On Saturday, October 12, The Reynolds Club at University of Chicag played host to the ACappellaFest Showcase. The event featured four competing groups. Before we get to the review, a quick summary:
The Marquette University Naturals
The University of Minnesota Enchantments
Bowling Green State University Ten40
The University of Chicago Ransom Notes
Adjudicators: Andrea Poole, Danny Ozment, and Jesse Upah
The Naturals were the first group to perform. The all-male crew took the stage in black blazers, khakis and bow ties. The led off with ”Everybody Talks” by Neon Trees. Very good charisma from the soloist. Good fullness of sound from the group. The group implemented a few fun bits of staging, for example a group member sagging on the fall out moment, but otherwise the performance felt a little static. I don’t know that full-feldged choreography was necessary, but a little more sense of energy and movement from the background could have added to the performance.
The guys followed up with Mumford and Sons’ "I Will Wait." The percussion was the driving force on this one, and though it provided a great dramatic moment when it keyed in at the start of the first verse, it also felt a little overpowering relative to the general group sound. Good solo again with some fun interactions with the crowd, but he fell a little short on the high notes, and I would have liked to have seen a little more active engagement with the crowd and with the music; rather than closing his eyes or looking down at the stage more eye contact could have added to the sincerity of the piece, and a little more purposeful movement as opposed to generic bobbing and dancing along would have felt truer to the core of the song. Similarly, I didn’t get a clear sense of the song’s feeling visually in terms of the kind of energy the group put out. The group did work in some nice dynamic variation on this one as the group built to a few really nice big moments.
The guys wrapped with Muse’s ”Madness.” Nice gravity of tone on the solo here and the group did a fine job of working different sides of the stage. The power perc felt a little more in place on this one for the rock sensibility of the song and paired with the staccato instrumentation. The guys diversified the arrangement, burying Easter eggs of choral interludes different syllables to keep the piece from ever dragging. Fun legato bit on the bridge and finish, further diversifying the tone.
All in all, I felt The Naturals were very likable and musically competent. The next step for this group is going to be finding ways to distinguish itself: making more distinctive song selections and ones that connect more fluidly as a set, visually engaging the audience, and finding ways to inject intrigue into more of their arrangements the way they did for “Madness.”
Jesse praised the group’s entrance and choice for attire. He warned The Naturals against losing the pitch center on the more rhythmic portions of the Neon Trees song. He also encouraged the group to make sure that they all look engaged. He wanted the group to be conscious of not letting their pitch drop on “Madness.” Andrea lauded the group’s blend but thought they could benefit from more work on dynamics, and that there were parts at which the balance was imperfect. She appreciated that the group looked like it was having fun, and thought that the set hung together well. She particularly praised the “Madness” soloist, though she thought the group could have diversified the verses more. Danny said the group had a solid bass sound and the tempo was never lost. He thought the soloists did a good job connecting with the audiences, but the group could grow more cohesive in its visual presentation and connection. He thought the group could benefit from looking at the structure of each song and planning for how the group would move throughout the song.
Before leaving the stage, the group announced the ACA for Favorite Male Collegiate Group, for which RIT 8 Beat Measure was the runner up and The Tufts Beelzebubs got the win.
The Enchantments took the stage next in black cocktail dresses and different-colored high heel shoes. They led off with Delta Rae’s ”Bottom of the River.” The intense red lighting added a lot to the intro of this song, but I would have loved a slightly bigger sound from the stomps and more oral intensity from the ladies. This is a song that has been covered extensively in collegiate a cappella of late. Unless a group has innovative new approach to the piece, it has to be ready to attack the music, and most of this performance wasn’t quite up to that task. On the plus side, there were some very cool bits embedded in the arrangement, particularly the recurring harmonies from the sopranos. Nice choice for the group sound to fall out altogether for the soloist to operate unaccompanied on the finish, which lent the song a sense of coming full circle and served up a compelling dramatic moment.
The group continued its set with Taylor Swift’s “Red.” The group progressed through different soloists—two per verse. I really loved this choice. The individual soloists harmonized beautifully when they overlapped with one another and the rotating soloist structured allowed different personalities the opportunity to shine and show off the diversity of talents in the group. Once again, the group demonstrated an excellent sense of symmetry, revisiting each of the soloists in the end game. The blend felt a little off on this one, particularly on the transitions, but, all in all, a very effective middle song.
The Enchantments wrapped up with “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. I got the feeling the group wasn’t entirely accustomed to singing with individual microphones from an aural perspective; they seemed to lose the soloists here and there in the group sound. Nice percussion on this one. Excellent sample of Macklemore’s “Same Love” leading up to a powerful finish with the two soloists singing in unison.
I thought The Enchantments arranged well, and when they tapped into their sensitivity and emotion they found a real sweet spot; they were not as effective with pulling off power moments. I’d love to see this group focus on songs like “Red” and rounding out the edges of their creative transitions to make sure their musicality is consistent throughout their performances. This is a group with a great deal of potential.
Back to the judges. Danny thought the group did a nice job of controlling its belting and never getting too shouty, while staying powerful. He thought the group built nicely during “Bottom of the River,” he found their visual presentation was well connected. Andrea praised the arrangement to “Red” and choice to switch soloists, though she thought it did lead to some intonation issues on the transitions. She thought the background vocals in “Bottom of the River” could have been stronger, and thought the last song could have come across more clearly and strongly. Jesse complimented the group’s stage presence, but drew attention to them being more conscious about their stage entrance and exit, keeping their characters in place so the audience can process what’s going on. He thought it took the group a little time to find its pitch center on the second song.
The ACA for Favorite Female Group went to Pitch, Please and Divisi, with Men in Drag taking runner up honors.
Ten40 was up next. The all-male group took the stage in jeans and purple tops and accents. The led off with Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You.” The soloist did a great job of commanding the audience’s attention. Fun bit as one of the VP guys consistently cut off the sololist from singing the curse words, but did so slightly differently each time and with growing intensity—a really fun way to build the narrative and the “characters” presented in the song. Tremendous energy from the group. Though I’m not entirely sure it fit the music, it was a lot of fun to hear the guys transition to a dub step breakdown. This may not be the most effective song for them to apply their dubstep, too, but I do appreciate the choice to “swing for the fences” in a competition setting and take a real chance. Very fun opener.
Next up, the guys turned to Eve 6’s ”Inside Out.” Another soloist with a lot of star power, and great breath control to stay at tempo without losing any of the lyrics. This the sort of group that’s a lot of fun to watch and can achieve that effect without any need for choreography—tremendous engagement from the whole crew. Really fun doubling up on the solo at points, though the tempo seemed to collapse a little going in to the second verse. Listening to this group felt like a party, and their confidence and energy really set them apart from the other competitors.
I appreciated the choice for the group to stick with their strengths and not force a third song, though I would have liked to have heard a little more range from the group, and it’s really difficult to “rate” a group that simply doesn’t spend as much time on stage as other competitors. I’d love to hear what this group might accomplish a more fully fleshed out set—I loved what we heard!
Jesse lauded the group’s energy and intensity and said they were very fun and engaging. He cautioned the first soloist to pull the mic out when he’s going to blast the audience. He suggested the group might find more dynamic variation even in a big rock song. Andrea said she smiled for the whole set. She liked the group’s look and energy, though she agreed the group might find a little more balance, citing tuning issues on the first song and that some of the background parts got lost in the absence of a choice for featured parts. Danny said the group’s shtick was very refined, natural, and comfortable. He made suggestions for mic technique, using warmer tones and listening to the monitors more. He praised the drum solo on the finish, but thought the group could have been even stronger visually with wthe hole group stepping forward.
The ACA for favorite fan went to Selame Scarlett with runner up Tara Kellman.
The Ransom Notes were the final competing group. They wore black with light blue suspenders and bow ties for the guys. Really cool maraca VP effect on the intro to ”MoneyGrabber” by Fitz and the Tantrums. Nice interplay between a male and female leads on this song, though the solo sound grew pretty muddled—I think it was an issue of the group sound overwhelming the leads. Nice visual bit where the group members counted off in to the bridge with fingers in the air, closing with a fist pump to rock the soloist into the close of the song. Really good fullness of sound on this opener.
The Ransom Notes followed up with “Breezeblocks” by Alt-J. The VP continued to be a highlight on this song; unfortunately, the muddled solos also carried on. Nice use of staging to mirror sound as the group changed formations on key musical transitions. Fun bit as the soloist receded and the group grooved in front of him, then collapsed in on him as he stepped forward. Neat buzzing sound effects.
Very cool transition into the group’s final song, Delta Rae’s “Bottom of the River.” The group members collapsed and remained on the ground as the soloist led off the song. The group slapped the stage to provide the percussion, before three group members sat up, rising from the dead to sing the backing lead. The rest of the group followed suit in sitting up dramatically on the chorus, and I loved the look here with the some staying seated and reaching after the soloist while the backing leads slinked across the stage in zombie-esque fashion. Tremendous drama on this one, in a way that was neither over the top nor self-conscious. This is a near-perfect interpretation for a Halloween show. I thought the body percussion could have been a little more pronounced as the song moved on, but that’s a pretty minor quibble. For all of the theatrics, it was easy to lose sight that this song featured a truly outstanding soloist. No question this closer was one of the strongest performances by any group that afternoon.
With their closer, The Ransom Notes demonstrated their full potential to deliver creative, intense, engaging a cappella. I’d love to hear them sharpen their sound on the preceding two numbers and make sure their leads have the fullest opportunity possible to shine. All in all, the set demonstrated a great deal of potential.
Danny thought the group had great interactions between soloists, though the blend could be rough at points. He praised the group’s intensity. Andrea said she loved the last song and praised their unique interpretation of it. She praised the group’s dynamics, particularly the horns on the chorus of the first song. She noted it was hard to hear the soloists on the first two songs. She complimented the movement throughout the set. Jesse said the group was fun to watch and that they seemed clicked in to each other and that the presentation was cool and different. He noted that when the group counted off between the first and second songs it took him out of the performance. He cautioned them not to let their movement affect their tuning.
The ACA for Favorite Mixed Collegiate Group went to The Nor’easters. The runner up was Voices in Your Head.
While the judges decided awards, Dakaboom entertained the audience with a preview of their brand new song “Please Don’t Move.” It’s really more of a visual piece than an aural treat—I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else who might check out the group’s show in the future. They followed with work in progress, “40 Commercial Jingels in Under Four Minutes.” Great preview of what the guys had in store for their exceptional evening performance.
Andrea took the stage to announce the awards. I liked the decision not to place the groups—it fit with the spirit of the festival, encouraging groups not to compete, but rather to focus on growing on their own terms (besides which placement could have been a little awkward with only four groups on stage that afternoon). Similarly, I appreciated the decision to still give awards to recognize the groups, and though giving each group an award felt a little like playing with kid gloves, I also appreciated that it furthered the feel-good vibe of the show. My only real objections to the award process was the choice to make some of the superlatives serious (best arrangements, best soloists) and others… not so much (“best zombie choreography”). The zombie choreo award not only felt a little frivolous but I worried it also undercut what The Ransom Notes had accomplished; I would have given them best choreography, no tongue-in-cheek qualifier necessary. A minor quibble. All considered, the showcase was a really fun show and a nice break amidst the day’s workshops to help refocus festival goers on why they were in attendance for ACappellaFest in the first place.
1. Ten40 for “Inside out”
2. The Ransom Notes for “Bottom of the River”
3. The Naturals for “Madness”
4. The Enchantments for “Red”
Outstanding Visual Presentation: The Ransom Notes for “Bottom of the River”
Outstanding Arrangement: The Enchantments for “Red”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
2. The Ransom Notes
Best Soloists: The Naturals
Best Energy (Facial Hair, and Scarves): 1040
Best Zombie Choreography: The Ransom Notes
Best Arrangements: The Enchantments