36%) come from the U.S.!
10th place in views: "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday - Riverdale Collegiate" https://youtu.be/Zl4z3E8wgZ8
This video only went up this past February and it's at 300 views with 3 likes. This video does hold a special place in our long list of videos as this one was shot where the whole a cappella seed was planted back in 1996. It's the only video in the "top 10" featuring the current line up of After Hours.
9th place in views: "Dear Señor Santa Claus"
This one really shocked me and was the reason I thought to do this blog entry... this video only went up in October and it's already at 313 views with 4 likes. This was one of many songs put up from our 2006 Christmas show so I'm not sure why this one stood out from the rest (by literally hundreds of views). There was a surge on this one around Christmas which makes sense and most of it is from the States. Maybe it's the hats?
8th place in views: "Drift Away" https://youtu.be/MVEh9FUIf6c
The next three songs were all put up in April of 2015 and are all from the 2008 "Under The Roof Again" show so the views make sense but these three stood out in terms of views when compared to other songs put up from the same show and date. This one was a popular one at the show but again, not sure why this one is getting more views than others of the same set. 328 views, 1 like.
7th place in views: "Circle Of Life" https://youtu.be/-2Pmk2xQLPg
Of the two Lion King songs we did at this show, "He Lives In You" was always the crowd favourite. However, online, it's a different story with "He Lives" not even in the top 20. This was the show opener and is doing all right at 366 views and 2 likes.
6th place in views: "Puttin' On The Ritz" https://youtu.be/JeInn-S-Lb0
This is another one that shocked me. We did this song exactly one time, at this show and it was kind of a goofy thing. Not one of our stand out numbers and yet here it is in 6th place with nearly 450 views and 3 likes.
5th place in views: "Circle Of Life - Skywalk"
Circle Of Life again, this is a different version and slightly better than the other. It was shot in Toronto's "Skywalk" between Union Station and the Rogers Centre. This video has been up since November of 2014 and has 662 views and 8 likes.
4th place in views: "One Fine Day" https://youtu.be/k4MFC-Xr-dY
The next four videos all went up February 2014. This one is my personal favourite of those four so I'm a little sad to see it down in 4th place. These videos were all taken in the "Skywalk" when we first went from being a quintet to a quartet. No doubt, a large part of the views have to do with Luke's smooth lead voice. 685 views, 2 likes.
3rd place in views: "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"
This video is pretty unique as Luke does sound effects and hits some pretty unnaturally high notes. Another great video, obviously inspired by The Nylons. 1,140 views with 12 likes (and one dislike... boo!)
2nd place in views: "Lean On Me" https://youtu.be/nC8K-vy1KCE
Taken from the same series, I've always liked this song and this arrangement, where we all take turns leading the song. Over 3k views, 14 likes and 2 people who have bad taste.
And number one...
"Stand By Me" https://youtu.be/vTeQlKd-3ko
In first place by miles, one of the oldest songs in our rep. It's interesting, there's nothing particularly amazing about this, the arrangement is very simple. I remember this song spiking when Ben E King passed away though and it's been growing steadily ever since. 6.2k views, 43 likes, a few comments and 2 people with bad taste (probably the same two people).
What's your favourite video from After Hours? Comment below!
In 11 days I will be performing my 13th self produced concert with After Hours. There's a lot of "firsts" happening in this show... it's our first show opening with a magician, first show my students "Nothing But Treble" will be singing in, first Christmas show ever at the Winchester and the first show we've done where Jon will have a lot of important leads throughout the evening.
It will also be the first show that my Dad won't see. True, he also missed the "Roar!" show in April but he did see a couple videos from the concert before he passed away on May 17th.
In the early concerts at Grace Church On-The-Hill he was always in the front row taking pictures with his 35mm film camera. When we moved to the Winchester Theatre in 2010, he put the camera down and sat back and listened with his eyes closed. For our 15th anniversary show (and our Chinatown concert later that fall) he actually took the captain's chair up in the mezzanine and ran the sound board for us, a job which has now been handed over to the amazing Paul Hutchison.
My dad, Rudy, has never missed a show. And I mean all of the public shows. He always showed his support by being there. He didn't always remember the other guys' names (he still called Jon by his last name, "Pong", right up until the very end) but he was always there, cheering us on. Now you might think, well, he's your Dad, of course he was there! The thing is, the secret is, I don't think he really liked a cappella music...
I know he liked Doo-Wop music, which is likely how I fell into it. But my dad first learned to play the accordion when he was young:
Later on after high school he became a drummer for a band called the Sapphires here in Toronto:
Music eventually became secondary to his new family but he continued drumming on things in the house, especially my Mom's ironing board, which she hated.
My father actually had a nice singing voice too, a bit like Nat King Cole to be honest, probably because he was a huge fan. In my opinion, a far better singer than I am. His only downfall was he was terrible with lyrics. He would sing songs around the house and eventually I would hear them on the radio and I'd have to give my head a shake because the words he sang hundreds of times and got stuck in my mind were NOT the same as the ones from the recordings where he first heard them.
But his truly favourite bands, James' Last orchestra, Santana, Isao Tomita, Jean Michel Jarre, Dan Gibson, Herb Alpert... all had one thing in common. They were all instrumentalists. The only a cappella they had in the house was the Nylons and he only enjoyed THEM because they covered his favourite Doo-Wop songs.
He had no passion for a cappella. After each show he was deeply critical of what we did, often complaining so and so was too loud, couldn't hear the lead, weird songs, etc. At first it really bothered me but then I realized he wasn't wrong, things could always be better so eventually I started relying on his criticism to improve. I thought there'd be no better person to mix our sound for our 15th anniversary concert but I think he finally realized how hard it is to do what we do and it wasn't so easy for him. I think his respect for the craft changed a bit after that.
He would often say he enjoyed us more than the Nylons, my inspiration for this craft. He felt our sound was more pure, more honest, that we didn't hide behind drum machines and extra dubbed vocals... which is likely a big reason why we've never tried.
I do know that he enjoyed the song "He Lives In You', lead by Yee Kuang.
And of course he enjoyed the songs from his youth that we do, Come Go With Me, Runaround Sue, Duke Of Earl, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, etc.
It felt strange in April, to not have him there for the "Roar!" show. Yee Kuang had just lost his mother in February so to have both of them not there... just not the same. But I didn't think at that point that I'd be losing him completely. We already knew we were going to do this upcoming show before he passed away so we just said very casually "oh you can just come to the Christmas one in December". None of us knew at that time that there would be no next one for him.
I'm sad that he's not going to see my students sing at the show. I'm sad he's going to miss Jon sing a bunch of leads in this show as I know he really liked Mr. "Pong".
But what I think I will miss the most is talking to him after the show, to hear the good and the bad, to hear his thoughts. To get better because he could be honest with me.
I became musical because of both of my parents. I learned to love a cappella because of my mother. I learned to be the best musician and performer I can be because of my Dad.
I know the boys will feel his presence missed along with some of you. I could easily say this show is dedicated to my Dad but I already know I always did this to impress my parents, to make them proud, every show. This show will be no different.
I was blown away with how well Yee Kuang kept it together at the "Roar!" show after losing his mom so soon before. Singing a cappella is such an emotional thing, performing period, so emotional. Easy to say "he's such a professional"... I hate that term. It's nonsense. He got lost in the music, had a good time and his mom was right there with him the whole time, making her proud. He sang up there with his a cappella brothers, surrounded by his closest friends, on stage and in the audience. And that's exactly what I'm going to do. Sing up there with my a cappella brothers on one side, my a cappella sisters on the other, and all of YOU out there in the audience, sitting around my dad as I try and make the old man proud.
So we're just weeks away from our first Christmas show in five years, the last one being a small affair at the Winchester Kitchen & Bar, which no longer exists. When planning begins on these shows there's a lot of questions to answer and one of those questions is "are we going to have any special guests in the show?". Historically, whenever we've done an anniversary show or a Christmas show we've brought back After Hours family (former members) to come up for a song or two.
However for this show, we've done something we've never done before. Instead of bringing back those familiar faces to join us on their old hits, we're bringing in four fresh faces that our fans have never seen before; a magician and another a cappella group! And instead of supporting them by singing along side them, they've been given their own 15 minute show to put on for you, with After Hours nowhere in sight.
The magician, Michael Penkul, a.k.a. "Magic Mike", I met in the entertainment industry. He asked me those famous words "wanna see a trick?" and then showed five or six mind blowing illusions and my immediate thought was "we need to get him into one of our shows". He was actually lined up to be in our last show, "ROAR!" but schedules clashed. There's no doubt in my mind that our audience will really enjoy his act and enjoy the variety he adds to the show.
Nothing But Treble however, have a long history with After Hours and particularly me. The story goes like this...
In 2010, my wife was working at a dance studio and I had gotten to know some of the teachers as well as the boss as I was hired on to make dance music edits for some of the staff there. That was also the year After Hours became a quartet after years of being a quintet and we had decided it was time to start performing our shows in a new venue with microphones. So Luke Hobbs, George Scott, Yee Kuang and myself managed to finagle our way into using the dance studio on some Sundays to rehearse with our new mics.
One Sunday, we heard other people coming into the studio, which was unusual. Turned out it was one of the other teachers, Linda and her three dancing daughters, Stella, Emily and Jacqueline. I had done edits for Linda so we sort of knew each other. They listened for a song or two and then they went to do their dancing thing. We closed the door and drew the blinds and kept going. However, I felt a pair of eyes watching me. I looked down at the bottom of the door where some of the glass wasn't covered and there was Jacqueline, laying on her belly, hands folded under her chin, just watching us and smiling.
A week or two later Linda had emailed for some more edits and I mentioned how intrigued Jacqueline seemed with our sound. Linda replied all the kids really enjoyed us and she said how wonderful it would be if they would sing like us. For whatever reason, I answered "well, I could teach them!". I say "for whatever reason" because a) I wasn't a singing teacher, b) I was already super busy with life in general and c) not a big fan of kids. However, I said it and quite surprisingly, she took me up on the offer.
So off I went to their home and met husband and Dad, Santoso, and there was Linda, and my new students; Stella who was 14, Emily who was 9 and Jacqueline who was 6. I'm pretty sure their first words to me when I walked into their house was "wow, you're tall!". Linda and Santoso went into the kitchen and I sat on what is still to this day, my corner of the couch and asked them to sing for me. What they sang, I don't remember. However, what I do remember is that they could sing. I mean, really sing. Within minutes they were harmonizing. They were not only born to sing, they were born to sing together. Stella had the high soprano, Emily the alto and Jacqueline, even at the age of 6, could sing bass! I couldn't believe how low she could sing and how well. And they were so well mannered and so well behaved, I thought, "I think we can do this!" So I mentioned to Linda and Santoso that I'd love to teach them.
However, after two rehearsals, the girls realized, as most kids do with me, that if they started joking around, there really wasn't much I could do about it. The girls were all dancers. They had all been on stage. They were born entertainers. So soon it became less about singing and more about making me laugh. And stupid me, I'd laugh, so they'd ham it up even more. Then sometimes instead of joking around, it would be the excuses. "Oh Mr. Aaron, I can't sing today because my throat hurts *cough* *cough*." They called me Mr. Aaron because in the dance world you usually call your teacher Mr or Mrs or Miss. So my wife was Miss Marilyn, I was Mr. Aaron and yes my wife did teach them dance as well.
So sometimes I'd get there around 6pm and it would be 8pm by the time they had stopped joking around and making excuses and then they'd finally sing. But when they actually sang, what a sound. 30 mins of their voices was worth the 2 hours of insanity that happened before. I think they would only start to sing when they had tired themselves out from joking around.
Without getting into too much detail about why, I decided to help the family further. One of the things I'd do is pick up Stella from the National Ballet School downtown and driver her home. She was always late, always dawdling, and then when she'd get in the car she'd turn off whatever horrible music I had on, plug in her iPod shuffle and then ask me "do you know this song Mr. Aaron?" Ten seconds later, skip to the next one "how about this song Mr. Aaron?". "You MUST know this song Mr. Aaron!". All. The. Way. Home. In rush hour traffic. Then when she got bored of that, she'd lecture me on politics and religion, two subjects, according to her, I knew nothing about. And she's right. But man, for 14, she was smart as heck, definitely smarter than me!
When we'd get home, Jacqueline would run up and jump on me, and pretend to punch me out because I would act like she was killing me. Emily would ask me questions like why I had hairy arms, why was I so tall and did I know my face looked like a horses face. And I'd put up with this abuse because eventually, they would settle down and sing and they got better each time by massive leaps and bounds. I don't think they knew how good they were and how fast they were improving. I think to them I was this clown that came over and made them laugh and all they had to do was sing once in a while. They were learning songs that After Hours performed; The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Hound Dog, I'm Yours. etc.
For all their hard work, I offered to take them to Centreville. That's when things really changed. I was still Mr. Aaron but occasionally I'd hear "Uncle Aaron". While the girls had a great time, my favourite memory was when they were in line for a ride, they just broke out in song and when they finished, people clapped and I heard one mother say off to the side "who are they, should we ask for an autograph?"
The girls are super intelligent, and would have to be to keep up with the schedules they had. They were all in school but also dancing all the time. I recently asked them how many dance awards they thought they had and they just laughed, which gives you an idea of how seriously involved they are. They've lost count and most of those awards are 1st place. I think they found singing relaxing. It was a time they could be silly and ignore homework and memorizing choreo. There was no actual end goal. So dancing was dinner, singing was dessert. Sometimes though when I'd come over, I could tell they were stressed out and I wasn't going to get much out of them so I'd cancel the singing and just hang out and play a board game with them.
At Christmas that year, After Hours went over to their place to sing for them and then they sang for us. From L to R; Emily, John Davis, me, Jacqueline, Luke Hobbs, Yee Kuang, Stella.
In 2011, we kept on doing the usual thing, I'd come over, they'd fool around for a few hours and then they'd sing for me. Stella was really getting the hang of this whole a cappella thing and had arranged the BeeGee's "How Deep Is Your Love?" for her and her sisters. It was then that I learned that the girls learned best when they could sing their own parts for their own songs instead of me telling them to sing this and sing that. Stella began teaching her sisters on her own and instead I was doing more finessing than anything else.
Once again we went to Centerville and this time I took them to the CNE as well. The singing was secondary to the Uncle roll I was playing but they kept on singing occasionally. However, it seemed like for whatever reason it wasn't nearly as important as it once was.
2012 was a pretty weird year for me and I saw the girls a lot less and even at one point had said to Linda and Santoso that I didn't have much left to teach them, that Stella could handle it on her own, because it was true but also because it seemed the singing had really been pushed to the back burner; that other things were more important.
In 2013 I barely saw the girls at all until summer time when they invited me out to dinner, at which point Jacqueline point blank asked me why I had abandoned them. I don't know if it was their age, I don't know if it was me and all the crap I had been through but it was a painful question to hear but still nice to hear; that I was still wanted. I had thought maybe they were done with singing and therefore me but apparently that wasn't the case and also it seemed the two didn't have to go hand in hand which I hadn't realized until she asked me that question. We did one more trip to Centreville with a friend of theirs, which I assumed would be the last as they had more or less outgrown the place.
Then Stella went away to school, to London. So once again there was a bit of time that passed where I didn't see them often. However, when she returned, I went to go see them all. And then they blew my mind...
I don't know how they did this, especially since Stella had been away but they had continued singing on their own even without me there! They basically threw out all the rep I had taught them and replaced them with their own arrangements of songs they had chosen for themselves. I couldn't believe how good they sounded, I cried the first time I heard them. I had zero problem with them tossing the old songs, these new songs were perfect for them. The little girl sound was gone, replaced by confident, strong voices in perfect harmony. I asked them HOW they had done that, how they had the time to learn the songs and make them so good. So they showed me. Here is the inside secret to how the professionals do it...
Emily sits there and knits, Stella surfs the net on her laptop, Jacqueline stretches on the floor, they don't look at each other, they just sing. And their voices just fall into place and they create these amazing arrangements by basically just being sisters who know what they should be singing and when. As someone who spends days arranging music for his own a cappella group, it is one of the most frustrating and wonderful things I'ver seen in my life.
While we had talked about them singing in After Hours shows before, there was no question that the time had come and it's finally happening, in this show. And while there's this thing there that, yes, my students are singing at the show, make no mistake that these songs they're singing, these arrangements, are their own. I worry about the small stuff, I showed them the craft in 2010 but what people will see on December 16th is them doing what they do best. And yes, they are my students but at that dinner in 2013, Jacqueline made it clear that we're friends too. And friends don't abandon friends.
When you become a member of After Hours, it kind of comes with the territory that you will relive the past. We cover songs from so many past decades all the time, that's what we do. However, twice in the last two weeks we didn't just relive the music of our past, we went back in time to the place where it all began... high school!
We take pride in reminding fans that 75% of the group are alumni of Riverdale Collegiate Institute and while we say it mostly for the laugh, there is also a little pride when we tell people that I went there for six years and Yee Kuang went for seven. We simply didn't want to leave, it truly was an amazing place in an amazing time and we were fortunate enough to recognize that.
Back then, while Yee Kuang and I were singing with Bonnie Penfound's senior choir on the West side of the school, we had no idea that Jon was singing a cappella harmony on the East side, with his friends Mike Santos and George Scott and also Edsel Mansia. Bonnie definitely knew as she tried to recruit them a few times but Yee Kuang and I had no idea.
Fast forward 21 years to Thursday February 23rd. 16 degrees, sunny. Already the day seemed surreal. When we walked through the doors, the memories came flooding back. The school still looks and smells the same which is not a complaint, the place still looks great after all these years. When we went to the office to sign in, Glenn immediately recognized Helen Ferraro, one of the administrative staff at Riverdale and Glenn didn't even go to the school!
Lorraine Alves who also works in the office came running over to say hello and she still remembered us.
We finally met Camilla Rayman Bricknell, the new vocal teacher who was so friendly and welcoming. As we walked towards the ol' vocal room, coming into the school was another familiar face, Bonnie Penfound, our former vocal teacher who came to hear us! We hadn't even walked into the classroom yet and already the day was again, so surreal.
We sang first for the Grade 9 students, of which there were many. They asked some questions and then sang a bit for us. Being grade 9's there was that weird mix of shyness and "too cool for you" attitude so it was hard to get a real feel from them if they enjoyed us but I think they did. One girl said she enjoyed us more than Pentatonix which is obviously a huge compliment.
Then we did a sectional with the men. They were singing Baba Yetu, a song we used to cover 7 years ago. We helped them a bit with their choreo and confidence.
But the highlight of our visit came afterwards, when we literally went to the spot where this whole a cappella thing was born, in 1996. We went to the lockers where Jon, Mike, George and Edsel used to sing songs, like this one.
Yesterday, we went back again. This time we started our day with the senior students and this time we got them to sing a bit with us. We taught them our mash-up of Stand By Me and Every Breath You Take which they took to very quickly and it sounded amazing.
We worked again with the men at lunch and we were all happy to see how much they had retained from the week before.
After lunch we sang for the grade 10's and they were truly amazing. They really loved what we were doing and it showed. We also taught them our mash-up which you can hear here. We were so happy Camilla caught some of this on her camera, they literally learned this in less than 10 mins. It was a reminder to me, what a handful of notes (literally, you can count them on two hands in this song) and some willing participants can accomplish in a short period of time.
On the halls of Riverdale are the former grad student photos, from each year. We found Jon's, his was '95-'96 but we couldn't find mine or Yee Kuang's. Turns out they only keep up the last 20 years on the walls. Ouch! It's okay though, Lorraine Alves took us into storage and found our old and now somewhat faded grad photos. It was so much fun pointing out our old friends, wondering where they were now. I thought maybe I should go back into my old yearbooks, find the old "K.I.T's" and start calling some phone numbers to see if they're still around. Of course, none of those numbers have area codes on them so...
Okay, so it's been a while, just over 20 years apparently! But being back there, in that classroom, it felt like home. It felt like no time had passed it was so amazing to be back there, to be welcomed the way we were by the very, very few that still remember us.
While we enjoyed singing for the students there is no doubt that we got no greater joy than singing with them. We loved giving back to the school that gave us so much and who knows, maybe we'll inspire another a cappella group to start and carry on the tradition that Jon created there 21 years ago.
Even Glenn, who didn't go there, looked like he was at home too. As he stood there and did his solo with all that beautiful harmony surrounding him, literally, you could tell he was truly over the moon, he couldn't stop smiling. We're very lucky to have him and also thankful he was right there with us, enjoying watching us smile as we took our trip down memory lane.
So I'll admit, when the clock struck midnight on January 1st, 2017, I wasn't paying much attention to the TV and we were watching the "ball drop" here in Toronto, not in NY. It wasn't until the next day that I heard Mariah Carey had yet another public blunder, in front of a lot of people. I've watched it a couple times and still really don't know what happened. I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt that it was out of her control but still, she's a veteran, she's a professional and she just sort of stood there and let it all fall apart.
The event made me think of quite a few things, which I will share with you now.
You could hear Mariah's voice coming through the backing track on some parts, specifically the super high notes, meaning she was going to either lip synch through them or perhaps talk over them but she obviously wasn't going to try to hit those notes live. I think most times, the average audience member is too far away to tell when someone is lip synching (unless something absolutely terrible happens - Ashlee Simpson on SNL comes to mind) but I think it's a shame that people ever do - to me it's cheating. There are bands that have made careers out of it (Boney M, one of my personal favourites, did full on 90 min shows lip synching, badly, over their own studio recordings - which sadly was a significant improvement to their live attempts). I remember once when we were singing at Scotiabank Buskerfest, an audience member could be heard over the din, saying we weren't really singing, that we had assistance. To me, that was one of the best compliments that we ever got, because no, we weren't but we were performing and harmonizing so well that this guy thought we were in the very least, enhanced. Occasionally I will say to an audience "all you're hearing is our four voices and this tambourine" and that all started because of what this guy had said.
Recently Glenn showed us a video of Patti LaBelle in a difficult situation, singing at the White House that is comparable to Mariah's NYE performance, which you can see here.
It just blows my mind that these professionals would ever sing live without having a grasp on the lyrics. People ask us all the time how we remember all the lyrics to our songs... it's not hard, it's called muscle memory. I would never in a million years step on the stage of the White House if I didn't know my song inside out and backwards... just blows my mind.
However, the real reason of this post is to tell this story...
In 2010, George Scott, After Hours' tenor of 13 years announced he was leaving. He gave us a lot of notice so we had time to find a suitable replacement. We had put out an ad and had arranged a couple auditions. This story is about one of the last people to reply to the ad, we'll call him Mr. Mariah.
Mr. Mariah was a very good looking model (seriously) who had a passion for singing. He had a great lead voice, a decent high range and harmonizing ability. Wanting to sing in a group was a new idea for him but he had a couple videos on YouTube that were quite entertaining and sounded nice. He auditioned with "I Believe I Can Fly" by R Kelly and we thought it was fate since George absolutely detested that song, so it seemed fitting the guy replacing him would audition with that, we couldn't help but laugh. He nailed the song, which is not an easy one to sing, so the position was his.
We had a few rehearsals with him that went pretty well. However, things took a turn one day when he came to see me for a one on one vocal lesson. First he told me that he thought doo-wop was boring (which was obviously going to be a problem) and that, wait for it, going forward he wanted After Hours to only do MARIAH CAREY COVERS!
As they say, all good things must come to an end, and thus, that was the end of Mr. Mariah.
Truth is, while we've never covered a Mariah Carey song and unlikely ever will, our bass Jon Pong can actually hit Mariah's top notes.
Just ask him to do it and I'm sure he'll oblige, you can tell him I sent you.
In 2004, After Hours was a very different group. There were five of us for starters. At that time the leads were distributed fairly evenly throughout the group except for one person, Yee Kuang, our current tenor.
It wasn't that we were punishing him or that he couldn't sing leads, it's that he chose to NOT sing many leads. He had a few scattered throughout the years from 2002 to 2004, "The Lady In Red" by Chris DeBurgh and "Sukiyaki", arrangement based on 4pm's version. Also "Earth Angel" by The Penguins, "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" and "Love Me Tender" by Elvis Presley.
But that was about it, he mostly preferred singing backing harmony and staying out of the main spotlight, where Mike Santos, George Scott, Ian Corby and myself all battled for attention. In fact, I think aside from Love Me Tender which he picked himself, all of his other leads were forced upon him.
All of our concerts at that time took place at Grace Church On-The-Hill. We had no mics so we used the amazing acoustics of the church to amplify and echo our sound. Our first concert was a very nervous affair in 2002. The response was warm and encouraging so we did a Christmas concert later that same year which was a much more solid performance than our first concert.
However, in 2003, we jumped the shark so to speak. Everything we could do wrong, we did and our "Mostly Oldies" show was the least attended and the most hard to watch now, going back. It actually felt we had taken a step backwards.
So when we planned our 2004 show, we kept the formula of our 2002 Christmas show, our second show as we really wanted to make up for the previous show in 2003. The program was half Christmas music. Many of the Christmas songs were repeats from that second show but nearly all of the secular music were brand new tunes, including one serious trump card.
I have always been a fan of the Lion King movie, including some of the music. A few months after they released the soundtrack on CD, a follow up album came out, which was called "Rhythm Of The Pride Lands", a collection of music inspired by The Lion King soundtrack. The opening track was one I'd listen to on repeat all the time and it was called "He Lives In You". The song did not appear in the movie and unless you had bought this CD, it's unlikely you would even know of its existence as it was never released as a single. The only single from the album was an alternative version of "Hakuna Matata" which barely made its way onto the radio waves in Toronto.
Yee Kuang and I were roommates at the time and one day after re-discovering the song again, I suggested that I could hear his voice on the lead for the song if After Hours tried it a cappella. Yee Kuang's initial response was that it would be too hard but liked the song enough. I played the song for the guys and they agreed it sounded pretty difficult but we could give it a try. It's important to note here that back then our method of learning songs was by ear or "woodshedding" for those familiar with the term. Nothing but lyrics and the key were ever written down as none of us had any knowledge on how to properly score an arrangement, or read music very well for that matter. Obviously no longer the approach we take now.
One wintery cold day I asked the guys to meet at my work for rehearsal. We were always looking for echoey places to rehearse and we wanted to spend an entire rehearsal to see if we could get this one song. So we ended up learning "He Lives In You" in the parking garage of my work. We'd have to stop every once in a while to let cars pass us by. However, the song came quite naturally to us and kind of fell into place rather quickly, which kind of surprised all of us. Ian took the bass, George and Mike invented interesting tenor harmonies and spoken bits, I handled all the in between stuff in the lower register somewhere between Ian and the tenor parts and Yee Kuang took the lead.
We continued to rehearse the song over and over and quickly knew that this song was simply a cut above the rest of our material. It was decided that the song would be the final encore of the evening, following a haunting arrangement of "Silent Night". We also added some dramatic effects by turning out the lights of the church and only lighting ourselves with individual candles for both of these songs. While very effective, we were lucky none of the candles blew out while we sang and unfortunately, due to the poor lighting, only the audio was picked up by the video camera so there are no actual images of that first performance, only the memories from those who were there.
I think because we KNEW we had this amazing song to hit the crowd with at the end of the night, our overall confidence was much higher throughout the show. We sounded better than we ever had. Nerves were no longer an issue and we had a lot of fun, which showed. We also put more effort into our look and did a costume change at intermission. We also added a Hula Hoop contest to the show as well as a number with guitarist Brian Graham which we had never done before. People popped big for that song, "Hotel California" and probably assumed that nothing would top our number with Brian.
With the lights out, candles lit, we lulled the audience into a very quiet space with "Silent Night" and then we hit them with "He Lives In You". And we sang the shit out of it. The harmonies, the power, since you can't actually see how many people are on stage, you lose track of how many voices there were. One person who had heard the audio only told me he had assumed we were a chorus of at least 12 people, which is one of the highest compliments an a cappella group can get. That song, with those voices in that church produced a magical moment in After Hours that I'd argue has yet to be repeated. People literally screamed at the end of the song and the applause lasted minutes. When the lights came on, all that was left on the stage were five smoking candles, finishing the effect.
When we walked out of the back to greet our guests, people ran up to me crying and told me how much they loved the song and wanted desperately to know what it was. Many ran home and searched for the song, only to be disappointed that it was nothing like our version.
For the first time in four shows, the after-show crowd was biggest around Yee Kuang. People couldn't wait to shake his hand or hug him. Because of one song, he went from the 5th wheel in After Hours, to the voice behind our best tune.
Our next show would be our 5th anniversary, which we performed a little late, in Feb of 2006. "He Lives In You" again was the highlight of the show but this time we performed it at the end of the first act to make sure we had a solid and well lit recording of the song before anyone's voice got tired. It was kind of a selfish move as the song really should have finished the show again but we really wanted a good recording of it, which we did get.
Much like 2002, we performed another Christmas concert later that same year, in November of 2006. Without getting into too much detail, we weren't at our best. There was a lot of tension in the group and we did not feel ready for this show. I'm sure to most, no one really noticed. For us, it was a big discombobulated mess. However, once again "He Lives In You" was the closer of the night, with the lights on which again, was about making sure the camera would pick up the video as well as the audio. Watching that performance now, we look tired, but we nailed the arrangement and the applause once again, was the strongest of the evening.
We also recorded a CD in 2006 and put the song on there as the last track. Not a bad recording but it's never the same as singing live at Grace Church.
Our next show wouldn't happen again until September of 2008. We were actually pretty busy with live gigs in 2007, performing "He Lives In You" for people all over the place. However, something bittersweet happened in 2008. We saved "He Lives In You" once again as the last song of the night AND we went back to turning off the lights and doing the candle thing. When the song was over, the applause was hearty but not much different than the rest of the songs we had sung all evening. We felt it was probably the best we had ever sung it, you can see that performance here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXCda_Vx8JE
As I mentioned, the reason the applause wasn't as crazy as before was bittersweet. People had no issues with the song and still enjoyed it. What had happened though, was that we had improved the arrangements of all of our other songs so much that "He Lives In You" no longer stood out as this amazing one-off. It was now on par with the other songs in our list. Great news for us, bad news for "He Lives In You". We decided then and there, that we would not perform the song again, that it had run its course. It was also the last time After Hours would set foot inside Grace Church On-The-Hill.
Within the next few months, both Mike Santos and Ian Corby left After Hours. Mike was replaced by Luke Hobbs and we became a quartet. We had learned about 300 songs at that point and we had to basically start over as we were now four instead of five, leaving all of our previous arrangements more or less useless. 2009 was a year of learning to be a quartet and we planned our next show for 2010. Yee Kuang, George and myself had no intentions of performing "He Lives In You". Luke however made it clear that it was very important to him that he get to sing that song with us at least once at a show.
So we did two back to back shows (Friday and Saturday nights) on mics for the first time at our new theatre of choice, the Winchester Street theatre. As the final encore, we performed "He Lives In You" on both nights. Fancy lighting, a Tibetan singing bowl to start the song, the works. The applause was mild and polite.
I had learned then that while Yee Kuang's lead was the centrepiece of the song, it was actually Mike's voice that provided most of the song's power. I had moved into Ian's old bass part so my part was more or less combined with Mike's which Luke performed. It was also the first time the song was scored and written down. The magic, simply wasn't there.
That show was George's last and then he was replaced and then the song was shelved.
Five years later, in 2015, After Hours celebrated it's 15th anniversary with a very special show, bringing back former members, including Mike Santos. We thought with three of the five original voices and performing the song as a quintet like we used to, MAYBE we could get that magic back. Once again we performed the song as the closer with lights out and candles and the applause was nearly non-existent. It was just another song and in hindsight, a poor choice to end the night with. We learned that night that it wasn't just Yee Kuang and Mike who are essential to the magic of that song, it was Ian's bass and George's tenor as well.
We recently sent out a survey to a random focus group of people to get feedback as we prepare for our next show this coming Spring. Many people are still talking about "He Lives In You" as a song they'd like to hear. While in After Hours we never say never, it is very unlikely, out of respect to the magic that was once there and the guys who sang it, that we will ever perform "He Lives In You" again.
But, you never know...
People often tell us that they appreciate what we do because it must be so hard to do. I guess we take it for granted because, singing a cappella isn't that hard to do, as long as you can sing a melody line next to someone else singing something completely different from you. That's the magic of harmony singing. In our case, four people singing four different notes at any given time to make four-part harmony.
Some of the more difficult aspects of a cappella are the things that people don't immediately see. One thing that I find difficult is choosing the right songs. I know people will come back to me years after suggesting a song to us and saying "hey, how come you never tried singing that song I mentioned three years ago?". Truth is, we probably did and for whatever reason, it didn't work out.
Part of my job as the principle arranger in After Hours is knowing I may spend an entire day or two arranging a song that may never see the light of day. I would say 2/3 of the songs I have prepared for After Hours have been shelved, either for now or for good. And sometimes they are personal favourites but unfortunately that's not always enough and it is crucial to be able to look at a song and say, "well this isn't working out" and toss it. The last thing you want to do is perform a show and have people say afterwards "that song didn't really fit, kind of filler if you asked me".
So how does a song make the cut? Well since we are the ambassadors of "Doo-Wop" in Toronto it's pretty easy to do anything from that genre. That said, you still want to pick something either a) fun, b) well known, or both. There's literally thousands of "Doo-Wop" songs from the 50's and 60's but if it's not fun and people don't recognize it, no matter how much WE may love it personally, we need to move on from it.
People tend to enjoy songs that evoke an emotion in themselves. So if the song is something they recognize, that usually helps. If the song is fun or tear-jerking, they can forgive the fact that they may not know it. Audience participation songs can be anything but again, the level of "participation" depends on how much they know or enjoy what you are doing. Overall people tend to enjoy the high energy tunes and respond better to those, which is kind of funny as After Hours always ends up with way more ballads than we should and they are also much harder to sing! I often put on "ballad bans" (in fact, there's one on right now) which means guys can't suggest new ballads until we up our up tunes.
So you're likely thinking, "well that doesn't sound too hard, just pick songs that are fun, upbeat and well known". Well, it's not that easy. Now you need to pick songs that match the personality of the group, the personality of the guy who will sing it and make sure it works as a four part a cappella harmony song. That last thing is tough.
For example, from 2002 to 2008, After Hours was a quintet, we had five guys. In 2004 we introduced a little known throwaway track from an "inspired by" The Lion King soundtrack CD called "He Lives In You". The song later gained popularity as it was a centrepiece in the onstage musical of The Lion King but people would come to our shows, to hear that song, even before it was popular. With the specific voices we had in After Hours, that song was our strongest and people loved it. However, in 2009 when After Hours became a quartet with very different voices, the song lost its lustre. Even though we've tried doing it a few times as a quartet, the song always fell flat. Even when we tried to do it as a quintet again last summer at our anniversary show, the song once again, fell flat. So one possible conclusion to be made there is that the voices in the group decide whether the song will be successful or not; not always the song itself.
For example, right now one of our best received songs is Let It Be by The Beatles. The arrangement is actually quite simple and quite repetitive. But I will admit, with the voicing we have, it's hands down one of our best sounding songs. That was not the case when we first sang it in 2003 as a quintet.
So it's important then, to recognize the voices and the personalities behind the voices, as you choose your songs.
Our new guy Glenn has a very powerful, soulful sound. He can sing ballads and up tunes. He also knows a ton of music so it's very easy to pick songs for him. That said, you wouldn't want to get him to sing anything silly. He also has a true baritone sound so nothing super high either.
Yee Kuang has a unique lead voice. His leads are chosen carefully and tend to be higher in melody. But again, you wouldn't want to saddle him with anything tacky or over the top. Nothing too low either.
Jon, being the bass, his leads are few and far between.
And then there's me. It seems my leads are either very epic ballads or silly up tunes. I have the personality to pull them off. I also seem to handle most of the Doo-Wop leads as well. I'm sort of the comic relief of the group.
Overall though, the current personality of the group is a little more serious, a little more soulful and R&B, rather than Doo-Wop.
Then of course there's the songs that people expect and associate with After Hours; Stand By Me, Up On The Roof, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Come Go With Me, In The Still Of The Night, etc. Thankfully those songs seem universal in their ability to be sung a cappella by anyone but for example, we've made tons of changes to Stand By Me to make it work with the new voices we have and also the quality of the arrangements of the other songs around it... which is another thing you have to consider! If you have nine really tight arrangements and then one kind of loosey-goosey lazy arrangement, it sticks out. Sometimes songs lose out simply because they are too simple compared to the songs around them.
People ask why we don't perform more originals and the answer is simple... people don't respond to them. Polite applause seems to be about the most you can expect from an original composition, mostly because they don't know it, so they have a harder time connecting to it. It's kind of our fault in a way, most of our originals are ballads (surprise, surprise). Perhaps if we wrote something upbeat and kitschy, we'd get a better response?
We and specifically I pay very close attention to the reaction songs get in our shows. You may come to a show and think "wow, that song X was my favourite!" but then you never hear it again. That is likely because the reaction to it was poor overall so we pull the plug on it. The songs mentioned above, the ones people expect to hear, time and time again, get the strong reactions. Yee Kuang and I have probably sung those songs over a thousand times but we continue to sing them because people love them and respond to them.
The best compliment we can get and still do (especially to Up On The Roof) is "I went home and listened to the original version of that song you did, but yours was way better." If we can take a song and make you love our version the best, then we really did it right. We try very hard to bring you fun, interesting and mostly familiar songs and arrange them to make you hear them just slightly differently, to help you recognize how much harmony is inside some of your favourite songs.
So next time you come to a show, when the person next to you says "I wonder how they picked this song?" you'll know why.
It has come to my attention that 2016 is the 20th anniversary of the beginnings of After Hours. Pictured above, are Edsel Mansia (2nd from left), Mike Santos (2nd from right) and Jonathan Pong (far right). These are the three original guys who started singing in the hallways of Riverdale Collegiate in 1996, 20 years ago! They sang under the name "Harmonic Company" at that time. In 1997, George Scott (centre) and Aaron Milic (taking the picture) joined on to make "Harmonic Company" a quintet. People came and went, in 1999, Yee Kuang Wong (far left) joined Aaron and eventually in 2000, the group was renamed "After Hours". So while we just celebrated the 15th anniversary of the group called After Hours last summer, it's time now to celebrate the guys that started it all. Happy Anniversary Jon, Mike and Edsel!
The one question that keeps coming up these days is "how did you find Glenn?".
Last year, we were prepping our big 15th anniversary show and also our Chinatown concert with rehearsals at St. Matthew's Church. In November, as we were tearing down and loading up my car with gear, a gentlemen came out and said "ah you must be one of the a cappella singers, we could hear you". He said he was from the Hillcrest Village Choir and of course I immediately apologized if we had interfered with their rehearsal but he was very polite about it, said not to apologize since they actually enjoyed hearing us, which of course was nice of him to say. We talked a bit and then said our goodbyes.
After the New Year, the search was on for a new baritone in After Hours. Luckily I had remembered that conversation with the gentlemen from the Hillscrest choir and got in touch with their director, Ben. I figured where there was a choir, there would be singers! I told Ben who I was and what the situation was and he gladly invited me to come by to talk to his choir to let them know we were on the search. During their rehearsal they took a break and I met and spoke with some of the guys in the choir. Glenn was one of those guys and he told me I looked familiar, turns out he had been a guest at our 2012 show at the Winchester Theatre and really enjoyed us! Small world.
After rehearsal was done, I asked Glenn to stick around. I asked him to sing Stand By Me, a song he wasn't too familiar with but that didn't stop him. He grabbed the lyrics off his phone, I sang the bass line and he sang the melody and just blew me away with his powerful voice! Our harmony together sounded nice and natural.
We invited him out to an audition soon after that and then the job was his, pretty much instantly. Not only is Glenn a great singer but he's just a natural fit with the other guys in After Hours and an all around gentlemen.
Thank you Hillcrest choir!