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Vocal group may be on the rise, but they’ll still be in Duluth

There was a limbo-ish period this past fall when a certain quintet of a cappella singers knew they had won a TV talent show, but their pre-recorded episodes hadn’t yet started airing in prime time.

Home Free continued to play small shows they had already booked while in relative obscurity, with a shiny new recording project in the works and a $100,000 prize in pocket.  

“There would be, like, 10 people sitting in a food court listening to us and we’d be like: We just won ‘The Sing-Off,’ ” said Chris Rupp, a founding member of the band that took home the title on the NBC competition this past December.

Of course, they couldn’t tell that to those 10 listeners or anyone else in the audience of the 200 fairs, corporate events and cruise ship gigs they played in a year.

“We couldn’t even tell people we were on the show until November,” Rupp added.

Home Free will perform Wednesday through Sunday at the Arrowhead Home & Builders Show at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. The show is another one that was scheduled for the group before they captured a national audience with a cappella versions of songs like “Life is a Highway” and “Ring of Fire.”

The fivesome includes Rob Lindquist, a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth who performed with the college’s vocal jazz ensemble Lake Effect.

The group made a stop in Minneapolis last week as part of the Sing-Off Tour and played for a sold-out crowd at Mill City Nights.

Tickets for the tour’s shows in San Francisco start at $29.50. When they play a show in April at Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, tickets will start at $49. At the Home & Builders show, the hour-long set is included as part of the $9 admission ticket —which is attracting a range of fans.

“We truly are having people call from all over southern Minnesota,” said Ron Murphy, manager of Shamrock Productions, which organizes the Home & Builders show.

Murphy booked the band off the advice of an agent in New York City, he said, who told him thought the band could win “The Sing-Off” before the show had aired.

Rupp, self-described as having always been an a cappella nerd, started the group with his brother Adam Rupp about 13 years ago in their hometown of Mankato, Minn.

“We tried it and we were not very good,” Chris Rupp said. “We were just experimenting. We all had a good time with it and we wanted to get better.”

So the self-taught group kept practicing and booking shows, and they just kept getting better.

Home Free had auditioned for “The Sing-Off” for the past three seasons, Lundquist said, but never got far enough in the process to land screen time. They hemmed and hawed over trying out for Season 4 but eventually gave it another shot because it fit perfectly into their schedule.   

They landed a spot on the show, which meant sending a group of substitute Home Free’ers to fulfill obligations that interfered with filming. They had modest expectations of what would happen when faced with judges Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman of Boys II Men and Jewel.  

“Our goal was to not get kicked off the first week,” Lundquist said.

They continued to get positive feedback from the judges, but it was a mid-season performance that made Lundquist wonder if maybe they could win it.

“The judges just freaked out when we did ‘Ring of Fire’ during episode four,” he said.

In latter episodes, they performed Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather” — with Lundquist taking the lead vocals — and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with guest vocals from Jewel.

Since winning the show, the group has released the album “Crazy Life,” which includes a mix of six covers and five original tunes. The album hit No. 4 on the iTunes charts.

The goal, Lundquist said, is to write more originals and get radio play.

Fame has shifted the way the band performs. While they used to spend the first few songs introducing the audience to their style of music, these days most fans already know what to expect.

“They know our material,” Rupp said. “They’re screaming at the get-go.”

The novelty hasn’t worn off for Rupp, who continues to be surprised by what has happened since the show’s finale.

“We went out to a meal with our agents and other fancy-schmancy people in New York,” he said. “There were 11 of us and the bill was almost $2,000 and there were jaw drops. What’s happening right now?

“It’s a little strange for us Minneapolis boys.”

If you go

What: Home Free performances at the Arrowhead Home & Builders Show When: 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday Where: Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Arena Tickets: $9 adult admission to Home & Builders Show; $6 ages 6-17; age 5 and younger free