On Saturday, January 30, Rolling Hills Community Church in Tualatin, Oregon hosted an ICCA Northwest Quarterfinal. Before the review, here’s a quick summary of the show.
George Fox University Quakers and Notes
University of Oregon Mind the Gap
University of Oregon Divisi
Central Washington University Fermata Nowhere
South Oregon University Dulcet
Oregon State University Outspoken
Oregon State University Power Chord
Linn-Benton Community College Blue Light Special
The Portland State University Green Note
The Linn-Benton Community College Sirens
Emcee: Courtney Jensen
Guest Group: Wilsonville High School Soul’d Out
Courtney Jensen opened the evening with the standard announcements, delivered with killer personality.
George Fox University Quakers and Notes was the first group out. The co-ed group took the stage in a hodge-podge of bright colors and big ol’ signs representing their school and group name. They launched into a Disney medley “Eye to Eye” from A Goofy Movie, which gave way to ”Be our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. The transitions were fast and furious, with songs to follow including Aladdin’s “You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me,” a jazzy take on The Little Mermaid’s “Kiss the Girl,” “So This Is Love” from Cinderella, ”For The First Time In Forever” from Frozen, and ”You’ll Be In My Heart” from Tarzan. This medley was fun and I liked the continuity of hooking back to one central protagonist from a visual perspective, but when a group wedges in so many songs it begins to come across as a bit scatter-brained—not giving any individual selection enough time to really gather momentum or tell a story, and perhaps more importantly making it harder for the group to really ground itself and maintain its sound while worrying about all of those transitions. Also, I was a bit baffled at the inclusion of Haddaway’s ”What Is Love” but maybe that’s a Disney reference I missed.
Coming out of the medley, the central player looked distraught, dismissed as a “beast,” in the final sample of the title song from Beauty and the Beast and next soloist singing to him. They moved into "You Have More Friends Than You Know" from Glee. Nice choral handling of this version with some really lovely harmonies.
From there, the Disney medley was back on with selections including “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” from Mulan with a ton of theatrics and “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King. They incorporated a funny bit of dragging a collapsed group member to the back of the pack for this song, before she reemerged to complete the, well, circle of life. I really appreciated the tongue in cheek, unironic optimism here. This wasn’t a knockout set, but it did looks as though the group enjoyed itself and was sincere in its performance, which can make all the difference between a fun performance and one that grows uncomfortable for the audience. While I have my knocks, particularly in regards to set structure, this set was easy to consume and an enjoyable start to the night.
University of Oregon Mind the Gap was out next. The returning quarterfinal champs wore all black on stage and opened with a dark, slowed down reimagining of Beyonce’s "Crazy In Love." Very slick vocals on this lead and the backing sound was not only technically smooth, but sold with tremendous attitude both visually and aurally.
Next up, ”I Didn’t Plan It” from Sara Bareilles’s Waitress musical. Really nice rhythm section here, and a good transition into the song with the soloist planted at the center of a circle on stage. The solo really took off when the sound got bigger on this one. This was really well staged, with the group spanning the performance space. Nice choice to go choral on the bridge and really mix it up.
Nicely executed seamless transition to Kelly Clarkson’s "Dark Side" Phenomenal solo work for this one and excellent dynamic work to grow this one from a soft emotional piece to an explosion of emotional intensity. Really nice backing solo parts in the end game to open this one wide. Continued strong choreo work here, keeping the stage dynamic, keeping it interesting to watch without ever growing overly literal or distracting. Nice soft outro with the heartbeat VP as an anchor.
Mind the Gap closed with Years & Years’ “King.” The movement got a little clunky on a tightly clustered pyramid that they tried to step and bob in, but when the group went freer flowing, it was fun to watch. Strong sound, all around and a well-executed synchronized stomp on the finish. This group really demonstrated a lot of professional polish on the whole. I think they might have been a bit better served with a more traditional three-song structure, but I appreciate the ambition and thought that their power vocals in particular made them an instant, early contender to win the night.
University of Oregon Divisi was next out of the chute. The all-female powerhouse with a legacy of awesome took the stage in black and white with bright red ties. The women opened on a slowed down, jazzy interpretation of "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" by Jet, that saw a very talented soloist weave her way around her stationary group mates. They picked up the tempo coming out of the first chorus and launched into motion, but retained the jazz style. Cool, fresh take on this song. Nice dynamic build as this one grew fuller and bigger. My only knock on this opener was that the outro was slow and grew a little plodding in a way that seemed to beg for a big climax, but there was no such pay off to follow.
The women froze, forming a Manhattan skyline with their bodies en route to Sara Bareilles’s ”Manhatttan.” Nice, understated instrumentation beneath a lovely solo. I loved the quiet, sincere, faithful take on this one. Really lovely unison on the bridge with pristine high harmonies on that final verse. Nicely planned transition with the group all in a line and the soloist filling a gap to hand off the mic to the last soloist.
Given the set up to this point, I was waiting on a really big closer. Divisi delivered “Start A Riot” by Jetta. Nice solo work on this one I appreciated the palpable energy from the group, though I actually thought they might have reeled back the sound a little to pack more punch into the bigger moments. Nice explosion on the end, as the soloist emerged from a tight cluster to tattack the front of the stage and the group to spanned the space behind her. Particularly impressive intonation on the big unison on the finish. While I think there’s room for some small changes to take this set to the next level, I was, just the same, inclined to lump Divisi in with their sibling group, Mind the Gap, as another likely top finisher for the evening.
Next up, Central Washington University Fermata Nowhere. They opened with Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself” before transitioning into Ariana Grande’s “Break Free” and then Icona Pop’s “I Love It.” Not altogether unlike the Quakers and Oats set, this opener was another medley that felt as though it was moving too fast for its own good and too fast to appreciate the energy of any individual song (though I did appreciate the enthusiasm of the group itself. I was grasping for a sense of build or narrative, but this one came across a bit more like random snippets of songs thrown together. I can understand the choice to open on a piece like this to get butterflies out and center the group moving forward, but follow up would be key.
The set continued with Little Big Town’s "Girl Crush." Good, earnest performance on this solo. Really nice harmony on the chorus, and I was into the subtle instrumentation here, a good contrast to preceding medley. My only real knock on this middle song connects with my colleague J.D. Frizzell’s recent commentary on breaking the a cappella arc—finding other more engaging and interesting formations to stage a performance. There’s plenty of utility to the arc, and it certainly has its place for campus shows and on songs the group is still mastering the sound of, before they ironing out visuals. By the tie a group brings a song to competition, though, I do hope for the visual presentation to be a bit more engaging, though. Not necessarily choreographed (I feel too many groups have taken to over-choreographing ballads) but perhaps having group members staggered throughout stage in a more interesting formation.
Next up, "Promises" by Ryn Weaver. In terms of sheer membership, this was a smaller group, and they produced smaller sound. Given the number of bodies on stage, may have been a good idea to step a little closer to the area mics to let the speakers do some of the work for them. In the end game, the group began an electric transition to “Shake It Out” by Florence and the Machine.
“Shake It out” had a nicely subdued start here and very nice solo work before the VP chimed in and the tempo picked up. Nice motion on this one as the group finally challenged the front of the stage
Dulcet closed with OneRepublic’s "Love Runs Out." I liked that they cut a little looser here, particularly on the rap from the VP guy. Nice moment of snapping into the background for the soloist to stand alone up front on the finish. Good finish with the group lining the front of the stage to close out their set. All in all, Fermata Nowhere demonstrated good potential. The opening medley diminished the set a bit for me for a lack of direction. While this choice and the use of shorter, clipped songs does keep a set moving and no one song feels over-long, it can also have the reverse effect of making a set feel awfully long for sheer number of pieces performed (five distinct pieces, eight songs represented). I’m all for breaking from the traditional three-song set, but do feel it’s important groups plan carefully in order to do so, because there is a reason why three songs is the standard.
On the interlude, we got a mass audience beatbox bit, courtesy of Courtney. This is why she’s my favorite.
South Oregon University Dulcet was up next. The co-ed crew wore black and red. They led off with Lorde’s "Royals." Nice attitude all around this one and a good solo for the part. Good VP here. The choreo was a little over the top, particularly on an opener and a little on the nose for my tastes, but well executed, nonetheless. Clean finish to the song.
They followed up with "Beautiful" by Christina Aguilera. Fine staging with the group staggered around the stage as the soloist emerged from the pack to the front of the stage. Really nice solo work here. The background was nicely subdued before grooving in on the second verse—nice differentiation to keep this one engaging. I think the group could have afforded to keep the movement simpler here as it got a little distracting to me—movement on stage should be all about enhancing the sound, and an authentically emotional number, full-on choreo often undercuts the sincerity of the song.
"Uptown Funk" up next. Nice attitude and here’s where the group earned the dance breakout it had been building toward all around. I’ll argue that this visual presentation could have popped more had there not been so much dancing leading up to it. Still, this was the right type of song choice for a closer. Really fun breakdown section with just the sopranos and beatboxer before the sound spread to the whole group with a nice underlay of “girls hit your hallelujah” beneath the repeated "uptown funk you up," leading to a nice bit of acrobatics and groups of three breaking it down in the middle of the stage with their best dance moves. In a vacuum, this was an entertaining set, and particularly good final song. I do have to harp once more about song selection, though, as I did feel that using three songs that have become so played out in a cappella limited the group’s potential to put on a fresh-feeling performance.
Oregon State University Outspoken finished off the first half of the show. Nice full sound on the opening to Journey’s “Separate Ways” The key to making a song like this work in the competition setting is selling it with the utmost sincerity , at least in the early-going, and the guys nailed that. The second verse saw a gentle switch in formation and change of soloist, before the group doubled up on the solo on the chorus. Nice reeling back on the volume to help make the bigger moments of the song really pop, not to mention demonstrating the guys’ ability to vary their dynamics. All told, this was a really good off beat opener. It’s a gambit to go with an oldie on the first song, but the guys were prepared to breathe new life into it for a solid showing.
Smooth transition into “You Never Need Nobody” by The Lone Bellow. Really nice emotion on the lead here, and smooth sound from the backing vocals. The perc well delivered. My main knock on this performance was that, after a couple minutes, it began to feel a little stagnant. The impulse to add a backing solo on the second chorus was good, but the guys could have used a little more spice at that point. Really great intensity before a brilliant fallout moment leading into the finish. I thought this song really would have benefited from having a verse cut to keep it moving, and ensure that the excellent solo work got the spotlight without losing the audience’s attention, and to cut to the strong finish sooner.
The guys introduced a sample of B.O.B.’s “Airplanes” on the transition before keying in on Paramore’s ”Brick By Boring Brick” Really nice intensity all around on this one, though I thought the group could have afforded some bigger movement than a fist pump at its biggest moment. This is where visuals need to match up with the sound to really complement and enhance it—in this moment, I felt the anticlimactic visuals actually undercut the sound. Full-on, complicated choreo may be outside this group’s wheel house, but this where sheet movement on stage—spreading out or marching forward for example—can create the illusion of something more epic happening. Nitpicking aside, this was a fine closer for a solid set, and I was particularly impressed to see the way in which the group had refined its competition chops since the previous year.
After intermission, Oregon State University Power Chord led off the second half. Killer bass sound on the opening to Justin Timberlake’s "What Goes Around comes Around" Nice stage presence from the group, and nice little salute to Timblerake’s roots with a bye-bye-bye motion on the goodbye lyric. Gesticulation like that can easily go over the top, but I felt the group hit just the right sweet spot of making the joke but not belaboring it. The choreography was a little overdone for me on this one—it’s a fine line and I understand the desire to wow the crowd early on, but I’d suggest that the group start simpler and more purely focused on the music, then ramp up the movement late in the set.
Power Chord followed with "Falling Slowly" from Once. Good soft start from the group and smooth male solo on the first bit before a female soloist joined him. Really nice emotion all around on this one. I felt the group would have been better served to have gone simpler on the sound, in particular keeping the beatbox out (or at least saving it for the very end. The choreography felt really out of place on this one. Very nice call as the group grew still and sang chorally en route to falling out for the soloists to operate unaccompanied leading into the wall of sound on the end game. This song really came together in its final stages for a very good finish.
The group started its closing number with “For Your Love” before transitioning full-tilt to Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” Nice energy and a very well-suited solo for this one. This was a good point for the group to cut loose on its dancing instincts, and to put its tremendous energy on display—it all added up to, by far, my favorite leg of the Power Chord set.
Linn-Benton Community College Blue Light Special was up next. The guys wore blue dress shirts, white bow ties and suspenders, and black slacks. They opened with some really nice attitude on Marc Ronson’s "Uptown Funk." Really terrific charisma on this solo and great willingness to go all in on the movement in the background. The guys introduced “Blue Light Special” into the syllables in the background—a fun, subtle addition. I have and will continue to give groups a hard for song selections like this, because we’ve heard this song so much in a cappella last year and this year. Just the same, if a group is to use “Uptown Funk,” this is exactly the way it ought to be used—to clearly communicate this group’s raucous and crowd-friendly identity. This performance, and particularly placing it as an opener, made an immediate statement, and made it Blue Light Special instantly memorable amidst a crowd of ten competing groups.
Really interesting choice to switch to Imogen Heap’s "Hide and Seek." I very much get this as a choice to showcase what the group can do musically in juxtaposition to a showstopper, but, despite some bright point, the blend was often uneven and parts were a little sharp. To be honest, I don’t know that it might not have been in the group’s best interest to keep the energy up and showcase what they’re best at rather than wedging in a song outside their sweet spot—especially when it’s a song that so, so many groups have given a very similar treatment over the last nine years. Surprisingly on point with the falsetto in the end game to end this song on a high note (pun intended).
Sassy walk to the front en route to The Weather Girls’ "It’s Raining Men." This was exactly the type of barn-burning comedy number that this group <i>nails</i> in a way so few groups can. Three-part lead here and stellar choreo in the back. Ton of fun and a nice place to showcase some high-pitched vocals on the lead (though they were still edging a little sharp. Late in the song, the guys started a a kick line. Why not? This was precisely the platform for kitchen-sink choreo. While Blue Light Special isn’t quite at the point where they’re contending for placement at an ICCA quarterfinal, I do appreciate that they have one of the best defined collective personalities in their region. If they can continue playing to their strong suits, polish their mechanics, and freshen up their song selections, I do feel this may be a group to watch in the next few years.
The Portland State University Green Note was up next. Nice green and black look for this co-ed group. They opened with The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two.” Nice country-tinged solo on this one. Clean sound from the group. The choreo was perfectly reasonable from a planning perspective but a little stiff on the execution. Ambitious choreography is like singing ambitiously high notes. It’s awesome if you can pull it off. If you can’t, it sticks out as a negative. (Note: The Green Note wasn’t that bad on movement—I’m belaboring the point more so because I think there are a lot of groups out there that could stand to hear it.) Good fall out moment into a bold, loud march that looked fantastic, and the intensity really clicked from aural and visual perspectives in that moment.
Jason Walker’s “Echo” was next. Another solid solo and I appreciated the choice to keep the visuals simpler on this one. Really nice swell of sound on the crescendo as the rhythm section drove the action. This one built really nicely to its moments of intensity before settling back down to a soft finish and a nice visual close with the soloist receding behind the circle of group members before another group member subtly took her place.
The Green Note wrapped up with “Emperor’s New Clothes” by Panic! At the Disco. There was a little a little bit of an old school jazzy sound embedded in the background for this one that I thought both sounded great and set apart this performance. Cool visual moment on the climax with the group in two lines before the soloist split between to explode into the final chorus. Nice clean finish with the group encircling the soloist, then collapsing around him. From a purely musical stand point, I felt that The Green Note was in contention to place in this competition; with continued refinement on (which may include just reeling back) the visuals, I feel this is a group that could easily be advancing to semifinals in the not-too-distant future.
Last up, The Linn-Benton Community College Sirens. Glittery violet tops over black slacks for this all-female group. They opened with Sia’s "Elastic Heart." Cool unaccompanied solo on the start. Very good VP here and wonderful intensity from the group to sell every second of this one both aurally and visually at every instant. Solid, off beat opener.
They continued the set with “My Heart With You” by The Rescues. Choral handling here. This one was a little over choreographed, which made it feel more melodramatically staged than purely heartfelt, as I felt it should have landed. Nonetheless, the song was cleanly executed, featuring a nice control of the dynamics
The Sirens closed things down with Tori Kelly’s “Nobody Love.” Nice power solo and good energy from the group on the choreo, which was a better fit here. Good choice for a closer—a big, show-stopping number with opportunities for big dance moves. Nice doubling up on the lead, before falling out for a choral take on the close. This was a good closer to a compelling set from this up-and-coming group.
While the judges deliberated, Wilsonville high School Soul’d Out entertained the crowd. Their set included “Just Keep Breathing,” “I Want You Back,” “ET,” “Drag Me Down,” “What Goes Around Comes Around,” “Get It Right,” and a mashup called “Bye Bye One More Time,” featuring work from Britney Spears and N’Sync that had my partner asking me how old the performers would have been when these songs were popular—you know, when I was in high school. I crunched the numbers, and the answers range from in utero to toddler. Moving on. I’m always impressed with the group’s showmanship and polish. They came across as charming and laid back, and thus a terrific diversion while the crowd awaited the results of the night’s competition.
As Soul’d Out performed, I made my picks for the night. It was a good, diverse, night of a cappella, I was able to narrow things down to four groups I felt were in close contention for the top spots. I had The Green Note as a hard and fast number four—right on the cusp of breaking through to the next level. Then there were the top three, who I felt were very, very clear, though the order in which to rank them was anything but clear. Mind the Gap delivered a star-making solo, solid all-around sound, tremendous vocal percussion, and the visual presentation that I found the most simultaneously dynamic and unobtrusive this evening. Outspoken delivered a clean sound and exceptional solo work. Divisi brought solid mechanics, an authenticity of emotion, and an off-beat spin on their opener that made their set immediately memorable and worth of recognition, despite not quite ever kicking into the third gear I was waiting on. To be honest, I shuffled my rankings multiple times with each of these groups rotating through each of the top three spots, before finally settling on Divisi as my winners for the evening.
In the end, the judges agreed with me for the winner, though it was tough to see Mind The Gap end up going home empty handed. Divisi closed out the night with their encore, an entertaining rendition of “Killing Me Softly.”
Thanks for reading. I’m tentatively planning to have the ICCA Northwest Semifinal covered (pending confirmation of location). Until then, I hope you’ll keeping checking in for our regular content, posted multiple times each week.
Official ICCA Results
3. The Green Note
Outstanding Soloist: Divisi for “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”
Outstanding Choreography: Divisi for “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”
Outstanding Arrangement: Blue Light Special for “It’s Raining Men”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Power Chord for “What Goes Around”
Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night
3. Mind The Gap
1. Mind The Gap for “Dark Side”
2. Outspoken for “You Never Need Nobody”
3. Divisi for “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”
Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. Mind the Gap for the full set
2. Divisi for the full set
3. Blue Light Special for the full set
1. Divisi for “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”
2. Mind The Gap for “Crazy in Love”
3. The Sirens for “Elastic Heart”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. Power Chord for the full set
2. Mind The Gap for the full set