Tonic Sol-Fa mixes unusual potion of a cappella

The Twin Cities a cappella quartet Tonic Sol-Fa takes its name from a 19th century English method of teaching choral singing, but its upbeat repertoire is firmly rooted in the present and recent past.

“We [sing] everything from country to pop to rock to jazz to gospel, and we kind of bounce back and forth,” says the group’s bass singer, Jared Dove. “We like to take a little bit from everything so that we don’t get pegged as being too specific in what we do because, obviously, doing a cappella people do tend to stereotype anyway.”

Dove has been with the 12-year-old group since 2000. While he hits Tonic’s low notes, Greg Bannwarth and Shaun Johnson are its tenors, and Mark McGowan serves as the group’s baritone.

Tonic Sol-Fa will headline a fund-raiser for the Osseo Senior High School band at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 7, at the high school.

Diversity and harmony

Dove says a lot of people think of barbershop quartets when they think of a cappella singing groups, an unfortunate stereotype that even the briefest listen to Tonic Sol-Fa will dispel.  There’s no “Down by the Old Mill Stream,” “Sweet Adeline,” “Shine on Harvest Moon,” or even worse, anything resembling The Singing Senators  — Larry Craig, John Ashcroft, Jim Jeffords and Trent Lott — warbling “God Bless America.”

Instead, Tonic Sol-Fa feeds its audience a diet of pop-rock classics such as Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia,” Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” along with high, lonesome bluegrass in “Man of Constant Sorrow” by the Stanley Brothers, the gospel standard “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” Marty Robbins’ gunfighter ballad “El Paso,” and even a breathy, bopping bit of blues via Willie Dixon’s “29 Ways to My Baby’s Door.”

You can listen to Tonic Sol-Fa here.

From left: Jared Dove, Greg Bannwarth, Mark McGowan and Shaun Johnson of Tonic Sol-Fa.
From left: Jared Dove, Greg Bannwarth, Mark McGowan and Shaun Johnson of Tonic Sol-Fa.

To that mix, they work in original songs with rhythmic, high-sheen harmonies and a few morsels of comic relief, such as the silly snap of “Scooby Doo, Where Are You” and the Christmas-y “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

Deep-fried Fair release
The holiday season is always a busy one for the group. Of Tonic’s eight CDs thus far, three have been Christmas albums; their only DVD is also geared toward the holiday.

Their most recent release, last year’s “On Top of the World,” is a collection of Christmas songs, but Dove says the group is already at work on a new CD. They should have the disc ready to go by the time of their annual appearance at the Minnesota State Fair in late summer.

“It’s going to be a non-holiday album,” he says. “There will be a lot of original tunes and a number of covers we’re really proud of.”

He says Tonic has added about six new numbers to its show, but he’s unwilling to name names of songs. Some songs could be left off of the playlist because they might not be practiced to perfection.

“I don’t want to say,” he says somewhat nervously. “The songs are coming along real well, but we’ve got a couple of the guys recovering from the flu, so our singing in practices has been limited.”

Dove says the group typically practices two to three times per week (not including its 10 to 15 monthly performances), for several hours at a time. Not all of that practice is full-blown performance-level singing, he says, but it consists of practicing pieces of songs, outlining arrangements, working on their often-humorous song introductions and the like.

All four singers work on Tonic Sol-Fa full time. They tour the Midwest and other areas, but they’re able to make ends meet with a lot of gigs at corporate meetings and conventions, with past clients including Bose, Schwan’s, General Mills, Tastefully Simple, Herberger’s, Wal-Mart, LifeTouch, 3M Co. and Wenger Corp.

“It’s a good life,” Dove says. “We’re very lucky and happy to be able to do this for a living.”

Tickets for Friday’s event are $20. The high school is at 317 Second Ave. NW, in Osseo.

Upcoming pick

Extreme metal? Yes. Played at high volume for maximum effect. The bombast and blast of Epicurean will bang the Cabooze, 917 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis, on Friday, March 7. The Minneapolis-based group is celebrating the release of its “Consequence of Design” CD. Dead Hands Rising and Rivkit open the 18-and-over show at 8:30 p.m. Admission is $6.

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