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Tonic Sol-fa returns to Historic Holmes stage

The a capella quartet Tonic Sol-fa brings their smooth sounds to the Historic Holmes Theatre stage Thursday, July 22. This will be their third performance in Detroit Lakes.

Four voices and a tambourine ... that's all Tonic Sol-fa needs to create a sound so unforgettable that the New York Times once described it as "a vocal kaleidoscope ... unique to the human voice."

In a short 10-year span, the a capella quartet has graced the stage of NBC's Today Show, performed with everyone from Jay Leno and Garrison Keillor to Lonestar and Shawn Colvin, sold over 1 million albums -- most of them from the back of their touring van -- and earned a spot in the Midwest Music Hall of Fame (2000).

The foursome -- Shaun Johnson, Jared Dove, Greg Bannwarth and Mark McGowan -- will return to the stage of Detroit Lakes' Historic Holmes Theatre for a third time next Thursday, July 22 at 8 p.m.

They first appeared in DL about five years ago for a school assembly and evening concert; the second was with their touring Christmas show.

But Johnson is a far more frequent visitor to the area, as his sister Courtney Henderson lives in Detroit Lakes with her family.

"I've been to Detroit Lakes many times on my own," Johnson said.

Though they have toured throughout the U.S. and Canada, Johnson and the other members of the group enjoy the opportunity to perform a little closer to their Twin Cities home once in a while.

"You can drive (to the venue), which is nice because airports do get a little old," he said. "You can go home, do the laundry, answer your mail."

Though they do frequently perform outside Minnesota, the group has scaled back their touring schedule a bit in recent years, in part because three of the four men are married, with children at home.

"A few years ago, we were home a total of three weeks for the whole year," Johnson said.

"We made a conscious effort to be home more than we're gone," he continued, adding that while he is still single, the other three wanted to ensure that they "can be there for the important things" in their families' lives.

"Now we do eight to 10 shows a month, and we cut it off after that," he said. "It works really good -- we're home 15 to 20 days a month."

Spending more time at home also means that the group can focus on "other aspects" of their career, "rather than putting all of our eggs into the show basket."

One of those "other aspects" is filming television specials for PBS.

"We did our first PBS special four years ago," Johnson said. "It was a Christmas special, filmed at Orchestra Hall in the Twin Cities."

The special turned out to be a huge hit.

"It just went bonkers," Johnson said. "We had no idea of the power of public television -- the show aired 1,800 times (no, that's not a typo) that first year."

Johnson said the group was averaging 300 e-mails a day during that Christmas holiday. In fact, they were so busy that "we hired three full-time people just to take orders (for CDs) and send them out."

Since then, the group has filmed another music special called "If I Can Dream," which started airing this past spring, and a second Christmas special, "Greatest Time of the Year," which will have its debut in the upcoming holiday season.

The shows have aired on PBS stations all over the U.S. and Canada, garnering a fan following that spans from New York to Los Angeles, Winnipeg to Guam.

"It's amazing how many people saw our show," said Johnson, adding that many of them were so enthused by what they saw that they would fly halfway across the country to see one of their shows.

"We used to have people (at shows) who would drive from half an hour away," he said. "To now have people fly in from other states just to see your show, that's a really big honor for us."

The group's repertoire covers a wide range of music, from originals written by one or more of its members to pop and country tunes both classic and modern.

"If we're going to do original music, it has to fit seamlessly with the cover tunes," said Johnson. "If people don't respond to them, we throw them out (of the repertoire)."

Tonic Sol-Fa has also formed some unique marketing partnerships over the years, including everything from Tastefully Simple to Blue Bunny ice cream.

"We learned a ton (from those experiences)," Johnson said.

Still, they're never quite ready to rest on their laurels. "We worry so much about all this stuff, you'd think that when it was done we'd have a big party. But instead we start thinking about what we have to do next," Johnson said.

Still, the group's favorite activity is performing in front of a live audience.

"It's the best part of our job," Johnson said. "To go out and sing, it's like a vacation."

Ultimately, Johnson said, Tonic Sol-fa has one basic goal: To convert audiences to the joys of a capella music.

"We try to compete with whatever's out there (in the music world)," he said. "We're not living in an a capella world.

"Every spring, we try to put together a whole new show, in every aspect," he added.

In other words, if you think you've seen their show before, you might be in for a surprise.

Tickets for the July 22 show are on sale at the Holmes Theatre Box Office, 806 Summit Ave., Detroit Lakes (inside the Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center). The cost for adults is $18 in advance or $20 at the door; student tickets are $10, both in advance and at the door.

For more information, call 218-844-SHOW (7469), or visit the community center website at

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454