Irene Droney is a student at Simmons College in Boston, MA. She is an a cappella enthusiast and is the music director and business manager of The Sirens, the official a cappella group of Simmons College.
As a self-proclaimed “aca-addict” I have been in the audience for my fair share of ICCA rounds in my time as a college student in Boston. When you’ve been to a lot of these events, you sometimes go in with a sense of what is going to happen and which group is going to go home with the win. Walking to Northeastern University on Friday, February 15, for the second northeast quarterfinal round, I could not even guess. The list of competing groups was so strong, I knew we were in for an amazing night of a cappella music and some extremely tough competition.
Let me start with a quick summary of the event:
The Northeastern University Downbeats
The Harvard University Callbacks
The Bates College Manic Optimists
The Northeastern University UniSons
Northeastern University Treble on Huntington
Northeastern University Distilled Harmony
The College of Saint Rose Golden Notes
Host Group: The Northeastern University’s Nor’easters
Walking into Blackman auditorium, I was stunned at the turn out. This was a rescheduled date because of a storm the week before but the venue was still packed. It may be because this round was not only hosted at Northeastern, but was very Northeastern heavy with 4 out of the 7 competing groups coming from the university. The first group to perform was the host group and special guest performers, recent SoJam X champions, The Nor’easters. They started the show off with a bang with their competition-winning rendition of “Sweet Nothing” by Calvin Harris.
The first competing group was The Downbeats from Northeastern University. Their set started out with a gorgeous version of “Hey Ya” by OutKast which started off slow but soon picked up the tempo. This was a really good song to start with for this group. The slow beginning showed off a lot of their strengths but as it moved into becoming more like the original song, the group did not lose any of their musicality but gained a lot of audience appreciation. Their second song was “Lights” by Ellie Goulding. I can’t help thinking that this was a poor song choice for this group. There were some lovely high harmonies but the solo was pitchy and it made the song seem unfocused with too much going on. The group ended with “SkyFall” by Adele which was a refreshing song choice. The arrangements were very well done and overall played to the strengths of the group however, overall the group outshone the soloists in this set. If this group works vocally with their soloists over the next year I think that they will become a force to reckoned with in the a cappella world.
Next up were The Callbacks from Harvard University. Their set started off very strong with an amazing and moving performance of “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston. This group had a really great cohesiveness and a very full sound. This group also deserves a special shout out to their first soloist sang her solo beautifully as well as performing in the rest of the set and doing the choreography all on crutches. Unfortunately, the choreography came off as forced and out of place and too Broadway for the ICCAs stage. The soloists had beautiful voices and had seemingly very high levels of musicality. They sounded highly trained and professional which produced a good sound but they lost the rawness and emotion that they had at the beginning of their set and the audience seemed to lose interest consequently.
The next group to take the stage was The Manic Optimists from Bates College in Lewiston Maine. As an all male group, they were in the minority of the performers during the evening but they played this to their advantage. Their set was very visual with silly choreography and a song selection that was consistently high energy. They began their set with a crowd-pleasing rendition of the classic Hall and Oates song “You Make My Dreams” which reeled in the audience right from the start with a very strong lead. The second song in their set was “I Can’t Lie” by Maroon 5, another high-energy pick. They performed with a great deal of charm and definitely used this charm, unique to all-male groups, to capture the audience’s attention. My only qualm is that the funny dance moves did occasionally distract from the group’s high levels of musical cohesiveness and stand out arrangements. I would have liked to have seen this group slow it down a little bit mid-set more than they did and drop some of silliness. That attitude and fun is a great selling point for this group but because of the constant raucous laughter coming from the audience and silliness on stage, their good musicality, blend and tone almost went unnoticed. It may help them to slow it down for one song in the set so that they can be taken more seriously by the judges and audience and show them that there is in fact, high quality musicianship in the group. The song that really stole the show was their closer, “It’s Raining Men.” The soloists were extremely dynamic and by the end of the set the crowd was in an uproar. This was an extremely fun set, definitely an audience favorite.
The last group before intermission were The UniSons, another all male group. This group definitely wins my personal award for best dressed. The red and gray outfits were very nice, a great presentation. This group brought a lot of life to the stage doing songs not as frequently covered in the a cappella world and making them catchy and appealing to a large audience. They started out with the song “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons and immediately had the audience captivated. I was also very happy with the choreography of this group. I hardly noticed it and that is personally, my kind of a cappella choreography. It worked very well with the music and served as a great compliment to it but not a distraction. They slowed it down for their second song, ”Sigh No More” by Mumford and Sons. This was a beautiful song choice and the two harmonies complimenting the lead added a nice depth and their set up having these three men in front of the group was a nice visual. The syllables used by the group as the song got into its groove sometimes sounded a little forced and distracted from the solo and made it more difficult to understand. It was really at the transitions that things felt iffy for me. There were definitely pitch and blend issues, especially in the tenor that were especially noticeable during the transitions. Despite a less than smooth transition into their third song, “Grey Street” OPB Dave Matthews Band may have been the best song of their set. The range and style played to this group very well and it seemed as though they hit their stride in this song. The lead had great breath control, seemingly effortlessly singing sustained notes over the group. This group brought a lot of life to a very repetitive song. Their last song was “Don’t Gotta Work It Out” by Fitz and the Tantrums, definitely ending their set on the high note. The biggest issues that I noticed were in the transitions and they were mostly in the higher voices but all in all I felt that this was a strong performance.
Treble on Huntington was the first group to take the stage after intermission. These ladies definitely made a statement with their purple and black outfits and they had some really nice high-energy choreography throughout the set. This set started out with a really cool arrangement of “Till The World Ends” by Britney Spears. The arrangement started off very understated with some almost haunting harmonies that showed off the musicality of the group. When the arrangement picked up the pace, it lost some of the musicality and felt a little bit empty. The bass was the standout of this arrangement and it realty anchored this piece and the group’s tone. This transitioned smoothly into “Some Nights” by fun. I think that this group would have gained a lot by lowering the key of this arrangement. It seemed to me that a lot of this groups vocal power lay in their middle range and the higher range of this song took away some of the intricacy that they had at the beginning of their first song as well as making the tone sound less rich. It’s also much easier to fall flat when singing so high and this did happen at times. Their next song was “The Chain” by Ingrid Michelson. This was probably the most impressive song of their set for me. This song had some really intricate timing throughout it and this group did a really great job staying on it. This song was also lower in their ranges and showed off their vocal ability much more so than the faster paced songs. The last song in this set was a mashup of “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry and “Animal” by Neon Trees. There were definitely some microphone issues in this song and unfortunately the soloist for “Teenage Dream” was often really difficult to hear and I don’t think that the audience or the judges got to really hear the full arrangement or hear its full potential. That being said, it was definitely still a crowd pleaser. It was high energy without being over the top and the arrangement flowed really smoothly. It was a great way to end this set. This group has a lot of potential.
Distilled Harmony was on next. This group definitely made a great visual statement, all striking a pose center stage and wearing the striking combination of black with gold accents. They opened their set with “You and I” by Lady Gaga, done as a male/female duet. The song worked very well as a duet, neither of the leads trying to outshine the other. This transitioned smoothly into “Jar of Hearts” by Christina Perry. This was the one song of this group’s set that I felt was not up to par with the rest. The arrangement as well as the lead felt bland and lacking in the emotion that the song is capable of however, the set really came to life with their next song “Feeling Good” as performed by Michael Buble. The arrangement was very well done and the lead’s voice was perfectly matched for the song and sounded quite effortless. His lead and the rest of the group’s enthusiasm about it and this song was what really gave this set the kick-start it needed. The last song in this set was a mash-up of “Warzone” by The Wanted and “Set Fire to the Rain” by Adele. This was the perfect song for this group to end with. The songs were meshed seamlessly together and the male and female soloists worked very well together. It packed a very powerful punch as an ending song, this group definitely made sure that they would be remembered by the audience and the judges with this song.
The College of Saint Rose Golden Notes were the last group of the night. They started out with “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. There is definitely an advantage to doing songs that everyone in the audience will know. This group immediately got a huge crowd reaction and they built off of it. The first soloist was very impressive to me; she had great tone and started off the set strong. The next song in the set was “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child. This song was good but it was not particularly exciting. Everything that happened was what I would have expected to happen in this arrangement and there was not a lot of creativity or innovation. It was however, performed very cleanly. I think that it could have used an extra push to really capture the audience. The last song of their set was “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Miserables. This was a very interesting song choice. The whole set was heavy on musical theater which is not something that you often hear in a cappella competition. They had good blend and nice tone during this song and it ended their set in a nice way that played to their strengths as a group as well as being an innovative song choice that the audience would remember. This group was strong musically as well as being very entertaining.
As the judges deliberated, The Nor’easters performed a set of their songs which included “The Walk” by Imogen Heap and “Diamonds” by Rihanna, as well as hosting the most fun perc off that I had ever seen. There was a lot of dancing up on stage and all of the participants were amazing and so into it!
It was a tough competition but in the end, Distilled Harmony took the win with The Manic Optimists finishing second and The Downbeats coming in at third.
1. The Manic Optimists
2. Distilled Harmony
3. The Downbeats
1. The Callbacks for “How Will I know”
2. Distilled Harmony for “Feeling Good”
1. Distilled Harmony
2. The Manic Optimists
3. The Downbeats
Outstanding Soloist: Dan Harcourt of Distilled Harmony for “Feeling Good”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Alex Cornwall of The UniSons for the entire set