On Saturday, March 19, Bauman Auditorium at George Fox University played host to the 2016 ICCA Northwest Semifinal. You can check out over two hundred photos from the show on The A Cappella Blog Facebook page. Before the review, here’s a quick summary of the event.
The Competing Groups:
The UC Davis Spokes
Central Washington University Nada Cantata
University of Utah Infrared
University of Washington Furmata A Cappella
Oregon State University Outspoken
Brigham Young University Beyond Measure
University of Oregon Divisi
The UC Santa Cruz Hightones
Emcee: Courtney Jensen
Host Group: George Fox University Quakers and Notes
The ever-effervescent Courtney Jensen opened the evening with the standard announcements.
The first competing group was The Spokes. The All-female crew took the stage in all black with neon pink accents and opened with Ariana Grande’s ”Focus.” Nice, sassy attitude on the opener, and a good low end on this one. Really good breakdown bit as the group fell out and shrank down for one, and then another group member to join in again before the group launched in again on the whole. Well-executed choreo here though, it was a little excessive for my tastes and risked undercutting the bravado the group otherwise projected.
The set continued with Marian Hill’s “One Time.” Nice attitude again. I liked the identity the group was cultivating—a slick, confident, urban sound, though I was starting to grow a little concerned that this second song had a little too similar over-arching song to the one before it, which ran the risk of losing the audience’s attention. The soloists demonstrated good personality on stage and, the background instrumentation was solid. Nice reiteration of “one time” in the syllables, and some good little dynamic variation on the bridge.
The Spokes closed with Beyonce’s “Diva.” Really good vocals from the soloist though—on a nitpicky note—I noticed her break character to crack up more than once. I can totally appreciate that that’s the natural upshot of performing a song like this, but it also breaks the illusion of the performance, reminding the crowd it is a performance, and that is one of those small details that separate a very good from a truly great set. Good sound all around on this number and it was a nice way to tie up the set from a thematic perspective—escalating to a bit bigger sound and a bit more sass, while sticking with the style the group had established prior to that point. Nice jazzed up slow down bit to close a good set.
Next up, Nada Cantata, a mixed group clad in black and maroon. They kicked off their set with Britney Spears’s "Circus." Fun perc break down, culminating in the guy inserting “surfboard,” before a seamless transition to Beyonce’s ”Drunk In Love.” Really nice stage presence from the second soloist and good, measured quality to that vocal. The group lined up across stage with arms moving down like the hands on an analog clock, before splitting and leaving space for the soloist to walk from the back up through the line. The vocals got a little shout-y on the finish, but putting that aside it was a good, strong opener.
Next up, “All The Things You Are.” The group started this one chorally, in an arc. I can appreciate the impulse to do a song like this to show off musical chops and this one was very well rendered with a really nice balance, but that went on a little long before upping the tempo, and going jazzy as the group split into clusters of three. In the one, this one felt a little show tune-ish for my tastes, without quite stunning enough harmonies to justify the song selection and execution for the context of an ICCA semifinal.
The set continued with Estelle’s "American Boy." Cheesy bit of putting on sunglasses on the next verse. I appreciated the impulse to mix up the presentation as the song went on to keep it interesting and the group sold it well. I really liked the choice to insert another brief VP showcase—the vocal percussion was one of the most unique and pronounced talents the group brought ot the stage and it was wise to call attention to it.
Nada Cantata closed with "Hold My Hand" by Jess Glynne. Good opening, and the group mixed things up, switching to a second soloist. The song skewed a little sharp on the whole. I liked the choice to go for a clap-along with the crowd in the late stages of this song, bolstering the sense that this was an epic closer. Nice soft, subtle, staccato build behind the soloist as she really shined to deliver a memorable closer and the strongest leg of a good set.
Infrared took the stage next in black cloaks over their black and red duds. Suitably epic explosion of sound to follow on the lead in to Taylor Swift’s "Bad Blood" They really went for it on the rap here--not the greatest rap I’ve heard, mind you, but I have to give to a group like this for one hundred percent emotionally investing, in its opener and attacking the stage. Nice interaction between the leads here. The sound was a little shout-y and sharp, but stage presence alone made it immediately memorable and entertaining in a way few songs had been up to that point. Again, let’s talk identity—from the sparkly tops on the women, to the explosion of sound from the group, to the choice to lead off with the most visceral of T-Swift songs, the group was making a statement from the start. My one small criticism on the visual presentation, in fact, came on the finish, when the soloists exchanged a quick smile. While I’ll take “breaking character” after the song is done over mid-song any day, every moment the group spends on stage is still part of the performance, and I’d loved to have seen them maintain their façade rather than conceding it was an act in these “breaks” between numbers.
They followed up with “Lay Me Down” by Sam Smith. It seemed like tempo got a little head of soloist here. Nice crescendo into the first chorus. Good facials from the group, selling the intensity of this number. Nice moment as the soloists doubled up, singing at one another with tremendous intensity. I particularly liked the choice for two guys to take on a song that’s ostensibly about two men in love and their loss. Interesting visual with the guys on opposite ends of the stage and the group bobbing in a cluster between them. I like this from the perspective of telling the story of things coming in between them, but wish there were something a little more interesting or coherent going on in that cluster to facilitate telling that story of sadness and separation.
Nice pop of sound, exploding into party mode for the closer, Marc Ronson and Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk.” Fun attitude here, before a transition to Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” I really dug the way the group built this one to withhold the chorus of “Bad”—switching back to “Uptown Funk”--for an extra minute before exploding into the payoff. Fun bit on the “Julio, get the stretch” line, with the guys inching forward like they were in that car. Really fun closer here to do something original and wildly entertaining with song choices that might not have seemed like the most original on paper. Nice power closer.
Furmata A Cappella took the stage next, a co-ed group in black duds. They opened with Alessia Cara’s “Here.” Fantastic attitude and breath control from this soloist for an opening that commanded attention from the get-go. Then there was the male soloist, transitioning to Justin Bieber’s “Roller Coaster.” Nice interaction between the two, and a really slick sound all around here. Compelling visual presentation—a lot of movement on stage, it all felt intentional but not contrived. Nice opener all around. Cool fall out into a swirling sound from the VP guy before the group exploded into the closing motions of the song.
Nice transition from the group’s staggered position on stage into “Alive” by Sia. The mic was cutting out on the soloist in the early moments here, but very much to her credit, the soloist kept her composure nicely. Terrific solo work to follow, backed by really good variation of dynamics in the background. This was such a story and grew enormous midway through. Killer interaction between the soloist and a second lead as the song grew. As I took in this performance, my only concern was that this song got so big, it would be difficult for the group to follow itself for its closing number.
Furmata had a sterling transition to Nick Jonas’s "Chains." It turned out the group had a secret weapon, with a new soloist walking out from backstage at this point. It was a great dramatic moment, if a bit of a gambit to sacrifice his voice earlier on; of course, he was also performing in some sort of leg brace, so maybe this is an issue of physical limitations. The group transitioned to a mash up, with a slowed down groove on Kanye West’s “Power.” Terrific attitude on the build to this transition, particularly from the rap lead. Just a really fun way to wrap this one up. I particularly appreciated that the group sold this performance as deathly serious and kept a slow, melodic sound beneath it. The group lined up at the front of the stage in the late stages before finishing with just two voices for a sensational finish to a stellar set.
Outspoken closed out the first half of the show. Great reaction from the guys’ supporters in the audience. Really nice, full sound on the opening to Journey’s "Separate Ways." The staging was really artful for this song, with a lot of movement, none of it wasted, all engaging, contributing to the build. Good first solo, and nice build to the second lead taking over with a different vocal quality. This one felt a little long, but nonetheless featured good dynamic variation and visuals to keep it vibrant. Nice intensity on the interaction between the soloists on the “if he ever hurts you” line, and tremendous sincerity throughout—definitely the right call over playing this song for laughs, which is too often the temptation for a song like this. Great start to the set.
Nice, smooth transition to The Lone Bellow’s “You Never Need Nobody.” Really good emotional vigor on this solo and subdued sound from the guys to give this song plenty of room to grow as it went on. Nice soft, broken sound as one of the guys in the background echoed the soloist on the second chorus. Nice push of the tempo on the bridge. Again, this song felt a little long, but I was torn between the sensation of wanting the guys to clip it and appreciating their patience in letting the music enjoy a slow, steady build. Great emotional intensity, particularly from the lead.
Tiny sample of of “Airplanes” en route to Outspoken’s closer, Paramore’s "Brick By Boring Brick." Good solo here and especially good choreography on this one—so much motion, executed so precisely. Good, big sound from the guys here for a really nice closing number to leave things on an authentically upbeat note. The guys demonstrated excellent sincerity and power in this outing, an even stronger and more polished performance than what they brought to the stage at quarterfinals. Terrific money note on the finish to close a very good set that immediately put the group in a dead heat with Furmata A Cappella for top performers of the night up to that point.
Very cool off-beat opening for Beyond Measure, kicking things off post inter-mission with just a few members on stage and leading things off with some body perc as the rest of the group filed in on Shawn Mendes’s “Stitches.” Really nice, full sound from the group. Killer transition on the “needle and a thread” interlude to another soloist and revisitation on the body perc theme. While I think the group would have benefited from a song with a bit more punch to lead off, or to have clipped this song a little, it was nonetheless a good opener.
Choral opening on Christina Perri’s “Only Human” before the transition to a positively sensational female lead. Really nice tone and terrific control on this lead, who was just perfectly suited to bring this song to life. Good, warm harmony work here and a really polished visual presentation with the group crisply reconfiguring. Great emotion, as this set really clicked into its next gear on this exceptional song.
Beyond Measure wrapped up with Owl City’s “Verge.” Another tremendous solo here, and I have to praise the heck out of this group for their excellent execution of some really complex choreo on this song while maintaining such a full sound. It was a polished performance top to bottom, featuring a sensational VP interlude. In the latter stages of this set, the group really clicked into professional grade and may have just elbowed their way ahead of Outspoken and Furmata A Cappella from the first half.
Divisi was the penultimate competing group. The ladies wore black and white with bright red ties. Lovely jazzy take on Jet’s "Are You Gonna Be My Girl." It was the kind of sultry, slow opening that demands the audience lean in a little closer to listen up, and the sound came across as a nudge cleaner here than it had at quarterfinals. Terrific, off-beat creative choice. Some really good punch on the transition to the upbeat section of the song. This one clicked nicely, and best of all it was like no other opener this night. Terrific solo work. I might have clipped the slow jazzy outro here, though it did provide a fluid visual transition to the staging for their next song.
Next up, Sarah Bareilles’s "Manhattan." the group formed the approximate shape of the Manhattan skyline with their bodies on the intro as the lead maneuvered her way past and around them. This was such a visually compelling piece as the group went on to form an arc with the soloist standing to the side rather than the conventional spot in the middle, which further emphasized her lonesomeness in the narrative of the song. Just beautiful storytelling there. Tremendous control on the solo, impeccable intonation. Lovely double up on solo en route to the bridge. Great emotional earnestness all around for a stellar ballad.
Divisi wrapped up with “Start A Riot” by Jetta. Great sound here, including tremendous heartbeat perc on the heartbeat lyric, and revisited throughout, pulsing with energy. I loved it when the soloist opened up in late in the song sounding more raw and power-driven than at quarterfinals—nice adjustment there for the group on the whole to turn up the volume and really pay off all of the subtlety and care of the set leading up to this point. Terrific explosion of sound in the end game. This was an excellent end to a decisively Finals-caliber set.
The Hightones closed out the competition. This was another all-female group, in sharp black and green attire. They started out with Kimbra’s "Settle Down." Nice soft sound in the early going, giving plenty of room for a soft steady build. They transitioned to a second soloist. Polished song here, but a little subdued for an opener at this level of competition. I liked the little sample of Beyonce’s “Mine” in the background late in the song. Nice explosion across stage late. They wrapped up the song with a slow outro, which they probably ought to have clipped to keep the set moving.
Next up, Delta Rae’s "Bottom of the River." Good intensity and power here, especially on the solo. Nice use of the stomp throughout as a driving force, though it seemed to slip just a little out of synch at certain points. While this was a solid rendering of a very good song, in terms of song selection, I struggle to see this one, even performed at the highest level, cracking Finals level in 2016—it’s just been so widely covered and interpreted in the last few years. Little bit of Alison Krauss’s “Down To The River To Pray” buried in the background—and I liked that recurring device of just hinting at other songs, which I hoped was building toward something later in the set.
The Hightones wrapped up with Laura Mvula’s “She.” Nice sincerity on this solo. Interesting bit of soloist weaving between rows of group members, touching shoulders, only for each group member to turn away from her, ultimately clumping apart from her, to leave her alone. Really nice perc pick up and increased tempo toward the end, making the energy spike late into the unaccompanied finish. I didn’t notice a hidden sample on this one, or the other samples coming back which was a bit of a let down from a continuity stand point, but that’s minor complaint for a solid closer.
As the judges deliberated, Quakers and Notes entertained the crowd with a fun set that included “Shut Up and Dance,” “Just Dance,” “Staying Alive,” a fun version of “Watch Me (Whip Nae Nae),” “The Cupid Shuffle,” epic original “Hold On,” “Feel It,” with a spoken word interjection of “Lose Yourself,” “You Have More Friends Than You Know,” “Africa,” and “September.” While this group isn’t entirely polished (and could hardly be expected to be after first coming together just this past fall, their showmanship was on point and the group’s leader, in particular, demonstrated a terrific sense of humor and delivery to make for really entertaining deliberation period.
While the judges deliberated, I made my picks for the evening. In the end, I felt there were four groups in contention. Outspoken continued to polish their set and featured emotionally rich solo work. Furmata Nowhere demonstrated terrific heart and intensity on their off-beat set. Beyond Measure’s final two songs were quite arguably the most polished performances of the night, though their first two weren’t quite as well-conceived. And then there’s Divisi. While I did feel that this show wound up a tight race, I also felt as though Divisi delivered a combination of professional performance, star soloists, shrewd staging, and interesting story structure to set them a nudge ahead of the pack, and the region’s champions.
As it turned out, the judges agreed and Divisi took first place. It was a very good semifinal, and terrific to both see the Divisi franchise return to the Finals once again, and to see a number of new faces knocking on the door.
That’s a wrap for my regional coverage of the 2016 ICCAs. I’m looking forwarding to heading to New York next month to cover ICHSA and ICCA Finals.
Mike Chin's Picks for the Night
2. Beyond Measure
3. TIE: Outspoken and Furmata A Cappella
1. Beyond Measure for “Human”
2. Furmata A Cappella for middle song
3. Divisi for “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”
1. Divisi for “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”
2. Beyond Measure for "Human"
3. Infrared for “Uptown Funk”/”Bad
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. Beyond Measure for the full set
2. Nada Cantata for the full set
Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. Divisi for the full set
2. Beyond Measure for the full set
3. Infrared for the full set