Voices alone carry

Da Vinci's Notebook

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 11, 2003) – When the four members of Da Vinci’s Notebook first met while singing in a pick-up doo-wop group in Washington, D.C., in 1993, they had no inkling that they were planting the seeds of what would eventually grow into a successful reign as one of the nation’s top a cappella groups.

“It’s not like we thought ‘Let’s become really famous by being a comedy a cappella group’,” said Paul Sabourin, one fourth of the group that performs at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield tomorrow at 8, in a recent phone interview. “I don’t think any of us had expectations of being full time musicians. We never seriously considered the possibility of making a living at this. As the years went on we got better at it and people started to respond.”

Born or hatched at open-mike nights, in bookstore cafes and in small clubs in and around the D.C. region, Da Vinci’s Notebook has slowly built a following for the combination of virtuosic harmonies and clever songwriting that has been described as “Bobby McFerrin and ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic colliding on stage.”

The group’s material is pop-culture savvy, skewering teen-pop bands, Britney Spears and even hip, alternative touchstones like They Might Be Giants. On the quartet’s latest album, “Brontosaurus,” they sing about Heather Graham, cyberporn and Bill Gates, and their concerts frequently feature audience participation, improvised lyrics, conga lines and Bob Dylan parodies.

On “Brontosaurus,” the group has pushed the envelope of good taste with songs including “Enema Countdown” and “Enormous Penis.” But Sabourin and bandmate Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo deny any conscious intention of pandering below the belt.

“We don’t want to go into the realm where if we just say dirty words we’ll be funny,” said DiCostanzo. “We want to be more clever than that. If everyone looked to us to curse, we’d go in the other direction. We always want to be surprising, but we don’t want to be Andrew Dice Clay.”

Sabourin echoes those sentiments. “We like to have some songs that are just really clever and smart and funny, and others that are just stupid and base and funny,” he said. “There’s not one type of humor. We’re four different people with four different backgrounds and we like to cater to all of our own tastes.”

The other members are Richard Hus and Bernie Muller-Thym.

“We never set out and said ‘Let’s just do a whole bunch of dirty songs,’” said Sabourin. “That’s just the way it worked out. We’re never consciously looking for the line to cross. Some musicians and comedians look consciously for how many taboos can you step on.

“For me at least, shock comedy is real easy to do. It’s an easy out if you can’t think of anything to say. I like things a little more clever.”

Da Vinci’s Notebook got its first big break in 1997 when it won the Mid-Atlantic Harmony Sweepstakes. An article about the victory in the Washington Post caught the attention of NBC’s “Today” show staff, which produced a feature segment about the group.

That same year, the singers released their first album, “Bendy’s Law,” which won a Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award (CARA) for Best Humorous Song, for their bluegrass ode to elective surgery, “Liposuction.” Over the next several years, the group appeared on Comedy Central, PBS and at the Kennedy Center.

By 1999, things were going well enough that the vocalists quit their day jobs to devote themselves full time to Da Vinci’s Notebook.

“Given the opportunity and the slightest chance that it could be something that would be a career and we’d not have to get up and go into an office everyday, it was worth the chance,” said DiCostanzo. “At the time we decided we were going to go for it and quit our jobs, it was pretty clear that there was some kind of future in it, at least worth trying it for a year or two.”

Like “Brontosaurus,” the group’s second CD was produced by Richard Bob Greene, the bass singer for a cappella innovators the Bobs. That album also spawned an award for Best Humorous Song – this time for “Ally McBeal,” a musical jab at the TV lawyer sung to the tune of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

In June 2001, the group experienced an unexpected surge in popularity when they were discovered by the nationally-syndicated “Bob and Tom” radio program. For almost a month, audience requests prompted near-daily airings of the group’s song “Enormous Penis,” helping them to reach a whole new group of fans.

“We thought it was funny but we had no idea it would catch on the way it did,” said DiCostanzo about “Enormous Penis.”

“When you write an anthem, people just flock to it,” said Sabourin.

Singing pop music without instruments still is something of a curiosity.

“There’s no denying there’s a certain novelty to the whole a cappella thing,” said Sabourin. “You can keep an audience’s attention at least for three to five minutes solely on the idea of no instruments.

“Plus it makes for a quick load-in and load-out.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 14, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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