Under the right influences

Straight No Chaser hits the road

By Alan Sculley

Photo: Straight No Chaser will perform Nov. 7 at the Schuster Center; photo: Andrew Zaeh

As the title of the latest Straight No Chaser album Under the Influence suggests, its songs are meant to give listeners a window into some of the artists who inspired the 10-member a cappella group.

What the album also shows, according to Straight No Chaser vocalist Don Nottingham, is that the group’s tastes aren’t as left field as some might assume.

“Our influences are exactly the same influences that you would probably find in just about any other band,” Nottingham said in a recent phone interview. “That’s part of what I think makes us interesting to our audiences. Between the 10 of us, we like a lot of different music. So we can bring a lot of those influences to bear on what we sing.”

While albums highlighting an artist’s influences are nothing new, what helps make Under the Influence more of an event is that several of the artists who originated the songs join Straight No Chaser on vocals. And this isn’t a B-list group of guests, either. They include Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Elton John, Phil Collins, Jason Mraz, Seal and Rob Thomas (of Matchbox Twenty).

“As far as landing some of those names, I just assumed that our management blackmailed them,” Nottingham joked. “That’s the only explanation I could come up with. We have Stevie Wonder on our album? Come on. That’s crazy.”

The song selection showcases the diversity of the musical tastes of the group, which includes Nottingham, Walter Chase, Randy Stine, Jerome Collins, Michael Luginbill, Charlie Mechling, Tyler Trepp, Seggie Isho, Dave Roberts and Steve Morgan.

Parton joins the group on one of her signature hits, “Jolene.” Straight No Chaser backs Parton’s familiar vocal with a peppy rhythm and even some clever instrumental-type lines that add color to the track. Stevie Wonder does “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” – a song Straight No Chaser performed on its own on its 2008 EP Six Pack. Here the guys in Straight No Chaser not only add backing vocals, they mimic horns, the song’s prominent bass line and its sprightly beat. Motown is also represented with a cover of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” featuring Sarah Bareilles, while fans of soul get medleys of Ray Charles (“What’d I Say/Hit the Road Jack/Mas Que Nada”) and Bill Withers (“Use Me/Ain’t No Sunshine”).

There’s a bit of classic pop/rock with the versions of “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),” with Phil Collins reprising his vocal, and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me,” which puts the lead vocal of Elton John (who sounds in perfect form) in the spotlight.

Other songs show the guys in Straight No Chaser are up to date on current music. They seamlessly string together fun.’s hits “Some Nights” and “We Are Young,” and also perform solid versions of Gavin DeGraw’s “Soldier” and Ed Sheeran’s “Lego House.”

While scheduling issues meant most of the guest artists recorded their vocals separately, Parton and Bareilles came to studios Straight No Chaser was using to record their vocals – a special thrill for the group.

“You can only imagine what it’s like to have these folks (like Parton) come in and just knock out a solo to ‘Jolene’ in one take,” Nottingham said. “I think she sang for like 10 minutes.”

Along with Under the Influence, the recording sessions also produced a Christmas EP Under the Influence: Holiday Edition. Its eight tunes feature lead vocals by CeeLo Green, Colbie Caillat and none other than Paul McCartney (on “Wonderful Christmastime”).

The group wanted to do a holiday companion EP to Under the Influence, Nottingham said, in part because Straight No Chaser is well known for its Christmas albums. In fact, it was a YouTube video of a wacky rendition of “The 12 Days Of Christmas” (filmed at a 1998 concert by the original lineup of Straight No Chaser after they had gotten together as students at the University of Indiana) that caught the attention of Craig Kallman, CEO of Atlantic Records, and earned the group its record deal with Atlantic.

Thinking Christmas music was the perfect introduction to the group (whose members all sang in Indiana University editions of Straight No Chaser), Kallman and Atlantic had the group debut with the 2008 Christmas album Holiday Spirits. A second holiday CD, Christmas Cheers, followed in 2009, while the group’s other releases (the Six Pack EP in 2008, full-length With a Twist in 2010 and the Six Pack: Volume II EP in 2011) featured year-round songs.

The group plans to showcase some songs from Under the Influence, as well as favorites from the back catalog, on its fall tour. The show will still be centered around non-holiday music when it comes to Schuster Performing Arts Center in Dayton on Nov. 7.

“In the beginning of November, we’ll kind of start a few songs,” Notingham said. “Then, come around Thanksgiving or so, we usually end up doing about 40 percent holiday music. And then, [for] the rest of it, more year-round stuff, if you will.”

Straight No Chaser will perform on Friday, Nov. 7 at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. The show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $25-57 and can be purchased by calling 937.228.3630 or visiting victoriatheatre.com. For more information about the band, please visit sncmusic.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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