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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Take 6, Then Add a Few Others : The vocal ensemble is joined by Stevie Wonder, Sheila E. at Coach House show, but band provides unnecessary backup.

April 02, 1993|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — So many people saw Stevie Wonder arrive at the Coach House on Wednesday for vocal group Take 6's performance that the room was abuzz with the hope that Wonder might join the sextet on stage. And sure enough, Wonder sang briefly, adding his voice to the ensemble's encore of "Spread Love," with Sheila E. guesting on congas.

But the evening's real news was "this thing behind us," as singer Claude V. McKnight III announced early in the set. That's right, the vocal ensemble prized for its sparkling a capella harmonies has added instrumental backing.

It's not that they need it. In fact, the six-piece band was mainly limited to rhythmic accompaniment, freeing the vocalists to swoop and soar. When the entire band--two keyboardists, two percussionists, bass and guitar--did kick in, it tended to obscure the voices, washing out the vocal harmonics with synthesizer prattle and guitar licks.

The opener, "I L-O-V-E U," from their 1990 release "So Much 2 Say," was an out-and-out rocker in which the band's volume overshadowed the vocalists. Though the sound balance improved as the song progressed, the richness of the arrangement by Cedric Dent and former member Mervyn Warren was mostly lost.

The group spent much of the rest of the concert previewing new tunes. The new material, designed to take advantage of the instrumental support, still carries Christian themes but has taken a decided turn from the bop, doo-wop and gospel style that brought the group fame. In its place are back-beat heavy riffs and soulful ballads that seem tailor-made for radio play.

"I Can't Keep Going On" featured synthesizer effects over a strong shuffle with McKnight's silky lead. The ballad "All I Need" found the band, which sat out during one a capella chorus, operating in hushed tones and allowing the voices to stand out. "Even Though," a mid-tempo excursion to a strong dynamic peak saw the band working the beat with only spare additions from the keyboards.

The group was at its best when it returned to the a capella format. Their voices blended seamlessly in three-, four- and five-part harmonies while the arrangements provided enough accents, counterpoints and scalar hi-jinks to make even an unscheduled rendition of "Happy Birthday" a scintillating experience.

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McKnight and fellow tenor David Thomas displayed strength and pinpoint pitch in solo and lead spots. Bass Alvin Chea applied his usual depth and percussive play, sometimes sounding much like the instrument that plays in the same range. But the best individual performances came during a brother-against-brother showdown between Mark and Joey Kibble that escalated in soul and style until the entire ensemble slid beautifully into a final chord.

Though they've made a shift in direction, group members made clear their original inspiration--their religious faith--remains intact.

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"The important thing is the word, and our savior Jesus Christ," McKnight said. A number of references to the faith were made over the course of the evening. But the preaching didn't color the performance, and even the most strident atheist could overlook the proselytizing in favor of the harmonies.

Though they promised from the stage that they would never abandon the a capella style that gave them their start, the addition of the backup band was more a distraction than an embellishment. It was a case of more is less: With six voices this strong and able, who needs accompaniment?

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