On Saturday, March 1, Syracuse University played host to an ICCA Mid-Atlantic quarterfinal. Photos from the show are available now on The A Cappella Blog Facebook page. Before the review, a quick summary of the show.
Syracuse University Groovestand
The Cornell University Touchtones
Syracuse University Main Squeeze
Syracuse University Orange Appeal
The University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers
The Monroe Community College Tributones
Rochester Institute of Technology Proof of Purchase
The Syracuse University Otto Tunes
The University of Rochester YellowJackets
Ithaca College Voicestream
Host Group: The Syracuse University Mandarins
The Mandarins opened the night singing Beyonce’s "Run the World (Girls)" into a fun interlude of "All the Single Ladies." From there, ICCA Mid-Atlantic Producer Holli Matze took over for the standard announcements, before bringing out emcee April, from The Mandarins.
The first competing group was Groovestand. The co-ed crew took the stage in black and gold. They opened with Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around… Comes Around." Slick dance moves from the soloist on the opening. The group looked great, using its limited movement expressively and in time with the music, with a charismatic front man at the fore. They spread out a bit at the back of stage and switched soloists to lead into "Karma” by Alicia Keys. I will credit the group for forging a combination of two songs that very, very logically intersect with one another and putting together a dynamic opener. Very good perc. The background sound was a little muddled at points and I think this performance would have benefited from a little more dynamic variation to really punch the sound at key moments, as opposed to a more steady high volume.
Slow solemn, intro, with the low end taking the lead before the group circled into a triangular formation and a new female lead stepped up to sing Florence and the Machine’s "Heavy in Your Arms." The group sound sort of swallowed the solo for much of this one—it’s hard to say if that was a mic-ing issue, or a matter of the group needing to show more restraint. The choreo, while still quite sharp, looked pretty similar to what the group employed in the preceding song, with the group swirling bodies in circular motions--this is where groups really need to think about how songs fit together in a competition set. There’s an argument to be made that such movements are consistent and help cultivate the group identity; there’s also an argument that using a similar style of movement in back to back songs gets visually redundant, and I’m concerned that’s what happened here. Another visual quandary: the group encircled the soloist and closing in on her in such a way that looked fantastic from the balcony overhead view that I had, though I doubt the judges could really appreciate it. Good intensity of sound on this song and good perc again.
Cool visual for the opening of Ellie Goulding’s "Starry Eyed." with low harmonies beneath the lead. I liked the choice to spotlight this soloist and to let the female contingent of the group play sexy behind her on the choruses, accentuating the group's personality. I thought this set really would have benefited from mroe individual stars and personalities and the closer was a step in that direction, though I probably only would have given the lead two or three backup dancers--not eleven. Perfect opportunity for a big dynamic moment as the soloist backed up into the cluster of the group and the group closed in on her. She emerged with what I imagine was supposed to be a pop of sound, but the group had already been singing so loudly that the increase in volume was pretty marginal. All in all, Groovestand presented a really good set, with excellent confidence and intensity, that I suspect could have grown a level stronger if group demonstrated more variation and range.
The Touchtones were up next. The all female group also wore black and gold. They opened with Macklemore’s "Wings." This was a really interesting song choice, and I kind of loved it for how memorable it was—handled not quite a rap, but with plenty of attitude, swagger, and rhythm from this lead and a nice measured harmony beneath her, painting an ominous story, helping to tell a dramatic story, and selling the message of the song. Tight cluster, then the ladies slipped down for the soloist to get last word about falling "down" to herself, unaccompanied. Very cool, very different.
They followed up with Lorde's "Royals." Very nice back beat there, a slow, steady, rich bass drum. Cool arrangement and execution of it--reserved early on, but artfully swelling the sound as the song moved on, playing with echoes, backing the solo, and providing the simple harmonies of the background. The group was painting an image of swagger and cool and this song ft that mold perfectly. The group did a masterful job of using slow, staggered movement to keep the piece engaging without losing themselves in overly staged choreo. Really good, restrained solo and an all-around measured, precise performance from the group.
A song as played and relatively simple as "Royals"—no matter how well it is executed--demands that a big finisher come up behind it. John Legend’s "Made To Love” fit quite nicely with the identity the group was building, but I was concerned they would need to really kick into a higher gear and do something innovative with the song if they wanted to break free and make a real impression on the judges and the audience. Very good solo here and another nuanced performance from the group. Nice bit of thigh-slapping body percussion swelling from the background on the bridge as a backing solo riffed over the instrumental section. Cool scat bit as the backing lead took over to riff for a bit with just hints of accompaniment behind her before a small, steady crescendo as the original soloist ascended to where she had been previously. I was really waiting for an explosion that never came. Thus, as good as this song and, indeed, the whole set, was the finish left me feeling a little hollow, and it was two bad the group couldn’t find a way to wrap things up in a bigger way.
All-female Main Squeeze was up next. Black dresses with different colored stockings for the ladies and they made their entrance lined up from the back of the stage to the front. They kicked things off Justin Timberlake’s "Drink You Away." Nice attitude from the group and a really good power solo and rich, steady perc. This was a really good mood setting song, establishing the group as at once powerful, edgy and melancholy--a powerful combination. Nice false finish with the soloist riffing unaccompanied before the group grooved back in, fell away, and finished up harmonizing beneath her.
Ominous hum on the opening to "The One That Got Away" by The Civil Wars. Another good, strong solo here and good use of dynamics, starting so soft and simple and then getting more dynamic on the chorus. Nice addition of a second soloist on the second verse. I liked the choice for the group stand in a simple arc for most of this song rather than hamming it up with choreo, and that they let loose and grooved in place at points--I feel as though female groups are too often hesitant to trust their movement like that and, as Main Squeeze proved, it can be quite effective. Cool bit as the group marched into a circle around the soloist and finished in two staggered rows behind her. Good perc again. Great continuation of the group’s down-trodden, ragged edged theme.
Main Squeee closed with Blu Cantrell’s "Hit ‘Em Up Style." Choral bit early on, before grooving into the more traditional R&B sound. This was a great choice for a finisher, opening things up, sticking with the overarching theme of the scorned woman who's sad, but also powerful, and cranking up the attitude. A very good solo. Fun, staggered stop motion posing in the background. The perc was very good again and this was a really good solo--perfectly suited to this song. On the bridge, the group dropped into a softer space and receded to the back left corner of the stage with the soloist operating on her own at the front right before the group danced and busted loose for the finish. I would have liked to have heard even more volume from the group, but it was a worthy closer just the same, to a very good set.
Orange Appeal took the stage next. The guys jogged on stage in their traditional black collared shirts, different colored ties and different colored Chucks. I said it back in 2007 and I'll say it again now--that's one of my favorite looks in collegiate a cappella. Really slick choral opening to The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" with backs to the crowd and a kink in the soloist's leg as the groove came in, before everyone turned around and pushed the choreo to the max. The guys looked fantastic. Good solo that I appreciated made no effort to simulate Michael Jackson, bur rather took the part in his own register and timbre. The group looked fantastic. I'm usually really weary of selections like this because it's nearly impossible for everyone to look good with that level of choreography, but the guys really had it under control. I really feel like the soloist should have done less of it--a good lead can be charismatic and riff up front without simulating the backing dancers and the guy looked most at home doing just that. The best part of this performance may have been that the guys, particularly the lead, so sincerely looked to be having fun for every minute of this performance. Best of all was the bust-loose freestyle dance bit which coincided with a breakdown of the sound, then softening things up leading to the finish. While this wasn’t an overwhelmingly strong musical opener, it was a fun, captivating performance to shore up that this home group would have the crowd on its side.
The guys followed up with a much more stationary take on Mumford and Sons' "Beneath My Feet." They led with soft harmonies behind him before the perc keyed in to push the tempo and get this one moving. I really felt the guys should have kept that going through the first verse to sell the drama and afford themselves more room to grow as the piece went on. They slowed it right back down on the chorus, going choral again there, then keying back in. I realize that this interpretation is pretty faithful to the original recording, but in a cappella you have the opportunity to reinvent a song to suit your purposes and I feel this performance felt kind of muddled for the frequent switches. Really nice moment of a buzzing sound as the guys clustered in, then spread out for a monster crescendo. Very, very nice bass work on this one. The arrangement was a bit clipped, which made me wonder if they're going for four songs (spoiler alert: they weren’t).
The group crouched with a lead in the back for the start of "Counting Stars" by OneRepublic. The group used this one for a lot of choreography again. Interesting choice to mix things up by doubling up the solo, then switching to another soloist coming out chorus for Pitbull’s "Timber." Cool visual bit with the perc dropping down for the next verse with the group moving in slow motion, waving their arms for a very nice visual. This was a good enough barn burning closer, but I felt like the fundamental challenge for this set was for the group to display its range. With the exception of a choice few segments of the Mumford song, it felt like they were so in your face the whole time, that few individual moments really stood out. Moreover, they guys gave themselves the obstacle of covering three songs, of which have been covered by quite a few groups and quite well, which begs comparisons. All in all, it was a very fun, entertaining set, but I think if the guys had toned down the choreo and built in more musical surprises, it really would have enhanced their chances of placing in the competition.
Next out of the chute, The Midnight Ramblers. The all-male group came out in their traditional gray baseball jerseys and blue jeans. Really nice opening sound for Beyonce's "Crazy in Love." Nice swagger heading to the front of the stage before the lead made his way up from the back. Lots of Beyonce-esque choreo here. I think it was a real misstep to play for comedy from the opener, focusing on effeminate choreo. The way you make a woman's song your own as an all-male group in a competition setting is to take it one hundred percent seriously and let the comedy be incidental where it comes up. Transition to Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." This combination of songs feels awfully tired in 2014, but I'm glad they weren't setting for just the comedy routine. The mashup bit was fun, though I thought the Gnarls Barkley lead really outshone the other soloist, making for a bit of an imbalanced presentation. Very good visual performance, good musical one, kind of meh when it came to overall creative choices. This mashup would probably be electric for a campus show in front of the home crowd, but left me pretty cold in the competition environment.
Mostly seamless transition with a the new lead coming to the fore with his head in his hands. Very soft slow lead in to The Foo Fighters' "Learn to Fly." I really liked this reimaging of the song, so soft and steady, though I wish they hadn’t had a group member conducting on stage for so much of it—that’s the sort of detail that can spell the difference between allowing an audience to lose itself in the music and reminding them it's a performance. Very good perc when it arrived and I really liked the choice to keep this song slow and emotional even though they moved the tempo up a bit, mixed up the sound and perced it up. This was a reinvented ballad and as such connected nicely.
Fun bit of a perc riff on the seamless move to Parachute's "Something to Believe In." I liked the preceding soloist staying up front with the new lead singing to him, spurring him on—a nice bit of drama. While this song choice is pretty played in the a cappella world, it remains a strong closing number, in and of itself. Nice lead and nice musicality from the guys, though I was waiting for them to punch the sound a little more. The chroreo got a little cheesy for my tastes again in the background with hip sways and air guitar bobs. This is one of the points when you need to think about how your movement, as well-executed as it may be, is really enhancing your performance. Fun bit of "We love signing a cappella” from the background on the lead-in to the bridge. Interesting choice to bring back the leads to mashup all of their songs en route to the finish when they went for the clap along that looked really careful like they weren't really clapping just moving their hands together—that hesitancy spoke volumes. I was actually tempted to call The Ramblers the best act of the night up to that point, but it’s precisely that absence of ambition and fire that worry kept them from going from very good to exceptional with this set.
The Tributones closed out the first half. The co-ed group took the stage in black and gold--the official color scheme of this quarterfinal, methinks. They opened with the men on one side of the stage facing the women on the other for Kiki Dee’s "I've Got the Music in Me." Really nice attitude form this soloist, and she did a wonderful job of working the stage. Nice soft sound from the group early on. The choreography was a bit cheesy and I wasn’t sure I understood the point of the guys moving at one point while the women were stationary, then vice-versa, which looked a little more awkward than artistic to me.. The soloist tore up this song, but group sound didn’t develop much as it progressed.
Next up, the group sang Alanis Morrissette's "Ironic" Terrifying epiphany as I was listening to this performance: given the group was made up exclusively of freshmen and sophomores, there was a very real chance most of the group had not yet been born when this song was originally on the radio. #Feelingold. A spirited effort from the group with some complicated rhythms to carry off. There were dueling percussionists who got to sounding a little muddled. I liked the call to pair up soloists on the choruses to adding a dimension to the sound and loosely recall the original music video's multiple personalities. Weird choice not to allow for the fall out moment coming off the bridge--the perc hammered right over that--big missed opportunity for drama there.
The group closed with Zedd’s "Clarity." Rough start with the female lead's mic not turned on until several bars in. Nice shuffling movement in the background as the male and females leads took turns on the verse, then teamed up on the chorus. The VP worked overtime pushing the tempo. Finally the leads turned out to face the audience instead of each other, in a move that probably should have happened at the first chorus. This is a young group--community college students, each of them freshmen or sophomores. I saw a lot of potential on stage and I hope to hear more from the group members either as a unity or as parts of other groups as they move on with their academic and professional careers.
Proof of Purchase opened the second half. The co-ed group wore black and electric blue. Soft, choral start for Marianas Trench’s "Masterpiece Theatre." before keying into "Barton Hollow" by The Civil Wars. Really nice male and female leads on this one. Very patient, mature choice to slow the backing vocals then have them drop out altogether on the chorus. The group temporarily transitioned to a new lead and a sample of a new song; unfortunately, it sounded like her mic wasn't turned on until a few bars in. The group quieted to a soft hum on the transition back to "Barton Hollow." Though I liked the choice to keep things slow and steady early on, I wasn’t as enamored with the call never to punch the sound and rip loose on the Civil Wars song, which has such an electric closing movement built into it.
The group moved on to Lana Del Rey’s "Summertime Sadness." Nicely executed seamless transition. Good solo and I liked the group continuing its slow steady vibe from the first song. They transitioned to a new soloist with a new male dancing partner as everyone else paired up and froze in the background as they moved on to Del Rey's "Young and Beautiful." Really lovely solo work there—a beautiful texture to that lead and plenty of room to grow, starting soft, but not weak, then swelling to a place of power. The songs mashed up for what probably should have been a really lovely moment, but the sounds came across kind of muddled and mismatched to me for a so-so ending. .
Another seamless transition to Delta Rae's "The Morning Comes." I liked that transition point from such a dark place to a song with gospel vibe and good feeling, while maintaining the group’s sense of simplicity in its identity. Transition to turn and slide choreography that I really wish the soloist hadn't felt compelled to participate in—it looked a little silly, and he seemed more comfortable when he wasn’t moving with the group. Really good beatboxing and fun body percussion to back it up, including claps, thigh slaps, and stomps. I felt the group could have afforded to have busted looser but nonetheless I appreciated the good-time feel of this closer, and that the arrangement sounded so full with each part getting plenty of room to shine, particularly the high harmonies. Nice handling of the finish with the group slipping down and the earlier leads returning to the fore piece by piece to tie the whole set together with some truly tremendous harmonies. They sang chorally before the final soloist got one last little run to himself. A good closer to a solid set.
The Otto Tunes were up next. The gentlemen took the stage in black, gray, and white formal wear. They opened with The Killers' "Somebody Told Me." Not sure the soloist had quite the punch for that song, coming across a little more emo than power rock. I appreciated the energy and particularly the under-mic’ed drop on what may have been an attempt at dubstep. The group transitioned from there to "When We Were Young" More good showmanship there and personality from the group members, and very good staging, but I was hoping for a little more umph. Next, they incorporated “All That I’ve Done” Really good solo at this point, softer, simpler, cleaner. Very nice doubling up on that solo for the chorus as the bass came in again. Excellent bit with the guys marching in formation to the repetition of "I got soul but I'm not a soldier," though I felt it really hurt the performance that the guys displayed so many different emotions on their faces at this point in the song, ranging from wide-eyed smiles to angry scowls—it kind of shattered the illusion of the performance for me. This was a really ambitious medley that mostly worked, but has a few rough edges to even out.
The guys followed up with "My Heart" by Paramore Nice sincerity from the soloist and very good restraint from the group. I appreciated the choice for this song to follow the more animated theatrics of the song before it so they could highlight the groups musical chops in the middle of the set. Nice bit with the selected group members echoing the lead as the low part carried on with a dark, low undertone under the solo. Stellar middle song.
The Otto Tunes closed with John Newman’s "Love Me Again." The solo sound got swallowed early on. Very nice bass effect, particularly on the dubstep sag and lurch back into motion finish. I wish the group had held the effect back altogether until this moment to make it even more electric when it arrived, rather than incorporating it earlier. Still, it remains a cool weapon in the group’s arsenal Nice power finish from the guys.
Next, The YellowJackets. Half the group... didn't have jackets. I... I don't know what to say. Anywho, they opened with The Beach Boys' "I Wish They All Could Be California Girls." Great, smooth sound from the group on this one. The group transitioned to "I Get Around" another good solo here and really fun choreography with the four guys making themselves into a car with the soloist driving then, before handing it back to the previous lead. Really nice falsetto from this guy. Four part lead for "Little Surfer Girl." These guys offered up lots of old school charm on this one and it was sort of refreshing to hear a group perform so much of a medley like this without vocal percussion. "Good Vibrations" was up next. Fun bit with the soloist working his way through his stationary group mates who came to life and danced upon his touch. Fun mashup bit on the finish.
Nice seamless transition to "Such Great Heights" in the style of Iron and Wine. Sensational emotional, high tenor solo on this one. Sometimes folks question my somewhat arbitrary assignment of some songs into the category of irrelevant for age or having been overplayed, while I take a shine to others and I'll be the first to admit that there is a very intangible, inexact quality to such assignments. That said, this song never fails to put a smile on my face. Slick transition to A Great Big World's "Say Something" from the lead with the group still singing "Such Great Heights in the background—wow, was that emotional. It felt like the ghost of a romantic memory, while the lead was coming to terms with the end of his great love. Then the groups and the lead came together. Man, this was magic--every transition electric, every single man on stage selling this music with every ounce of his soul, particularly the soloist. One of the finest middle songs I've heard this year.
The group closed with Jason Mraz's "I Won't Give Up." This group was so at ease as a soft rock group, all about careful blend, intricate arrangements and heartfelt solos Phenomenal transition to the second solo with emotional riffs into the biggest moments of the song. Simply amazing, clean sound. This is exactly the kind of emotionally impactful song that can perfectly fill the space of the fast-paced closer most groups lean upon. Scintillating use of dynamics. When you're competing away from your home school and get fans screaming mid-song, you know you've hit upon something pretty fantastic. While I was a bit lukewarm on the Beach Boys medley, the latter two thirds of this set suggested that The YellowJackets could easily have a Finals-level set.
Closing the show, we heard from Voicestream. They opened with Walk the Moon’s "Iscariot." Sweet opening with the soloist vulnerable and rich, the group soft and warm beneath him, building their sound by shades and degrees. Really clean sound from the group. I enjoyed the all-around presentation and the offbeat choice to start in such a slow, understated place, not to mention with such emotional richness and brilliant use of dynamics. As much as conventional logic would dictate that no one would want to follow that YellowJackets set, this group may have actually benefited from that placement, getting into the show at a place where the audience was already feeling vulnerable. Brilliant build in intensity, stomping and letting the group join in bit by bit to sell the intensity on the repetition of "you know you had it coming my friend." Wonderful offbeat opener.
Lovely seamless transition, facilitated by the high riffing of the next soloist, before the group grooved on into Marc Broussard's "Home." I loved that the group maintained its emotional, simple style here. You need to think about how the puzzle pieces of a set fit together and I dare say that this group did that better than anyone else on this evening. Great use of dynamics yet again and another very good solo. Great transition to the stomp and clap bit which I think the group could have attacked with a bit more power, but which was synched up really nicely and looked very good with male and female partners facing one another and a single line of gentlemen lining the middle, postured in great intensity. Great dramatic build again coming out of the bridge waiting for the soloist to rip loose, which he did with great voracity. Very good middle song.
Another seamless transition to Lady Gaga's "You and I. " Power soloist to lead this one off with a soft hum of high harmonies beneath her as the group eased into body perc. It's easy for a solo like this one to slip off into shouty land--this lead not only took us all to church but showed tremendous restraint in letting it build, showing hints of fire before starting to rip loose and riff on the second verse. Yes, she may have overdone it a little bit and sounded like she might lose her voice on the finish, but she lured the audience in with such conviction and power that I was on board all the way. Yet again, let's talk about the brilliance of set construction--starting small, soft and simple, growing freer, never letting the intensity falter, just manifest itself before culminating and a simply brilliant solo. Hot damn, that was an excellent closer to a heck of a set.
As the judges deliberated, The Mandarins performed with a set that included "Cinderella," "Hallelujah", "Walking on Snow," and "Fighter"/"Stronger." I will particularly laud The Mandarins for performing a fully realized set, full of interesting song choices, many of them fully choreographed. It's easy for deliberation groups to phone it in and I really appreciated them going all out and delivering a stellar performance in their own right.
As The Mandarins performed, I made my picks for the night. In this competition, there were The YellowJackets and there was Voicestream. And there was everybody else. I don't see any argument that these two groups weren’t on top and I had a really tough time picking between them. The YellowJackets positively owned the chapel with their mashup of "Such Great Heights" and "Say Something" and blew us all away with "I Won't Give Up," but I was lukewarm on the Beach Boys medley which felt a little forced to me, and not particularly interesting. Voicestream had me captivated from their opening number straight through the finish with brilliant use of dynamics, smart arrangements, brilliant set building, and an epic closing solo. I ultimately had The Yellow Jackets eking out the victory on a combination of sheer musicality and blow away moments, but it kind of pained me to put Voicestream anyplace shy of the top spot. I will say, the last three leads from The YellowJackets and the last lead from Voicestream rank among the absolute best soloists I've ever had the pleasure of writing about in my seven years of authoring this blog.
I don't meant to sell the other groups short, though because there was a very tight race for third with plenty of groups that wouldn't placed who easily could have progressed to semifinals out of a weaker quarter. I thought The Ramblers' all around product, Main Squeezes fluid set structure and build, The Otto Tunes' intensity, Orange Appeal's visual presentation, Proof of Purchase's clear sense of identity and smart structuring, The Touchtones's sass, and Groovestand's fiery opening made each and every one of them contenders. I don't mean to sell short The Tributones, either, who really shone for a group that's still relatively new to singing as a unit and boasted some really excellent solo work and showmanship. Quite a quarterfinal.
The YellowJackets did pick up the victory, with VoiceStream joining them in advancing to semifinals. The YJs closed out the night with their encore performance a fun sing-along version of "I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)."
Mike Chin's Picks for the Night
1. The YellowJackets
3. The Midnight Ramblers
1. TIE: The YellowJackets for "Such Great Heights"/"Say Something" and VoiceStream for "You and I"
2. Main Squeeze for “Drink You Away”
3. The Tributones for "I've Got the Music in Me"
Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. Orange Appeal for the full set
2. The YellowJackets for the full song
3. The Midnight Ramblers for the full set
1. The YellowJackets for the full set
2. VoiceStream for the full set
3. The Midnight Ramblers for the full set
Outstanding Vocal Percussion
1. Voicestream for the full set
2. Main Squeeze for the full set
3. The Otto Tunes for the full set
ICCA Official Results
1. The YellowJackets
3. The Otto Tunes
Outstanding Solo: Main Squeeze for “The One That Got Away”and VoiceStream for “Iscariot”
Outstanding Choreography: The YellowJackets
Outstanding Arrangement: The Midnight Ramblers for “Learn to Fly” and The Yellow Jackets for the full set
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Voicestream for the full set