It was the first Saturday in May, and the acoUstiKats were telling all their friends they were going to the Kentucky Derby.
It seemed like a natural reason for the University of Kentucky's 12-man a cappella ensemble to be away, but the group didn't go to the Run for the Roses in Louisville.
"It was a different kind of derby," said group member, coach and arranger Nick Johnson.
The singers were on their way to Nashville and the race to be on The Sing-Off, the NBC reality competition for a cappella groups. The show's fourth season begins Monday with a two-hour episode at 9 p.m.
"When we got in there, they usually just have you singing one or two songs, but we ended up singing six songs," says business manager Evan Jennings Pulliam. "And they talked to us extra long, so we left the audition feeling really good about it. Of course, you never know with these television things."
As of Nov. 18, everybody knows that the acoUstiKats is one of 10 groups that made the show.
The show was filmed in advance and the winner has been determined — but don't expect the acoUstiKats men to tell you how it went. All will be revealed during the show's finale on Dec. 23. Since last spring, these 12 guys have gotten really good at keeping secrets.
Central Kentuckians don't have to settle for seeing the acoUstiKats just on the small screen. The group has three live performances in the next few days.
The ensemble is again part of the UK Choirs' annual holiday Collage concert Saturday and Sunday at the Singletary Center for the Arts.
On Monday evening, before The Sing-Off premiere, the guys will perform at the Keeneland Sales Pavilion to benefit Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Georgetown.
Besides being a pre-premiere party, Monday's concert will be a special event for the acoUstiKats because it will be the first time the group's lineup as seen on The Sing-Off has performed together since they competed in Culver City, Calif., in late summer.
The acoUstiKats are, of course, a university ensemble, and with that comes a revolving roster of members. Some members graduated since The Sing-Off, and some new members came on board. This will be a reunion, but group members emphasize they want the Sing-Off experience to be a legacy for the acoUstiKats.
"The program has to continue on," says Jeremy Lewis, the group's public relations director. "You can't just take this elite group and go with it until it dies and say, 'Well, The Sing-Off was the end of it.' No. This should be the beginning of something new, and we have new guys in and will continue on with them, and that should happen every semester."
Jordan Lindsey, a coach and the group's senior member, says, "That's one of the great things about this is it gives a very public face to the university and to the choir program. We are hoping this brings in a whole bunch of new students who love a cappella music and choral music."
Meanwhile, the guys are dealing with being students as their national notoriety rises.
Lewis says his iPhone was so overtaxed the day The Sing-Off lineup was announced that it died. Since filming of the show wrapped, the group has been preparing for the coming weeks and the spotlight in which it will put them. That includes sprucing up their Web presence and even offering merchandise.
"We have been talking to other groups that have been on the show, and they tell us there's this group of people that are obsessed with male, collegiate a cappella groups, and they're going to want your music, they're going to want your merchandise, your shirts. They're going to want everything," Pulliam says. "So what we've tried to do is be ready to ride that wave as it starts. We've done a decent job marketing ourselves to the a cappella world."
Entertainment Weekly magazine staff writer and its resident a cappella nut, Jodi Walker, concurred. In her preview of The Sing-Off's new season, she writes: "I'm a total sucker for the fratty university groups. If you loved the Beelzebubs and are still pining for The Darmouth Aires' Michael Odokara-Okigbo, then you'll probably be tossing your vote to acoUstiKats too." (She adds, though, that the group's name "could use some work.")
She had high praise for the group's YouTube video covering Avicii's Wake Me Up. On Monday, the acoUstiKats' video of Brian McKnight's Back at One was tweeted by none other than McKnight.
So, rubbing shoulders with Jewel and the other Sing-Off judges, getting tweeted by their heroes and watching their social media audience steadily grow could make local performances seem pedestrian to the acoUstiKats. But it doesn't.
"This is where we come from, this is what we do, and it's what we're going to keep doing," Pulliam says. "One of the big things we tried to promote on the show is Kentucky. That's where we're from, that's what we're all about."
IF YOU GO
■ Collage.Holiday concert featuring University of Kentucky choirs and other UK School of Music musicians, including the acoUstiKats. 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7, 3 p.m. Dec. 8. UK Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. $24 adults, $13 students and children. Available at Singletary Center ticket office, (859) 257-4929 or Singletarycenter.com.
■ Concert benefitting Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Georgetown. 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9. Keeneland Sales Pavilion, 4201 Versailles Rd. $15 in advance, $20 at the door. Acoustikats.com.
9 p.m. Dec. 9 on NBC