On Saturday, March 30, Washington University in St. Louis, MO, played host to the 2013 ICCA Midwest Semifinal. The event featured eight competing groups. Before we get to the review, a quick summary:
University of Wisconsin-Madison Fundamentally Sound
The Missouri State Beartones
University of Nebraska Rocktavo
University of Kansas Genuine Imitation
The University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana Xtension Chords
University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana No Comment
The University of Nebraska Bathtub Dogs
Northwestern University Extreme Measures
Guest Group: University of Chicago Voices in Your Head
Host Group: The Washington University Stereotypes
Photos of the event are available now on our Facebook page.
The Washington University Stereotypes kicked off the night with Fun.’s “Some Nights.” I always love the energy and spirit from these guys. Very well-chosen piece to warm up the audience for what promised to be pretty fantastic night of a cappella. From there, Leah Gastman from Varsity Vocals took over with the standard announcements, before handing things over to emcees Tripp Wickersham and Jason Unger from The Stereotypes. The guys did an outstanding job all night, interweaving all sorts of diversions, including a series of a cappella-themed jokes, pickup lines texted from the audience, and a sing-along to “Happy Birthday” in honor of Jason’s 21st birthday.
The first competitors were Fundamentally Sound. The all-male group wore red shirts, gray pants and tan suspenders. They keyed off with dramatic gun pointing-begging off posing before settling into a more conventional formation for Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks”. Very interesting reimagining of the song, and the guys demonstrated excellent energy throughout the piece before transitioning to a sample of MGMT’s “Kids” Very nice haunting, steady woodblock percussion beneath the soft hum of the group. Lots of reconfigurations on stage which worked well, helping to punch the drama—moving with a purpose. They maneuvered back to “Pumped Up Kicks, with the two soloists singing heatedly at each other. I loved the drama. Very unconventional, intense opener, which ended with the group reassuming the same pose with the gun to bring things full circle.
The gun pointing provided a fun transition as the pointer used the posturing to hand off the microphone to the next soloist for “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” from Book of Mormon. Fun interaction between soloists, one the arrogant leader, the other the toady hanging by his side. Excellent charisma and stage presence from the two of them and a lot of high energy movement and good vocals in the background again. It didn’t think this song had the strongest solo work, but the guys were clearly playing up the theatrical comedy factor, so it was fine. I appreciated the creative decision to go somewhere really different for the second song.
Three soloists stood still for the opening to Bon Iver’s “Holocene,” while the other group members wandered around and through the gaps between them for a really interesting visual, that I interpreted to be making a statement about the protagonists of this story going unnoticed and feeling lost in the shuffle. The three-part falsetto solo felt a little muddled—it was hard to catch the lyrics, which I thought took away from the dramatic impact a little. Very, very pretty high harmonizing from the whole group as the guys lined the front of the stage. The blend was awesome there as the whole group sang chorally.
The perc keyed in as the guys made a seamless transition to ”Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore. Excellent rap lead on the first verse, and it came across especially well in stark contrast to “Holocene.” Very good percussion. The guys transitioned to a second rapper on the second verse, who may have been even better. Great stomp-clap moment. This was such a diverse set, and I loved the guys’ willingness to take chances. Moreover, for much of the set, the overhead mics were shaking from guys hitting the stand or actually hitting the mics themselves. I don’t say that to suggest they were careless, but rather because this movement felt indicative of just how aggressively the guys were attacking the stage, completely un-self-conscious and completely plugged into their music. This was a really strong set.
Next up, The Beartones. The all-male group took the stage in light blue shirts, gray sweaters, and black slacks. They opened with Parachute’s ”What I Know” Very cool idea for the staging with two rows of guys lined up and the group members crossing over with each other as the soloist walked through them toward the front of the stage. Good percussion. Stellar use of dynamics building to the choruses each time and popping with sound at those points. Very good power moment on the repetition of “I’m on my knees.” Nice breakdown on the finish with some of the guys echoing the soloist for some good drama and emotion. I think the guys made the most of the song, but when you only have twelve minutes to make your case that you deserve to advance to New York, this isn’t the song choice with which to lead off your set—just a little too soft, too mellow, too lightweight feel to the song itself to allow the guys to really wow the audience.
The guys slowed things down next with Josh Groban’s ”Broken Vow.” Nice soft harmonies, and interesting visual choice to have the soloist standing entrenched in the middle of the group early on—nice symbolism for a guy feeling lost. Very nice selling of the emotion from the group, including the facials. While I usually don’t feel much movement in necessary on ballads like this, I liked the little bit of side step swaying from the guys that felt a little like slow dancing, recalling better days of the relationship. Again, nice use of dynamics, building toward the bridge. Very nice fall out moment before the guys shuffled back around for the soloist to end up in the back of the pack for the instrumental finish as the guys one-by-one consoled each other with hands on shoulders. A little cheesy, but it worked because they sold the gesture with total sincerity.
Arms crossed to start next song, Kelly Clarkson’s “The Sun Will Rise.” Very interesting song choice for an all-male group, and it worked for the guys’ willingness not to be tongue in cheek about it, but rather make the song their own. Fun bit of snap and step movement in the background, which felt very old school. Really nice build to the second verse when the guys really seemed to feel the emotion and the soloist ripped loose—I almost wondered if they should have gotten to that point more quickly because the song felt a little blah before that--particularly because they led into this song with a ballad, I thought they could have afforded an explosion much sooner without losing the dramatic contrast. Fun sample of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” on the finish. All in all, this was a solid set. While I appreciate that the guys seem to have established their identity with an overarching soft rock vibe, I couldn’t help feeling the set overall would have benefited from going a little faster tempo or a little rawer. At the semifinal level, it’s not enough to impress the audience—you’ve got to awe them if you hope to advance.
Rocktavo took the stage next in black suits, white shirts. They started the set with their backs to the audience, then began, en medias res with a bit of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and some very theatrical dancing, before segueing into a more traditional take on the song. Sick bass effect into the dubstep remix, with some pretty sharp dancing in formation at the middle of the stage. While the song felt a little disjointed, I loved that the guys went all out from the word go, pulsing with energy and going for the gusto with every note, very much including the falsetto bit, which they doubled up on. Very creative first song.
The guys followed up with a ballad. While I usually don’t dig the classical vocal style in a cappella, these guys have a real gift for finding the middle ground between contemporary a cappella aesthetics and musical theatre sensibilities. Superb solo. Very good visual presentation with lots of transitions and one hundred percent pained and sincere facials. Very nice whistling wind sound effect on the second chorus before the guys picked up the tempo. Beautiful fall out to a choral handling of the final chorus, exposing tremendous vulnerability from the guys. Stellar second song.
The guys picked up the tempo to close their set with a Maroon 5 medley, including “Harder to Breathe,” “Misery,” “Payphone,” and “This Love,” with some neat little transitional bridges inserting bits of “Moves Like Jagger” and other hits by the band. Borrowing from the style of “Dream On,” the guys started pieces in unusual places and circled back to the beginnings. Really fun bit as the “Makes Me Wonder” soloist repeatedly approached the “and it really makes me wonder if I ever gave a ****” lyric, and his groupmates kept cutting him off to maintain a family-friendly set. While there were some rough edges and some of the transitions felt a little abrupt, the arrangement of the medley was pretty brilliant and I loved that the guys both sang and danced their hearts out. They looked like they were having fun and it was a joy to bring this music to us--that’s a great place to sing from. Excellent set.
Genuine Imitation closed the first half of the show—our first co-ed group of the night, clad in black and electric blue. They opened with One Republic’s “Secrets.” Very good leads. Lots of “th” syllables on the opening which sounded a little clumsy to me. Ton of choreography here and while it was well-synched and executed with conviction, it was a lot of hand-based stuff that read as either overly literal or gratuitous--not the sort of visual presentation anchored in movement across the stage, that really makes dramatic moments. Nicely doubling on the solo on the bridge—good choice to differentiate the sound and keep things aurally interesting.
The group followed with Christina Aguilera’s “Bound to You.” Very strong solo on this one. Nice dramatic entry of the percussion en route to the chorus. Nice doubling on the solo to lead into second chorus, as the group again made the effort to differentiate the sound as the piece moved along, though I worry that the verses were still a little forgettable. Nice crescendo on the bridge, where the group seemed to momentarily unlock the x-factor they were missing up to that point. I think a part of why this song dragged for me was the song selection to precede it. You need to think about chemistry between songs and the overall presentation you’re giving the audience, and first six to eight minutes of the set, despite being well-sung, were pretty plodding.
The group knelt on the finish of “Bound to You,” then rose in staggered formations as the percussion pounded on the intro to Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive.” Nice dramatic fall out and exhale sound effect on the “breathing in the dust” lyric. Very nice bass effect in the background and I’m really glad the group decided to make a radical departure from the previous two songs for an industrial finisher. The choreogaraphy , again, felt like too much and distracted me. Good solo. Good overall handling of the song, but a song like this is so widely covered this year that I would have liked to see the group do something to make it more their own. Nonetheless, a good closer to a good set.
The Xtension Chords kicked off the second half. Cool look for the group with nametags and Xtension Chord tags on their collared shirts looking something like electricians’ uniforms. They led off with “Some Nights.” Nicely re-imagined soft intro before the guys popped into the first chorus. The choreography was a little excessive, but handled with a good level of energy—a lot of dipping at the knees and bobbing between each other for some cool visual effects. I kind of wish the guys had done more to reinvent the song like they had on the opening, as this quickly turned into a very standard, if well-executed interpretation of a song that many, many groups are singing this year. Very good solo, though, strong percussion, and excellent low harmonies on the finish.
The guys continued their set with “Swallowed by the Sea” by Coldplay. Very well-handled understated solo and a really warm, soft low hum beneath him on the intro. Nice moment as the group sound grew more complex with some high, staccato instrumentation as the soloist grew louder. I probably would have trimmed the instrumental section of this one, as well-sung as it was, as it tested the audience’s attention span. Nice, big bridge leading to a soft finish.
Well-planned transition with the guys forming a tight mass in the middle of the stage, with the soloist at the edge of the second row, where he could hand the mic to the new soloist up front for ”Spectrum” by Zedd , featuring Matthew Koma. Some nice explosive movements on the chorus, but the problem was that the build didn’t feel directional here—the sound just sort of popped, receded and popped again with little sense of drama or narrative to go with it. Nice high solo bit here. Really epic accelerando as the guys keyed into the fast part of the song, though, again, there was a really long instrumental section. The guys worked in some fun movement, including elevator rises and drops, but this leg of the song still felt a bit rudderless, and was soon followed by another instrumental break. A little more creative cutting or sampling could have taken this performance to the next level. As it stood, it was a good closer to an above average semifinal set.
No Comment followed. The co-ed group wore a mix of black, white, blue, and gray—very sharp. They started with Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” I really loved the soft, tender treatment of the early parts of this song, particularly on the chorus with the interplay of the two soloists, interpreting it less as a dance party song, more as a love song. The leads were at their best when they sang to each other. Fun breakdown bit with men and women pairing off for a brief moment of dancing with each other. The piece warmed up as it went and got a little faster, a little bigger. While the song has the feel of a closer, I liked the boldness of kicking things off with such a barnstormer and letting it grow into a barnstormer, earning the cheers of the crowd as the soloists ripped free and the group sound exploded in the late stages.
No Comment’s second song was “Breathe Again” by Sara Bareilles. I really liked the way this group took advantage of the co-ed dynamic with the low end building the foundation beneath the female lead and some brief moments of shimmering high harmonies from the sopranos. Excellent solo. Really good dynamic variation on the second verse, with the group going for a more abrupt, cut off sound in general. Really nice power moments on the solo in the late stages.
The group wrapped up its set with “Clarity” by Zedd. Excellent contrast between a slow bit of instrumentation on the opening before the group roared into a bigger, faster sound. Very good solo here. Really fun staging on the chorus with the group crouching in formation behind her. Pounding percussion on this one. Fun, loose vibe, with a touch of yearning on the solo. Dubstep remix on the finish which seemed a little thrown in, but was well-executed enough to work for me and, again, this is one of those times when a group throwing itself into the song one hundred percent made a huge difference.
Next up, The Bathtub Dogs.The all-male group took the stage in different shades of purple collared shirts, ties, and jeans. They kicked off the set with a highly choreographed take on “Suddenly I See” by KT Tunstall. Flood of movement on this one. The guys took this song in a very, very upbeat direction, with smiles plastered on every guy’s face. Killer percussion on this one. Really nice handling of the bridge with the soloist crouched and soft, and gradually bulding his sound. Lots of stop motion and pose staging. Fine opener.
The soloist started Sara Bareilles’s ”Gravity”standing at the opposite corner from the rest of the group, singing to them. Lovely harmony as two of the guys sang back. Really bold choice to take a song that’s so oft-covered, but always covered with a female lead and reimagine it in a man’s voice. Interesting addition of a bassline. Part of what was cool about the visual presentation from these guys was that it was so cohesive that you couldn’t separate any part of the group from the rest, even when they were standing still—they were all very plainly integrated with each other, moving and posing with a purpose. Excellent money moment on the end of the bridge with the soloist at the back of the stage, the rest of the group bent to him and turning into him as he marched to the front of the stage. Tremendous drama. Brilliant performance.
The guys closed with David Guetta, featuring Sia’s ”Titanium.” Excellent visuals again and excellent handling of the high harmonies, before the guys really popped the song wide open with their low end. So much energy on stage. Very good solo. This was just waiting for the dubstep and sure enough it arrived. Badass slap the stage body percussion as the guys were already crawling to the soloist and smacked their hands down. This was a leave everything on the stage performance and I really dug it. I loved the creative choice for this group to sing songs with female leads, sing them seriously, and make them their own.
Extreme Measures closed the competition portion of the evening. The co-ed group wore black and violet. Crystal clean opening chords on Delta Rae’s ”The Morning Comes.” Clap percussion behind the soloist en route to the first chorus. Excellent percussion and such lovely blend from this group. The piece had the feel of a spiritual in a sense, and I loved that the group picked such a narrative, impactful song for its opener, showcasing the group’s blend as well as the soloist’s slick vocals.
The soloist from the first song slipped over to vocal percussion for the next song. The group grooved then split into two, giving room for the new soloist to walk through for The Cab’s ”Animal.” Great charisma from the soloist as he worked the stage, and nice bit as the group members followed him into two distinctive clusters—women on the right, men on the left. Really nice dramatic build over the bridge with the soloist busting loose and percussion adding a real dimension of drama.
The ladies took the lead for Rihanna’s “S&M”, the guys on their knees. Great attitude on this one, particularly from the soloist and I liked the choice for the guys to take the background both visually and aurally on this one, adding a rich, low background while the high end took the lead. Sample of “Please Don’t Stop the Music” to transition to “Where Have You Been.” Lot of firepower on this one, too, with more tremendous attitude on the soloist, though I worry the sound got a little unwieldy as the woman got most invested in the music.. “Disturbia” functioned as a bridge into the last leg of the medley, “Diamonds, with the two soloists singing to each other. Nice choral finish—very clean. While I didn’t think this quite reached level of the top tier of performers for this particular night, I do feel they have a really stellar foundation to build from, and with a little more of the control they exhibited in the final moments of their set, paired with the personality they exhibited throughout, they should be a real threat in the ICCA Midwest for years to come.
As the judges deliberated, the 2012 ICCA Midwest Champions, University of Chicago Voices in Your Head performed their BOSS set. Let’s be clear. This. Was. Rid. Ic. U. Lous. The group members came equipped with their individual mics, laser pointers, pedals, and positively oozing sexuality. I don’t want to give too much away for those who will be traveling to Boston to catch their live act next week, so just a few notes: Usher’s “Scream” was all about attitude, confidence, and raw power and the group nailed it. Their take on Katie Melua’s “The Flood” was, in many senses a showcase for the laser light technology. Cool, distinctive sound, excellent controlled stomp percussion and a killer solo. The group completely re-imagined Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” extracting the feel-good pluck of the original, infusing with all of the horror of a Halloween track, then using it to feed into the group’s original song, “Life of the Mind.” While the last piece felt a little long and bogged down at points, when the industrial, edgy sound was really clicking, it was pretty sublime. The folks in Boston are in for a treat when this group visits the northeast.
From there, The Stereotypes returned to the stage. Their set included a medley of songs from the 1950s, “Wayfaring Stranger,” “I Won’t Give Up,” and “Radioactive.” As per usual excellent, high energy performance from these guys, fueled by full hearts and an earnest approach to the stage. It was interesting to hear them take their sound in an edgier direction, too, with “Radioactive.”
As the judges deliberated, I made my picks for the night. While every group belonged at the semifinals level, I thought there were four that were in close contention for the top spot. Rocktavo probably had the most unique identity of anyone on stage and made the boldest decisions about how to rearrange and re-imagine their songs, though parts of their set felt a little disjointed. As I shuffled my rankings, I had them as high as second place, but ultimately ended placing them a very close fourth. Fundamentally Sound brought together one of the most unique sets of the night, full of energy and employing an excellent visual presentation. The hardest thing for this group was that they had to perform first, so I don’t think the audience was able to appreciate how different their set really was. No Comment put together a somewhat understated set that built really nicely and featured some of the evening’s best soloists. The Bathtub Dogs made bold creative decisions, boasted huge vocals, and choreographed out the wazoo for what I ultimately considered the most memorable set of the night. When I think about which sets deserves to go to ICCA Finals, I tend to think about not only the best sets, but the sets that break the most ground, make the boldest choices, and will ultimately be most memorable a decade from now. As such, I had The Bathtub Dogs edging out No Comment for the win.
Ultimately, No Comment, did win. They gave a really strong performance, so I certainly can’t complain—they’ll serve the Midwest proud in New York. The group looked legitimately surprised and thrilled at the opportunity. They sang their encore, “Home” by Philip Phillips to finish the night.
1. The Bathtub Dogs
2. No Comment
3. Fundamentally Sound
1. Rocktavo for their second song
2. No Comment for “Breathe Again”
3. No Comment for the female lead on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”
4. Extreme Measures for “The Morning Comes”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. No Comment for the full set
2. The Bathtub Dogs for the full set
1. Rocktavo for the Maroon 5 Medley
2. Fundamentally Sound for “Pumped Up Kicks”
3. No Comment for “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”
Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. The Bathtub Dogs for the full set
2. Rocktavo for the full set
3. Fundamentally Sound for the full set
1. No Comment
2. The Bathtub Dogs
3. Fundamentally Sound
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: No Comment for the full set
Outstanding Soloist: No Comment for “Breathe Again”
Outstanding Arrangement: Fundamentally Sound for “Pumped Up Kicks”
Outstanding Choreography: The Bathtub Dogs for the full set