By Julia Munslow
Though the self-proclaimed “Gents” of Emory a cappella are known for their classic blue and gold ties, last Saturday, the group dressed up for a special event: their birthday.
Emory University’s oldest and premier a cappella group, No Strings Attached (NSA), presented their 20th Anniversary Concert in Emerson Hall at the Schwartz Center last Saturday night, showing off their musical expertise as well as their comedic skills.
The all-male a cappella group drew a crowd that more than filled the 800-seat concert hall, and audience members resorted to sitting on the stairs and standing behind chairs on the balcony.
More than 30 NSA alums returned to perform a cappella songs for the Emory community, including seven of the eight members from the original, first full manifestation of the group.
The concert opened with a comedic video about how NSA came into being and their impact on the world.
According to the video, not only have the Gents cured Ebola with their “inexplicable curing voices,” but they have “prospered in absolutely everything.”
After the entertaining introduction, the audience reveled in the songs and roared with laughter at the humorous sketches interspersed throughout the program.
The musical strength of the singers gave each song a full and rich sound, while the skits described everything from Catsbop, a 50-track CD for cats, by cats, to an NSA version of medical alert system Life Alert.
Standout songs included Elton John’s “Daniel” featuring NSA alum David Fountain (’02C), who captured the audience with his rendition of the ballad.
College junior Cecil Walker also gave a strong performance on Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” successfully showing off his vocal know-how.
And while NSA president, Goizueta Business School senior Jason Charles may not be able to dance, as he spontaneously admitted to the audience during his solo in The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” he certainly can sing, thriving in the spotlight. (Charles is also a staff writer for the Wheel.)
Perhaps the most touching song was Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind,” featuring founding member Jason Hardy (’95C) as soloist, along with Ashish Ankola (’08C) and CJ Shepard (’14C). The alums, Hardy in particular, seemed to feel a nostalgic kind of comfort onstage, creating a bittersweet poignancy.
NSA ended the concert, as per tradition, by singing the alma mater and inviting University President James W. Wagner onstage.
“On behalf of all of Emory University … thank you and congratulations,” Wagner told the boys.
The 20th Anniversary Concert would not have been possible without the years of tradition and history preceding the group today.
When I stopped by their Saturday morning rehearsal, the boys shared some insight into their group, including a mini NSA-centered history lesson.
The a cappella group began when four Emory students decided to perform at an “Open Mic Nite” at Dooley’s Depot in 1994. Hardy shared that since many of the other performers used instruments, one of the original four performers, Mark Lamback (’95C), proposed the name, “No Strings Attached.”
“We learned sort of doo-wop style songs [for the open mic],” explained Hardy, now a thriving opera singer. “It was the perfect name, perfect first night, it was kind of wildly successful.”
The success didn’t stop there.
“People would scream for them, like the Beatles,” Charles said. “It was crazy at the beginning, because no one had seen anything like [a capella] in the South, so it was something new.”
However, the Gents do more than make the student body swoon.
The ensemble performs for many Emory events, as well as in the surrounding Atlanta area. NSA also traveled overseas as Emory ambassadors, journeying to Panama City in Panama in 2014 and to Rome, Italy in 2012.
“Singing in a piazza in Rome in front of these massive crowds, getting the entire piazza to come and watch us, those were really special moments,” Jordan Samo (’13C) recalled.
It’s evident that the ensemble has come a long way since that first open mic.
“We were afraid to snap fingers,” Hardy quipped. “Now it’s really much more. The arrangements have gotten more complicated, but they always tie to finding those songs that are total, tight harmony … when called for, the guys could just sing beautiful harmony.”
Though the group has evolved over the past 20 years, current members and alums alike will always share a special camaraderie.
Even to an outsider, the bond was palpable.
Though I heard the sounds of beautiful harmonies during their rehearsals, there was also much laughter and good-natured teasing reverberating through the halls, akin to that of an extremely large group of brothers.
“It’s such a brotherhood,” Charles affirmed. “We can all count on each other to be there for each other no matter what. We’re so different, but at the same time, we all have a little bit of the weirdness that makes us No Strings.”
With the long history and character of the group, it was inevitable that quirky traditions would emerge. Aside from the immediately-recognizable blue and gold ties, NSA has specific practices that its members know well, such as a warm-up practiced by all members dating back to the original group.
Additionally, any given member holds the potential power to make another fall asleep.
“You can ‘sleep’ people,” Samo explained, demonstrating with a simple flick of the wrist. “If you’re a higher year in No Strings than that person … they’ll be forced to pretend to go to sleep.”
Unique traditions like these continue to build the brotherhood of NSA.
The group made it clear that they share a love of music and commitment to the group despite the diversity of the members’ backgrounds and ideologies.
“I think that we bring spirit and joy to the Emory community,” Charles said. “With our music we are able to put smiles on people’s faces, make them feel things, inspire them, empower them.”
Samo agreed, saying, “I’m looking forward to coming back for the 25th and the 30th and all the upcoming anniversaries.”
The Gents of No Strings Attached should feel just as “wildly successful” as the original four members of what has come to be a remarkable Emory legacy.
The entire show had me smiling, laughing and simply taking in the passion and musicality of 20 years’ worth of evolution, tradition and incredible dedication.
For those who missed the 20th anniversary or just can’t get enough of the boys in blue and gold, NSA will perform in the spring at Barenaked Voices and at their end-of-semester concert.
Until then, the Gents should be more than proud of showing off their forte at the 20th Anniversary Concert.
– By Julia Munslow, Staff Writer