This past weekend’s SoJam Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, kicked off with a collegiate competition.
Venue: Memorial Auditorium, Progress Energy Center
Sound: Sled Dog Studios
Emcees and Guest Group: Members of The Edge Effect
North Carolina State University Acappology
The Vanderbilt University Melodores
The University of South Carolina Cocktails
Georgia Tech Nothin’ but Treble
University of Colorado Denver Mix
The Northeastern University Nor’easters
The annual SoJam Collegiate Competition got a new look this year with an elimination-style, progressive competition featuring different categories for each round.
Round one centered on the theme, “Come as You Are.”
Acappology opened the competition with Carrie Underwood’s “Good Girl.” Lots of well-planned movement on this song; with the group clustering and segmenting in male groups and female groups, the women often at the fore. The group employed plenty of seductive bends and twists to add a distinctive, sultry flavor to the song. Nice solo. Solid perc. Fun soft clap body percussion breakdown, leading into a clap along segment while background sound fell out and the soloist got her power moment. The seams started to show on the choreography late in the song as the group looked a little sloppy trying backing itself up in unison.. Good sound, and I appreciated the general connectedness of the sound and visual performance. Unfortunately, the group never quite arrived at a show-stopping moment. With just one song to make its case to move on to round two, Acappology’s performance didn’t quite resonate the way it needed to.
The Melodores showed off a new look for the crowd in Raleigh, clad in white tops rather than their traditional black. They tackled Muse’s “Supermassive Black Hole,” featuring a positively sick falsetto solo. Nice full, complex sound from the group. Excellent percussion. The guys stood in a simple arc, performing very little choreography per se, but each group member moved with the music. Very cool electric guitar effect. Top to bottom, this was an excellent song choice to establish The Melodores’ edgy, aggressive identity.
The Cocktails were up next. The ladies wore all black. Their song of choice was Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker.” On one hand, I don’t love the idea of bringing such a dated song choice to a major competition (particularly when it may be the only song you get to sing). On the other hand, I appreciate that this groups seems to persist in cultivating an identity of all-female power and edge; in what I’ve heard from The Cocktails over the last year, they’re unwilling to settle for “girly” a cappella, but neither are they reinventing songs for their own raucous purpose. They seem to have embraced a perfectly fine niche in covering strong songs, written for women. The song opened with the soloist singing ostensibly alone, a ghostly echo behind her for a very cool effect. The group sound entered with some ethereal high notes, culminating in a very nice perc lead-in to the full group sound. The choreography here was well-executed, but I had to question its efficacy. Regardless of how well in synch a group members can put hands on each others shoulders and walk backward, what does that really contribute to a song a like this? The presentation was much more sound when the group spread out and focused on creating volume leading into the second verse, which featured two soloists (a nice way of differentiating between the verses). Excellent percussion throughout. Good, small sample of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart;” it was just enough to be interesting without coming across as silly, and the sample arrived at a good time when the larger piece had just started to feel a little long. The sample was thematically related and kept things interesting to shepherd The Cocktails to a strong finish. Nice showing for the group.
Next up was Nothin’ But Treble another all-female group, this one in black and white. They sang Florence and the Machine’s “Never Let Me Go.” I loved the way in which the ladies structured this piece. They started with a very nicely textured solo singing unaccompanied, then added a soft, almost ghostly soprano harmony behind her. Great dramatic moment as the full instrumentation keyed in on the chorus. Nice perc. The choreography, while a little excessive, was executed in a calm, steady, and purposeful way to complement the music. Very nice interpretation. The group made a bold choice to start its evening with such a melancholy song choice, but the gamble paid off nicely as Nothin’ But Treble exposed its soul and differentiated itself from the rest of the pack for that effort.
UCD Mix followed. The group just looked different from any other that night; only eight members (four men, four women) and fun, eclectic dress. Very nice stage presence from the soloist on Melanie Fiona’s “Bang Bang.” Very bold, clean sound for a college group with so few members. I loved the way the group moved, physically leaning into their slides of sound and repositioning often rather than falling into the trap of synchronized touch-step moves that don’t lead anywhere. Case in point, in the late stages, the group members formed a line, one half of the group facing the opposite direction from the other half, and then proceeded to pivot around the center. Very cool, very distinctive. The group employed some really fun snippets of the guys singing “Rollin’ in the Deep” over the course of the song, perfectly setting the stage for their transition into the Adele song at the end. We don’t hear this brand of subtle foreshadowing often in collegiate a cappella, and it was pretty brilliant here. Excellent, one-of-a-kind performance for Mix.
The Nor’easters wrapped up the first round. The mixed group wore all black and sang “Sweet Nothing” by Calvin Harris. They started in an outward facing circle with the soloist at the center. Very strong solo. Nice, full sound from group and monster percussion. Albeit it in totally different ways, The Nor’easters, like Mix, did a fantastic job of plotting their movement to enhance their sound. One of the best examples was when the hitherto tightly clustered group spread out across stage when they launched into a rap interlude. Great sound and visually captivating. Excellent explosions of sound from soloist and group as they spread across the stage; this performance was all about building to moments and diversifying what the group brought to the table to keep the audience engaged. Excellent performance.
As the judges went into their first round of deliberations, The Edge Effect engaged the crowd by improvising a circle song with them. It proved to be a fun, distinctive way to entertain the audience for this period. As this happened, I made my picks for the first round. With four groups moving on, I pegged The Melodores, Mix, and The Nor’easters as safe picks for round two, and had Nothin’ But Treble edging out The Cocktails for the fourth spot. Lo and behold, the judges agreed with that foursome (though I will say I would have preferred it had the emcees announced everyone who advanced, rather than just announcing each individual group as it returned to the stage to perform. Minor quibble).
Round two focused on visual performance with the category name “Take a Look.”
The Melodores returned to the stage with white masks on. Direct quote from my notes during the show: “Something tells me it’s about to get real up in here.” The guys sang “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. Nice full sound, and a truly tremendous, raw vocal on the lead. As they’re known to do, The Melodores delivered a very engaging visual performance with the masks adding just the right creep factor to make this song truly unforgettable. The soloist did an excellent job of working the crowd, challenging the front of the stage and getting in the front row’s face. Excellent percussion. The guys cast off their masks for a great dramatic moment, leading into stop-motion point poses. I love the evolving identity of this group as dark, electric and powerful. Fun backwards lean on the finish: almost a backward bow before the real one. The guys from Vanderbilt nailed the second round’s visual theme.
Nothing But Treble took the stage next for David Guetta’s“Titanium.” Soft, almost dreamy start on the song. Nice way to differentiate from all of the other versions of this song floating around the a cappella world nowadays; once again this group used a distinctive arrangement to its advantage. Nice take on the visuals with some shuffling rearrangements. After the chorus, the percussion keyed in and the girls grooved into the second verse. Very nice movement, though the sound grew a little muddled in the transition. The soloist unleashed her biggest voice in late stages of song. Fun dubstep breakdown, featuring a really impressive low end for an all-female group. All in all, this was a really strong showing for the group.
Mix was up third this time around. Fun radio static intro, with one of the members switching the dial between newscasters and old-fashioned music before settling on “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen.” Really neat, outside the box intro. Five group members took the stage in what looked like old school navy hats and played back up band to a trio of female leads. Fun, jazzy sound on this one. Again, the group paired its movements well with the sound, initially committing to the old school, simple style, then entering a dubstep break down into a rap, and marking the transition with one of the guys from the background spinning one of the leads, and in the process, ripping off her skirt to reveal a sparkly silver dress beneath—totally changing the feel of the piece from both the auditory and visual perspectives in one slick moment. The rap itself was excellent. What a wild, distinctive piece. The group transitioned back to a jazzier sound on the finish. I loved it.
The Nor’easters closed out round two with Janelle Monae’s “Cold War.” Excellent visual performance again, with the group clustered early on, then spreading out, pulsing with energy. Impressive coordination for such a large group. Excellent punch on the solo. I don’t know that any other ensemble attacked the stage quite as effectively as The Nor’easters. Excellent solo work. Very nice precision on the group sound, falling out to let the soloist and percussionist run the show. The energy and fire of this group were simply off the charts. Another top-notch performance.
While there were no weak links in round two, I couldn’t escape the sense that Nothin’ But Treble was hitting just a notch lower than the rest of the groups. It seems that the judges agreed, as it was The Melodores, Mix, and The Nor’easters that progressed to round three. The theme this time around was “Innovate.”
The Melodores kicked off round three, singing Alex Clare’s “Too Close.” The group started very formally in choral style with a conductor, before breaking into the meat of the song. Nice, sexy solo work; fun little echoes of key lyrics from the background. Excellent percussion, and they showed off a really impressive high end for an all-male group. Though the piece, on the whole, was more visually static than their preceding two numbers, the guys incorporated some really good power moments: tripling up on solo in the second chorus and backing it up with an explosion of sound from the group. Great edge to this song. For a relatively minor quibble, although I like the idea of working the front of the stage, you need to balance that impulse with visibility. This was an issue for each of the Melodore soloists (and some others), but I noticed it most prominently on this song that the soloist ventured past the stage lights to the point that he was obscured in shadows for most of the audience for much of the song. My bigger qualm: when the competition category turned to “innovate,” the group turned in its least original performance to that point of the competition. Sure, it’s a relatively fresh song choice, but not necessarily an unexpected one, nor one that they did anything particularly surprising with. It was a strong enough performance in its own right, but I don’t know that this was the song for The Melodores to hang their hats on in hopes of making it to round four.
Mix returned to the stage next with an original composition called “Water.” Crystal clean blend on the intro. Soft, but rich sound from group. The emotion was palpable from the soloist. The interaction between the primary lead and a second soloist was really rich. Cool visual presentation again with the group in staggered formation, facing in different directions. I just loved the choice to sing an original in this context; Mix was already the most unique group in the competition, but with this song they did something positively inimitable. The group sound fell out for the soloist to own the show in the end game. Simply lovely.
The Nor’easters closed out the round singing Justin Beiber’s “As Long as You Love Me.” Sick opening chords. The bass was so incredibly rich on this one. Sexy, sleek male lead, and great dueling male and female solos as it moved along. The group sound faded out for a one-man bass-percussion show. While they lost the melody as the bass began to dominate, I was willing to let that go for just how cool the effect was in its own right. Very strong piece, and in holding back its low end up to this point, the bass sounded especially fresh in this round—perfect for the “innovate” category.
The Edge Effect made a series of festival-related announcements, backed by beatbox—as fun a way as any of delivering the info, I suppose. Tough call on the eliminations this time around. If we were taking every round into consideration, I would have a lot of trouble sending The Melodores home; if we were focusing just on the most recent performance, though, I felt that they didn’t quite live up to their peers. I don’t know if the judges shared my rationale, but they came to the same conclusion just the same: Mix and The Nor’easters were the final two.
Time for the final round. Mix opened things up with a medley. Lovely soprano solo over the buzz of the bass on the intro. Sick percussion effects. The group gambled on a sped up interpretation of “Motherless Child,” which, for the most part, I thought worked. It’s hard to re-imagine a song like that without spoiling the heart of its meaning, but I feel as the group met in the middle and arrived at something different, original, and satisfying. Despite the remix, they were still capturing a more contemporary sense of loneliness and wandering. The sound layered upon itself with all of the women singing on unison for the second go-round, accompanied by some cool slow motion movement. The group sprung into a Spanish interlude. I loved the feel of this soloist’s voice. Really fun horn instrumentation, and vocal maracas. For all its musical care and creativity, this was the point of the night when Mix showed the most sass and it worked for them. I really dug the visuals here, too, including a point at which the group lined up single file, facing the stage, and rotated their arms outward, like hands on a clock. So different, so captivating. The group progressed to Imogen Heap’s “Earth.” As much as this leg of the song was still quite good, this is the point at which I feared Mix might have been trying to cram too many ideas in too little of a space. The medley culminated in a very well-executed rap including the lyrics “UCD Mix--So Jam X.” Were we witnessing a coming out party on a national stage? I think so. While I think the medley got a little unwieldy, there’s no denying talent, and Mix made a serious statement in this competition.
The Nor’easters came back for their last set of the night. They started with “Give Me Love” by Ed Sheeran. Silky smooth solo here, and an incredibly full sound. There isn’t any substitute for sheer numbers, and when you can get a group as large as The Nor’easters to perform so cohesively, they’re more or less unstoppable. The basses broke it down, then the group started in with the clap percussion, starting with just two group members, and spreading to the entire group. I love it when groups can find innovative ways to build the drama, and that was a fantastic example. Incredibly clean cut off on the finish. The group stayed in position to transition to its song.
Next up was “Don’t Wake Me Up” by Lianne La Havas. Choral intro from the high end. The guys stepped forward from the back and the group clustered together as the low end entered soft and dark. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a group with a better sense of dramatic tension; this opening was all about being foreboding; the bass laid the foundation without dominating. Perfect. The sensation of something like a Gregorian chant followed as the low end started to take over. The group transitioned seamlessly to Florence and the Machine’s “Spectrum.” Excellent interplay between the male and female soloists as the group broke it down and came in full force—this is exactly what you want to hear in terms of dynamics and building the drama. The Nor’easters hit us with a wall of sound on the close, perfectly accompanied by an awesome lighting effect with the stage lights down, leaving the group backlit in silhouette. Eerie and wonderful.
While the judges made their final deliberations, The Edge Effect got to doing what they do best—singing. They started with a Jackson 5 medley, then sang “Use Somebody,” “Hallellujah,” “Without You”/“We Found Love”/“Good Feeling,” and “What A Wonderful World”/“Wonderful World.”
I didn’t envy the judges one bit for having to pick a winner in this competition—they just had two remarkably different, and flat out remarkable groups in the final round. While I credit Mix for innovating more and arguably having a slightly more distinctive sound, in the end, I had to give The Nor’easters the duke for fewer missteps and positively owning their music. And believe it or not, the judges saw eye to eye with me one last time, giving The Nor’easters a well-deserved first place finish, whilst bestowing a new honor on Mix as the “most original” group of the night.
Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night
2. The Nor’easters
3. The Melodores
1. The Melodores for “Supermassive Blackhole”
2. Nothin’ But Treble for “Never Let Me Go”
3. Mix for “Water”
Outstanding Visual Presentation
1. The Melodores for “Radioactive”
2. The Nor’easters for their full set
3. Mix for their full set
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Nor’easters for their full set
1. The Nor’easters.
3. The Melodores
Best Vocal Percussion: The Nor’easters (Beejul Khatri)
Best Arrangement: The Nor’easters (Shams Ahmed)
Best Staging: The Nor’easters for the full set
Most Original Group: Mix
Best Soloist: Nothin’ but Treble (Meredith Crowley) for “Never Let Me Go”
The photos that appear in this article were taken by Mike Chin of The A Cappella Blog. Professional, high-resolution photographs from this show, by Michael Eldredge of Living Fiction Photography will be available shortly. You can follow updates here.