On March 24, 2012, Rutgers University played host to the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) Mid-Atlantic Semifinal. Before we get to the review, here’s a summary of the show:
The Penn State University JoePas
Rider University ‘Til Further Notes
Syracuse University Groovestand
Drexel University 8 to the Bar
The Penn State University Pennharmonics
The Cornell University Class Notes
Elizabethtown College Phalanx
Rutgers University Casual Harmony
Deep Treble kicked off the night with Rufus Wainwright’s “Beautiful Child.” Such a stunning solo on this one—I had been pushing for Deep Treble to make it to semis, and though they couldn’t compete at this one, I appreciated the chance to at least hear them again.
The JoePas led off the evening. The all-male group took the stage in white shirts, ties, and khakis with Penn State jackets on tops. Nice distinctive look that was all about school pride, and fit nicely with their overall identity. The guys opened with “Higher.” Great energy on stage, with choreography that included a lot of clever rearrangement throughout. Nice fall out as the group went really soft on the harmonies echoing “lift me up,” with the bass and perc driving the sound. Good build of sound from the group, culminating in a dramatic cry from the soloist with a dramatic wall of sound behind him. Nice use of stomp percussion. This was a really strong opener in the sense that guys built toward moments, which is going to stand out in the audience’s collective mind—pivotal for the first group to perform at a competition. My only qualm for this song was that the guys may have had a little too much energy—the backing vocals swallowed the solo for a goodly portion of the song. It’s certainly possible some of the responsibility falls to the sound system—nonetheless, it muddled the song a bit.
The guys continued with Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather.” Cool intro with an unaccompanied solo that was then joined by a second voice and then a third before the group joined in, followed by the perc. Nice dramatic build over the course of this song. I had mixed feelings on the choreography for this song—it was appropriately understated and I liked the way in which developed over the course of the piece (e.g., a recurring motion of leaning out that started with just four members doing it, then a larger number, then just about everyone by the last time the guys hit that segment of the melody). On the other hand, the moves felt a bit stilted to me—less like a natural extension of the music, a little more affected. Nice emotion later in the piece, but again, the leads vocals got lost when the group got big. Fortunately, when the whole group fell out the solo more than held his own—I loved that artistic decision and loved his vocals.
The guys seamlessly transitioned into a huge dance break for the intro to ‘N Sync’s “It’s Gonna Be Me.” The guys pulled off the vocals for this piece nicely, but it seemed like a bit less of a song than a platform for the guys’ dance routine. To their credit, the dancing was really precise and clearly well-planned and well-rehearsed. They had their most dynamic movers up front and built to visual moments nicely, with highlights including an explosion out of the center and two guys executing full splits at the end of the song. The MVP of the piece would have to be the vocal percussionist who pulled off the moves with remarkable for finesses for someone who was still owning the perc mic. With all of that said, I did have reservations about this number as a competition piece. I’m all for a crowd-pleasing, choreography-intensive closing number, but I don’t think it behooves any a cappella group in 2012 to covering boy bands from the late ‘90s. To the guys’ credit, they didn’t just play the piece for laughs, but for groups on the verge of moving on to the ICCA Finals, I’d like to hear something a little more original and/or serious. With all of that said, I can’t take anything away from The JoePas as entertainers. This is the kind of group that’s going to earn a loyal following at home and garner new fans every time they hit the road based on their energy and likeability factor. Nice showing for the guys overall.
The second group to perform was Rider University ‘Til Further Notes. The co-ed group tok the stage in red and black. They opened on Kansas’s ”Carry On My Wayward Sound.” Really clean, full sound on opening. Nice, distinctive solo. I really liked the arrangement choices here, particularly on the fall out and gradual re-entry of voices on the transition of the second chorus. The visual presentation was a bit of a mixed bag, largely because there was just so much of it, and so each great moment (bobbing around the soloist in a circle on “the waves of the ocean” lyric; splitting into two groups and adding stomp percussion) there were transitions in which the group played air guitars or worked in a completely unnecessary slide move. It’s great for groups to visually engage the audience, but there is a critical point at which the visuals aren’t adding texture the music, and instead just feel thrown in. I felt the group constantly straddled that line on this song. Good opener.
The group transitioned into an arc for “Come Unto Me.” Choral handling of the song. Nice, complex arrangement again, though I heard some odd jazzy inflection on it that I hadn’t caught in quarterfinals. Nonetheless, beautiful leads emerged throughout the song, and the group’s dynamic control was spot on.
The group followed with McLaughlin’s “So Close.” The first thing I couldn’t help but notice on this song was the awkwardness of the visual transition into it. I realize that I was spoiled by seeing the ICCA South Semi last weekend, but fluid transitions are just such an integral part of the a cappella culture down there that it had me a lot more sensitive to what I was seeing this weekend. The group finished “Come Unto Me” in its arc, then the next soloist stepped forward out of the arc, plucked the microphone from its stand, walked back into the arc and then stepped forward again as he started to sing for what should have been a really powerful visual moment, but that came off as forced and redundant because we just saw him take the very same walk two seconds earlier. I don’t mean to harp on this point too much, but this is the kind of detail good groups need to pay attention to when they’re looking to cross the divide and become truly great (and I do think this group has the talent to aspire to that). Moving on, the good news was that the solo itself was exceptional on this song—deep, rich, and dripping with emotion, and even capable of going high when the song called for it. Very nice sample of “I Can’t Help falling in Love With You” as the group stood in a line, and then held hands with one another on the “take my hand” lyric—it was a little cheesy, but sweet enough that I was prepared to give it a pass. Nice performance.
The group counted off on the lead-in to David Guetta’s ”Without You.” I’m glad they did transition to something more contemporary but the transition felt abrupt from a musical perspective—more on that to follow. Good solo. Nice percussion. Smart use of dynamics and having parts fall out to maximize the dramatic effect of their transitions throughout the song. Really fun dance break as the group stood in open V-formation then danced to crossover and reform inverted V. The second soloist sounded great. This was a strong song to close on, but I think my biggest qualm was how abrupt the set on the whole felt. The songs were shaved down to fit all four in, and given how disparate each of the four pieces were, the set on the whole felt like an appetizer sampler when it should have been a buffet of sound. Not bad by any means, but I think a more critical eye on what identity the group is trying to espouse and what narrative it’s trying to communicate will help them really gel as a competitive a cappella group in the years to come.
Syracuse University Groovestandtook the stage next in a sharp black and blue combination. They opened with India.Arie’s ”Therapy.” Nice solo here. The group started in triangle formation which segued into a fun dance breakdown as the group members clustered in two groups with the soloist in the middle. Nice pulsing energy from the group on the movement—you get the sense the group was really feeling the music, though movements like bobbing from side to side on the chorus were a little excessive. The most impressive thing about this piece was probably the degree of control they had over their sound—for such a big group, even when they got big, they never overwhelmed the soloist and the blend never came apart. Nice choral sound on the harmonies behind the solo toward the end, and a nice big moment for soloist as she exploded in the endgame. Strong opener.
Cool echoing sound effects on the intro to Jordin Sparks’s ”No Air.” I dug the blowing wind sounds from the group, too. One of the benefits of having so many people on stage is the degree to which it lets the group play with different sounds like that—there’s plenty of room to cover every part and still have people left over to add these neat accoutrements. Nice duel leads on this one. Both had an authentic pop star quality to them and there was nice chemistry between the two. One of the great things about this group was that they knew how to build drama and use dynamics to tell a story. This song got exponentially bigger from the start through the second chorus before scaling way back to let the bass drive the action. Beautiful segment as the group circled and crouched down to leave the two leads standing tall in the center to explode on their vocals—simply awesome use of choreography to enhance the moment.
At the end of “No Air,” the group bunched together, locked arms over backs and sagged at their waists for a unique visual. The front few faces bolted up to sing their parts on Usher’s ”More” Nice change up on the tempo, way slowed down on the first go-round. They sampled a snippet of “Turn the Beat Around” as they transitioned the tempo, which was sort of an interesting meta-commentary on what the group was actually doing—smart. From there, the group actually switched to “Turn the Beat Around.” Valiant effort at the choreo here, but neither the vocals, nor the visuals had quite enough spice for them to really make this work. Cute, if kind of silly moment as the group’s uber-tall bass got a dance solo behind the group. I didn’t love that artistic choice until the moment that followed, when the soloist very precisely pirouetted, stomped and carried on with his lead, punctuating the dance break with style. The group mashed up the two songs in the end—I really liked the idea of it, but the resulting sound just wasn’t clean enough to justify it. The good news was the closer was memorable and had some excellent moments, but it wasn’t as consistent as one would have hoped. I liked that Groovestand took the stage with a game plan of being a contemporary pop a cappella group, and had the soloists and choreography to fit that persona. A little less sizzle and some more steak on their closer would have gone a long way toward helping this group reach the next level. Nonetheless, a good showing.
Drexel University 8 to the Bar took the stage next. The guys wore blue collared shirts over black slacks with black fedoras on top, and opened with “All of Me” Very jazzy, old school sound. The bass laid the foundation and sounded great. Very nice solo. Ton of choreography here. The fedoras, as fun and distinctive as they were, almost became the stars of this song (over the singers) given how much of the movement centered on the hats—taking them off, putting them back on, raising and lowering them. For every beautiful moment, like when the soloist walked down center as guys waved their hats to him, there was something else that was a little excessive—well-executed, mind you, but that didn’t really add anything to the piece. Nonetheless, it was a good, distinctive opener that certainly won the guys the audience’s attention.
The guys followed with Gabrielle Mann’s “When We Are One.” The solo built nicely on this one, growing not only louder but more soulful as he edged toward his bigger moments. Nice doubling up on the solo late in the piece. The group sound opened up as the piece progressed, too, allowing us to hear more of the high part. Nice circle rotating around the soloist for a cool visual, though the choreography on the whole was again, well-executed but mostly extraneous to the song.
Insane bass on the opening to a medley of hip hop songs including “Beautiful People,” “This Is How We Do It,” “Sweet Girl (Dollar Bill), and “Whoomp! (There It Is).” This was a lot of fun, and the perfect place for over-the-top choreography (which would have been all the more effective in the closer if it hadn’t been so excessive in the first two pieces… OK, I’m done beating that dead horse now). Highlights of the movement included a break dance breakdown with a really fun freeze in mid-movement, and a point at which one group member leap-frogged another. The guys did a nice job of working the group name into the lyrics. The final transition into the Tag Team song was electric, and the guys sang it with enough gusto that it just about ceased to be a comedy piece, and became much more about intensity. Solid finish. I worried this group came very close to slipping over the edge to becoming more entertainers than musicians. Some folks will say that assessment isn’t fair because the vocals (particularly on “When We Are One”) were quite good. The thing is, after a set most observers are only going to remember one or two key elements of a given group’s performance. As good as much of the group’s music was, the visuals were unquestionably more distinctive in this set. That’s perfectly fine if it’s what the group’s aiming for, but it’s not the kind of performance that makes a strong case to advance to ICCA Finals.
The second half opened with The Penn State Pennharmonics. The co-ed group wore black and gray. They offered up some ghostly harmonies and a swelling bass sound on the intro to Muse’s “Uprising.” Really different, musical and dramatic introduction—great way of grabbing the audience’s attention. Great intensity from the soloist, though I would have liked a little more volume from him—it was hard to hear him until he got to his biggest parts. Tremendous swells of sound from the group—this was, quite frankly, an epic opening piece, and all the more engrossing for a sample of “Brick in the Wall.”. In a hidden highlight, the lyrics of “we will be victorious” came across as a bit of a call to arms and anthem for a group making its way through the ICCA tournament.
Next up was “I’m In Here” by Sia. Nice transition between songs, as the group flowed into it with the new lead the only one to keep her arm raised out of the pose at the end of “Uprising.” Interesting way to draw our attention to her. Nice contrast of sound—much softer and more sensitive, but still edgy. That’s exactly the level of complementary contrast and cohesion that great groups know how to use to make their sets gel. The sound grew more complex on the second verse as the tempo lifted. Really interesting, breathy interjections from the guys on the second chorus. The stage positioning was right on point with group members often standing at different angles—interesting and provocative, but subtle. Nice explosion of sound on the “is anybody out there listening?” lyric. This piece was largely about dynamics and the group made so many cool decisions, including having two backing leads belt desperately behind the soloist, unmic’ed. The group receded at the end, their backs to the crowd as the soloist sang the final lyrics about being alone unaccompanied. Beautiful.
The Pennharmonics wrapped up with Mumford & Sons’ “Sigh No More.” The guys turned to face the crowd and softly, chorally started to sing, “I’m sorry.” Lovely musical moment. Rotating leads on this one—first one, then two, then three. The groupings weren’t all quite clean—the group will probably want to pay a little more attention to precisely synching that up. Nonetheless, this song was very much an extension of what we had heard up to that point—intense and dripping with feeling. The Pennharmonics established themselves as dark and edgy, but consistently musical for what was certainly the most cohesive and powerful set of the night up to that point.
Next up were The Cornell University Class Notes. The co-ed group wore black and white. Cool en medias res feel to the opening of Beyonce’s “Best Thing I Never Had.” Really nice, heartfelt solo that built well as the song moved along. From the movement, to the use dynamics (soft on the verses, exploding on the choruses), to the rhythm section, this was just a slick, polished opening number. Solid stuff.
The group followed with Adele’s ”Set Fire to the Rain.” Nice control on this solo—she offered up hints at how big she could get on the rough edges of her voice, leading into the first chorus. I just loved the choreography here for how simple and organic it was, driven by a recurring image of everyone raising their arms and dropping them slowly on each chorus—just enough to visually communicate what was going on in the song without any excess stuff. Pounding, dramatic percussion on this one.. Nice high harmonies behind the solo at the end, offering a ghostly, ethereal counterpoint when the lead belted her part—beautiful contrast.
The Class Notes wrapped up with “Streetcorner Symphony” by Rob Thomas. I love the idea of this song, but the group didn’t seem quite up to it. The piece felt cutesy when it should have been a party. Nicholas Music Center at Rutgers offers up a huge stage and coupling that with the stadium style seating, it really put the visual presentation up for scrutiny—the choruses, which sounded like they should have been big visual moments, read especially hollow with a simple repetition of the “come on over” hand beckoning--muted and uninteresting. I loved The Class Notes’ first two songs, and, again, I think they had the right idea on the kind of song to close this set, but in its execution, the group came across least engaging—let alone epic—on their last song. The last piece a group performs will leave an impression on the audience and judges, and while I felt The Class Notes had every chance of winning this semifinal through the first two songs, their closer just didn’t deliver.
Next up was Elizabethtown College Phalanx. Love the outfits on these guys—different colored sweaters over white shirts and ties, black slacks—sharp and distinctive. Nice deep, rich sound on opening to Mr. Mister’s ”Kyrie,” which almost sounded like a Gregorian chant. Excellent interplay between the duel leads on the choruses, and especially good showmanship from the primary lead. I didn’t much like the choice to go for a clap-along on this first song—ideally, you want to use that on your closer, after you’ve earned the audience’s respect, rather than in the first three minutes of your set. Not only is it a little presumptuous, but if the clap does catch on, you’re only making it harder on yourself to make the set grow from there. Nonetheless, this was a solid opener.
The guys got into an arc for “Prayer of the Children.” I liked this number at quarterfinals, but I’ll be darned if it didn’t come across a downright awesome on the Rutgers stage. I’m not sure if it was the acoustics of that auditorium or if the guys just nailed this song especially well on this night, but it sounded perfectly clean, and the low end was just beautiful. The guys demonstrated outstanding control of their dynamics and remarkable precision to have 14 guys singing the lyrics, and never have a muddled sound. This felt more like a polished classical choir than a contemporary a cappella group—it’s a gamble to go with that sound, but boy did it pay off in this case. Stellar middle song.
The guys very carefully moved into position for Queen’s ”Don’t Stop Me Now,” as if to say, “hey, just kidding—we’re a rock ‘em sock ‘em all-male college group after all.” Ton of fun choreography on this one. Really good lead, nice lift on the “rocket ship” lyric and a wonderful high-attitude three man dance breakdown late in the song. The guys earned every one of their laughs after their straight-laced middle song. Very strong solo here, and good sound from the group overall. I liked that Phalanx went all out on each and every one of their songs, but that they also respected the music enough to go to the extreme in ways that were completely organic to each piece. While I would have liked to have heard the guys go a little more contemporary on their song choices, it’s a minor quibble. Solid set.
The home group, Rutgers University Casual Harmony wrapped up the evening. The guys wore their traditional solid-colored button-up shirts and jeans. Killer perc lead into Maroon 5’s “Give a Little More.” One of the truest talents, and a real signature of this group is an uncanny ability to inject soul into what could just as easily have been a pedestrian pop sound. Very cool groove on this one that was only accentuated by the visual performance, which was all about sneaking in and popping out to match the music. Excellent percussion on this one. Strong soloist to boot, and he was the first of three from Casual Harmony to demonstrate the home stage advantage in knowing the extra intimacy he could get with the audience by stepping out in front of the monitors, onto the peninsula of the stage closest to the crowd. Strong opening song.
Nice bass and percussion on the lead-in to “Say (All I Need).” Scintillating solo here—the guy demonstrated unreal emotion both vocally and in his stage presence, selling the song 100 percent. The movement was very well done again—never excessive, but constantly engaging, highlighted by a really neat move in which group members formed two lines and bent at the knees to bob in circles, one row after the other, in opposite directions. It was especially impressive that the drummer made every move with the group and never wavered on his rhythm. Great call to let the soloist sing unaccompanied and softly on the final lines, really driving home his vulnerability. Exceptional middle song.
Next up was “Valerie” originally by The Zutons, but performed more in the style of Bruno Mars. Really fun full stop into the tempo change. Great charisma on the soloist who worked all sides of stage and sung to crowd. Popping movement from group, which showed a few seams when they were in motion but looked really slick otherwise. Fun trumpet interlude from four guys on the ends—it was a little silly for my tastes, but they never compromised the sound, so I can’t really complain. The whole groups came to the front of the stage on the close, which was a neat way of breaking that fourth wall for the audience, and a great set up for the guys to revisit their dance break from before with all the more verve. Two groups of guys to work opposite sides of the stage as the piece began to feel less and less like an a collegiate a cappella performance and more and more like a rock & roll show. The lead offered some soaring vocals on the close, which came dangerously close to teetering out of control, but I thought he reined it in just enough. While I would have liked a little more coherency from the Casual Harmony set, I appreciated that they left it all on the stage for three consecutive songs and found ways of engaging the audience differently, but no less effectively, with each successive piece. Very good set.
As the judges deliberated, Deep Treble took over once again for a set that included “All These Things That I’ve Done;” “Kids;” “Kiss Me;” a pretty inspired mashup that included “Like a Prayer,” “Apologize” and “Eleanor Rigby;” a medley that included “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” and “Walk this Way;” “The Remedy;” “The Chain;” “Monster;” “Falling Slowly” and a mashup of “Pricetag” and “Where is the Love.”
As the judges deliberated, I mulled over my choices for the night. Coming into the night, I expected this to be one of the most wide open ICCA semifinals this year, with no clear favorites and plenty of opportunities for new groups to emerge onto the Finals scene. I dare say I was right. In the end, this show came down to two groups for me: The Pennharmonics and Casual Harmony. The Penn State group had a more coherent set. I loved the edgy vibe they brought to the stage and their second soloist was killer. I thought Casual Harmony demonstrated a little more fire and I loved their showmanship and the diversity of what they proved they could do on stage. In the end, I just barely gave The Rutgers boys the duke. I thought contention for third place was wide open. The JoePas put on an unreal visual show; Phalanx may have had the most memorable musical moment of the night with “Prayer of the Children.” I thought Groovestand and 8 to the Bar each made compelling arguments for themselves as crowd favorites through their combinations of remarkable solo talents and choreography. ‘Til Further Notes built some nice dramatic moments and performed a wide range of material. In the end, I sided with The Class Notes for third place—although I maintain that they shot themselves in the foot with their third song, the first two were not only strong but memorable, and I’m all for rewarding a group that turns in some of the best material of the night, even if they counteract that quality with something else that’s relatively middling.
In the end, The Pennharmonics were crowned Mid-Atlantic Champions. They closed out the night with a stellar rendition of Alicia Keyes’ ”Fallin’.”
Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night
1. Casual Harmony
2. The Pennharmonics
3. The Class Notes
1. Casual Harmony “Say (All I Need)”
2. The Pennharmonics for “I’m In Here”
3. 'Til Further Notes for “So Close”
4. The Class Notes for “Best Thing I Never Had”
Best Visual Presentation
1. Groovestand for "No Air"
2. Phalanx for "Don't Stop Me Now"
3. The JoePas for “It’s Gonna Be Me”
Best Vocal Percussion
1. Casual Harmony
2. The Class Notes
3. The JoePas
ICCA Official Results
1. The Pennharmonics
2. The JoePas
3. Casual Harmony
Outstanding Arrangement: The Pennharmonics for “Uprising/Brick in the Wall”
Outstanding Soloist: TIE: The JoePas for “Higher” and Pennharmonics for “I’m In Here”
Oustanding Vocal Percussion: Casual Harmony for the entire set
Outstanding Choreography: Groovestand for the entire set