Dave Samuels is a Ph.D. candidate and graduate student at the University of Georgia. He is the director of the co-ed group at UGA, Ecotones. This is his first review for The A Cappella Blog.
Greetings from the historic Morton Theater in downtown Athens, GA, site of the second ICCA South quarterfinal. Before I begin to discuss the event, I’d like to throw out a few quick facts to help frame the review. From my seat in the orchestra pit, I had a prime view of all of the performers…from the waist up. Any awesome footwork from these groups pulled off went completely unnoticed by me. This seat allowed me to hear all of the singers well, even in the “spread out across the ENTIRE stage” choreo formations that several groups used. People who had to rely on the condenser mics to pick up sound may not have had the same sonic experience. Finally, as a member of the UGA a cappella community, I’ve got a dog in tonight’s race. While I’m going to try to keep this review dispassionate, I may not be entirely successful in that endeavor.
The show started with an opening number by host group UGA Noteworthy. Their catchy Destiny’s Child mash-up of “Bugaboo/Survivor” got the packed house ready for a night full of great music.
Kicking off the show was the co-ed Beltones from Belmont University. I’m going to give this group a lot of credit for coming out and competing, despite being founded less than 3 years ago! The ladies of this 19-member group took the stage in black dresses accented with a red flower while the guys were in white shirts with red and black ties. The jitters seemed apparent when they started VV Brown’s “Shark in the Water,” but they quickly settled down quickly and found their groove. There was some pretty neat choreo throughout the song, highlighted by the backs “playing” air trumpets and trombones under the choruses and a nice group move coming into the final chorus. Lady Antebellum’s “Just a Kiss” showcased powerful onstage chemistry between the two leads. The two soloists seemed completely lost in each other, highlighting the meaning of the song. Their last song—La Roux’s “Bulletproof”—featured a breakdown which allowed their VP to take center stage; he did not disappoint. Taking part in competitions like this will surely help this group establish itself as a solid group in the region.
Next up were the HardChord DynaMix, a co-ed group from Texas A&M University. I’m going to give these guys the best dressed award. They went for the “everybody wear some combination of black/white/grey, but don’t make it seem like you’re trying” look and really pulled it off. They went big with choreo during their first number (I didn’t know the song and, apparently, “lights go out?” was an insufficient memory jog). While the wide-spread choreography looked cool, their sound suffered from it. I was not a fan of some of the arranging decisions throughout the set, which provided little support for some of the higher soprano notes, often leaving theses girls out on an island. Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper” came together nicely as their second number. The choreography and arrangement both complemented the solo well. A solid solo performance on Coldplay’s “Paradise” made for a really enjoyable closing number.
The ladies of James Madison University’s BluesTones hit the stage in black and blue dresses and took control from the opening pitch of Paramore’s “crushcrushcrush.” There was one constant throughout the entire set for these girls: emotion. They all bought into the meanings of what they were singing and it made for a really great set. Their crisp performance helped highlight the frustration the soloist was trying to bring out. Instead of re-setting and blowing a pitch like most other groups, the BluesTones transitioned straight into “Crazy Ever After” by The Rescues. The dynamic contrasts they created excellently framed this beautiful heartbroken ballad. I would be remiss if I failed to give a nod to the alto they had on the microphone who did a wonderful job supporting the group throughout this song. Their final number—Beyonce’s “Broken-hearted Girl”—was more of the same: well-sung, emotional music. One choreography move that I particularly enjoyed here was the entire group was the entire group forming a single line across the front edge of the stage before the final chorus. And I’m still not sure how they managed to do this, but they were very subtle about doing it—I didn’t realize what was happening until I was hit by a wall of sound. These ladies gave a wonderful performance that was a treat to watch and listen to.
Vanderbilt’s Melodores was the next group to take the stage. Sporting Commodore black and gold, these guys are looking to take the first step toward improving on last year’s 3rd place ICCA finish. They started “Sail” by AWOLNATION quietly, in a tightly bunched formation. At the beginning of the first verse, they exploded out of this set creating a very cool sonic and visual effect. Although this move was a powerful way to open up their set, they didn’t leave themselves much room to grow dynamically. I initially thought that this would be a big deal, but these guys included several features which made me completely forget that they were entirely too loud. After a killer guitar solo and a dubstep/scratch/ dance party breakdown section, the crowd seemed to be getting into the set. Their second number was Xtina’s “Hurt.” It was probably good, but I didn’t notice—after their opener, the most coherent note I was able to take was an absent-minded squiggly line. Luckily, I was able to snap to by the time they started in on their mash-up of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” and Beyonce’s “Naughty Girl” (they changed it to “Naughty Boy,” but…). The guitar soloist from their first song took the lead on this one and absolutely ripped it, camping out in falsetto. The group provided strong support to close out a set that these guys will likely get to perform before a home crowd in Nashville next month.
If I had just two words to describe the set from Total Harmony In Sync (T.H.I.S.), they would be “energy” and “holy-crap-vocal-percussion!” At the risk of killing any suspense, I’m just going to come right out and say this: every song was taken up tempo (read: too fast), but had AMAZING VP. This co-ed group from Mississippi Valley State University (wearing Athens-approved red and black) charged onto the stage and it seemed like they didn’t stop for 12 minutes. They led off with a mash-up of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and “Beat It” by MJ which featured a nicely-written section towards the end that allowed their two leads to really wail. The only thing I remember about U2’s “With or Without You” is being completely enthralled by the VP. When he set the mic on a stand at the front of the stage for the beginning of OneRepublic’s “Apologize,” I was expecting even bigger things. I was not disappointed. He incorporated a clapping routine into the song on top of his VP! The soloist did an excellent job here—the fact that he managed to draw my attention away from the VP should speak volumes to that end. The group closed out with a fun rendition of Beyonce’s “End of Time.” After the show, Google told me that this guy’s stage name is “Doc Beatbox”—certainly a well-deserved moniker.
The first singers to hit the stage after intermission were the lavender-clad ladies of Key Harmony from the University of Central Florida. Their opening number, “Good Girl” by Chrisette Michele, suffered from an overall lack of energy. This picked up a little bit when they hit Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools,” which was anchored by solid VP and a soloist who channeled her inner “Queen of Soul.” I was excited to hear the opening from Britney’s “Toxic” get off to a slow, sultry start. I thought that their take on this song had a lot of potential, but they never really took it anywhere. They pulled together a powerful choral section at the end of “Mad World” by Gary Jules and had some fun with a VP throw down during Usher’s “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love.” Overall, I think a five song set was a little too ambitious. Most of these numbers had some good potential, but came off a little bit rushed and underdeveloped.
The excitement in the crowd was palpable as the hometown Accidentals took the stage. Sporting red or black hoodies, they opened up with Justin Bieber’s “Never Say Never.” Their rap section got a little shout-y, but great choreography and strong VP made this a catchy opening number. The choreo throughout this set was done well. Though I don’t remember any individual moves, the overall effect was powerful. Each move seemed to complement the music without feeling forced. Their next song, the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Bridge over Troubled Water” absolutely blew me away. It started off very sparse and airy. Crisp cutoffs let echoes bounce around the hall. Verse two brought a tempo change and an increase in complexity. Same with the third verse. This was an arranging tour de force. The solo was exceptional, but with this arrangement, I might have been able to make it sound good. Their third song was Parachute’s “Something to Believe In.” The only note I took here was “damn.” Danny Delgado destroyed this solo and the group used the home-field advantage, getting the crowd into the song. This was an incredible set. I’m going to leave it at that.
The final competition set for the night came from the co-ed Gemini Blvd. from the University of Central Florida. The group took the stage in black and gold and the ladies had patterns painted over one eye. A quick debate ensued between myself and the timekeeper over whether this was a la Ke$ha or Lady Gaga. Said debate was settled when they hit the opening notes of “Stephen,” which happens to be my favorite Ke$ha song. Yes, I have a favorite Ke$ha song—what of it? Musically, this set all right, but it was a lot of fun to watch. The opener morphed into a medley of “Stephen/Tik Tok/Blow.” One of the leads during this song shook her hair and it started to rain glitter. Love it. The lead guy on “Hungover” really brought out some feeling from the song. There were some great VP transitions between sections in their closer “Animal.” They brought this song to a close with a strong final chorus. I don’t see these moving on to Nashville, but they provided a pleasant wrap up to competition tonight.
Now I get to make some predictions! Choreography: Honorable mention goes to the JMU BluesTones. They took advantage of the whole stage and used choreography to bring emphasis to their set. I’ve got to give the gold to the UGA Accidentals. Their choreography added a lot to the music and seemed absolutely effortless. Best Arrangement: Honorable mention to Key Harmony for “Mad World.” I really liked that choral section that they did in this song. Hands down though, the award for this one needs to go to the Accidentals’ Stephen Hutchings for “Bridge over Troubled Water.” The build-up throughout this song was absolutely phenomenal. Vocal Percussion: Schafer Gray always holds things down for the Accidentals. Alas, he only earns honorable mention tonight. Top honors have got to go to “Doc Beatbox” from T.H.I.S. Best Solo: Andrew Moon really did a wonderful job on “Bridge over Troubled Water” for the Accidentals, but I think that I’m going to give the nod to the soloist from the Melodores for his work on “Sexyback/Naughty Boy.” The big question of the night is obviously ‘who’s going to Nashville?’ I’m going to say that the Accidentals took this one by a landslide. I think the battle for second place is going to be tight though. In the end, the Melodores edge out the BluesTones and keep singing in the Music City next month.
While waiting for the awards to be announced, we’re treated to a performance form UGA Noteworthy. Though everyone was eager to hear the awards announced, this 10-song set passed the time well. They broke out some NW classics like “I Want You Back” and “Let it Be” as well as some new stuff, mainly the Erato cover of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend.” If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out:
Yes, they sat down on stage and did the cup routine. Yes, it was that cool. I’m still trying to determine my favorite moment from this set. I’ve got it narrowed down to two choices though: the materialization of a fuchsia fedora from backstage during Courtney Purvis’ lead on the Frankie Valli’s ”Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” or Laura Lowery’s light-up white shutter shades during Police classic “Every Breath You Take.” Whichever it was, it felt like Noteworthy had just taken the stage when the judges emerged to announce the results.
Choreography was the first award handed out. In an announcement that did not bode well for my predictions, the Melodores took this award. Personal vindication came as Stephen Hutchings grabbed the top spot for Best Arrangement for his work on “Bridge over Troubled Water.” This song took another award as The Accidentals’ Andrew Moon took home Best Solo. And in a move that should have surprised approximately no one, Doc Beatbox from T.H.I.S. Acappella got the nod as the top Vocal Percussionist. Overall, the award for third place went to the ladies of the JMU BluesTones. They put on a good set but unfortunately will not be making the journey to Nashville. Second place was taken by the Vanderbilt Melodores, who get to sing next month in front of a supportive Nashville crowd. And the first place award for tonight’s competition goes to the UGA Accidentals. At this point, the crowd is absolutely beside itself. They just saw their hometown boys move on to win the Athens ICCA quarterfinal.
As the winners, The Accidentals got to sing an encore and closed with an emotional Danny Delgado belting out Stevie Wonder’s ”Signed, Sealed, Delivered” to a crowd that was on their feet through the whole song. This was an incredible end to a night full of high-energy performances featuring some of the finest singers from across the Southeast. The Accidentals and Melodores move on to face the other quarterfinals champions/runners-up in Nashville next month to try to grab one of two open spots in the finals in New York City. I only hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed getting to see this concert. See you in Nashville!