Colin Adams is a student at Duke University and a member of the co-ed a cappella group: Something Borrowed, Something Blue. This is his first review for The A Cappella Blog.
The event took place in Duke’s Page Auditorium, the campus’s main performance venue. While nicely sized, holding just over 1,200 people, the acoustics in the space are less than ideal, especially for those seated in the back of the orchestra seating. Being a Duke student myself, and knowing this from attending past performances, I found a seat toward the front to avoid as much room coloration as possible.
Duke’s own Out of the Blue opened the evening with a nice jazzy take on Jessie J’s “Mama Knows Best.” The soloist for this opening number hit it out of the park, and was backed up by great energy from the rest of the group. The arrangement used colorful notes to keep the jazz flavor from the original, and was a great opener to the set. This was followed by “Tell Me ‘Bout It” by Joss Stone, featuring another strong soloist, and a clever integration of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” toward the end. For me, however, the highlight of the group’s set was their closing number, “Nude” by Radiohead. The choreography for this song was very effective and appropriate—a slow sway that began with the soloist, and slowly progressed toward stage right, until the entire group, initially motionless, was all swaying together. The emotional focus and intensity delivered by the soloist, Monica Villar, was spectacular—both vocally and visually from her stage presence. Overall, the group delivered a very strong performance, especially for this being their first ever performance at a live competition. Transitions between the songs were smooth, and each member was very engaged from beginning to end, never losing focus, which made for a compelling performance.
Next up were the Maryland Loyola College Belles, another all-female group. Issues common to all-female groups were unfortunately evident—especially in the first number, “Speechless” by Lady Gaga, the arrangement was noticeably top-heavy, and the percussion could have been more present, in my opinion. However, The Belles brought their A-game on their closing number, a stirring rendition of Elton John’s “Your Song,” re-arranged into a minor tonality, and slowed down considerably. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of altering the original song, but this one resonated with me. The alto soloist was well suited for this particular song, and the emotion tied to her words was well emphasized by the dynamics of the surrounding voices.
The UNCG Spartones’ outfits immediately reminded me of The Sing-Off. Their coordinating color was purple—their outfits were different shades of purple, but none was exactly the same as another. It was a nice attention to detail, which gave them some credibility before they even began singing. All three of their pieces were well arranged, in my opinion. Both bass and percussion were well balanced against the solo and background singers, and they made wise decisions in their song choices. Their set was made up of: “Whipping Post” by The Allman Brothers Band, “Breakeven” by The Script, and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. One of the standout aspects of The Spartones’ set was the excellent solo execution of “Breakeven”. The high falsetto notes in the chorus are not easy to hit, especially after the key change that their arrangement featured. However, the soloist handled them with apparent ease, showing no struggle whatsoever. Another highlight was the impassioned solo of the closer, “A Change is Gonna Come.” The boys approached the Sam Cooke song with the respect it deserves, and delivered a stirring rendition. A solid set, concluded by a very professional, orderly exit off the stage, which I at least, appreciated.
Following the Spartones were University of Maryland’s Faux Paz, easily my favorite group of the night. Obviously, they resonated with the judges as well, taking home the first place position. This co-ed group had a beautiful blend together—it is clear they have put in the effort to function together as an ensemble, not just as a collection of individual singers. Starting off with “What I Know” by Parachute, the group captivated my attention and didn’t let go of it until they walked off stage. The vibe of the song was not what one would typically expect for an opening number, but it showcased one of Faux Paz’s many strengths—connecting with the audience. This trend continued with their second, more energetic number, “Son of a Gun” by Oh Land. The arrangement was decorated with synth-like sounds, creating a surprisingly accurate representation of the original track. Their choreography was very clean, and obviously well-rehearsed, not only for this song, but for all three in their set. The mechanical movements for “Son of a Gun” were reminiscent of some of Lady Gaga’s choreography, but fit the song well. This eclectic choreography along with a dynamic soloist created a unique haunting feeling throughout the song. More impressive than the group’s choreography or soloists was it’s collective engagement in each song. After the group’s closing number, a clever and beautifully executed combination of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” with Christina Perri’s “The Lonely,” it was clear to me that the members weren’t simply being somber for sad songs and joyful for happy songs; Rather, the group as a whole seemed to internalize each song’s emotion, such that their facial expressions, stage presence, and even elements of individual vocal expression were simply an overflow of how the song emotionally affected each of them. The result was a powerful vocal group that did more than just sing—they fully and beautifully expressed themselves through the medium of song—it was this that held my attention, and made for one of the most fabulous performances—a cappella or otherwise—I’ve ever seen.
North Carolina State Wolfgang closed the first act. This group was relatively small for a collegiate group, having only 10 members, but they still held up well against the larger groups. Blondie’s “Call Me” began Wolfgang’s set, the soloist exuding a confident rockstar presence. A nice raspy male lead took the next song, Pendulum’s “Propane Nightmares.” However, as with Out of the Blue, Wolfgang’s closing number was my favorite: Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ familiar “Zoot Suit Riot.” The soloist had a smooth voice that lent itself beautifully to the style of the song, and both the background and percussionist kept up a jazzy groove that carried the song beautifully. The arrangement was both ambitious and effective—incorporating some of the scat syllables from the original, and even including the call and response in the song’s breakdown section. The inclusion of a swing dance couple mid-song was the icing on the cake of a great set.
After a brief intermission, The UNCG Sapphires took the stage. Having heard their performance at SoJam 2011 win “fan-favorite”, I was expecting great things from the Sapphires—and of course, they delivered. Starting off with a bang, the Sapphires hit the ground running with Adele’s chart-topper, “Rolling in the Deep.” Although shameless overplay on Top 40 has made the song almost too familiar to me, the Sapphires’ cover thankfully kept the song fresh and entertaining, with an excellent, soulful soloist and just as soulful of a supporting arrangement to back her up. Even through the arrangement’s two energetic and propelling modulations, the group and soloist stayed locked together in both pitch and rhythm- a feat not easily achieved in a live competition setting. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could count on a shop teacher’s hand the number of times I heard a note out of place during Sapphire’s set. Their pitch and rhythm accuracy were consistently near CD quality to my ear, which earns quite a few points in my book. Another major point-winner for The Sapphires was their rhythm section. As I mentioned before, drums and bass are well-known in the a cappella world to be common points of struggle for all-female groups, but The Sapphires held down both aspects perfectly—each song had a good tonal balance, and my ear was not missing anything. Unfortunately, the Sapphire’s second song, “The Lonely” by Christina Perri, was covered earlier in the competition by Faux Paz. Notable strengths for this piece were The Sapphires’ stage presence and engaging soloist. Closing their set was the piece that likely earned them their fan-favorite title at SoJam—“Bird and the Worm” by The Used, an alternative rock band. (Not to be confused with Owl City’s somewhat more whimsical song of the same name). I’ve never heard a song like this attempted by an a cappella group before, and my hat is off to the ambition of the Sapphires for attempting it. Experimenting and trying new things is a worthy pursuit in music, and this one definitely paid off for the Sapphires. The original “Bird and the Worm” is a very dense arrangement, filled with crashing cymbals, heavily distorted guitars, and tonally dark backing vocals. Though not an easy task, the Sapphires effectively bring these elements into their a cappella version, making use of their strong low altos to give a nice low end, and giving beautifully piercing high parts to sopranos. The multiple percussion parts that were sprinkled throughout the arrangement also impressed me--breathing, cymbals, and other percussive elements were performed by multiple members at once, which, when combined with the rest of the arrangement, provided a lush texture above which the passionate solo could soar. There’s a very good reason this song won best arrangement. Add to that some truly eerie choreography, and you’ve got a fascinatingly chilling performance.
University of South Carolina’s Sound Check came next. The group was introduced by emcee Dave Baumgartner as “not just an a cappella group, but a bro-hood”. Sound Check’s first song was “Baby, Please Don’t Go” by Duke alum Mike Posner. The song choice and the guys’ NSYNC-esque choreography confirmed their boy-band style. The soloist for this opener had good energy, throwing in an impressive falsetto run mid-song. The group followed up this energy with the more reflective “Only Exception” by Paramore. Sound Check’s closer, OneRepublic’s “Say (All I Need),” was an adequate performance vocally, however the group’s visible commitment to the message of the song was rather lackluster. Lack of choreography or any type of staging for both this and “Only Exception” was, in my opinion, not the best decision for a competition set.
Closing out the night was the second NC State group, Acappology. Also a competitor in 2011’s SoJam, Acappology’s return to Duke for the ICCAs was just as energetic. Their set contained: Bleed Carolina’s “Blackout,” “Paris” by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and “Warzone” by The Wanted. I thoroughly enjoyed all three of these songs, and find it hard to pick one that I liked more than another. I find it interesting that all three songs have one-word titles. Whether this was intentional or coincidental, I am unsure. As expected, Acappology’s choreography on all three songs was strong and entertaining. Although beat out by Faux Paz for the choreography award, Acappology would be a very close runner up in my book. Their first number, “Blackout” was bold yet successful. I later found out from Liquid 5th’s Carl Taylor, who manned the soundboard that night, that what I initially thought was an octave pedal was in reality just an epic bass, Joseph Brown, employing some incredibly precise lip buzzing. It was this full low end that gave the song an extra oomph and kept a nice pulse going. The group kept the excellence coming with “Paris”, showcasing a great female soloist with an impressive belt range. Through the “oo la la” and “ged in”-laden chorus, the group’s leaning choreography accented the groove of the song, and the fluidity of the higher background parts. Their movements were crisp, precise, and effective. The final piece, “Warzone”, was what earned Acappology the runner-up spot in my book. The vocal percussion in this last piece incorporated some clever delay effects, giving a studio-like feel, and the three-part solo, although slightly pitchy at times, was a ultimately a good choice to showcase the group’s versatility.
My personal choices for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place, as well as all four individual awards, (which I made before the final decisions were made) matched the judges’ decisions.
The results are below.
1. Faux Paz
3. The Sapphires
Outstanding Choreography: Faux Paz
Outstanding Arrangement: Gerand Jordan from The Sapphires for “Bird and the Worm”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Mike Lenzo of Faux Paz for “The Lonely”
Outstanding Solo: Carolina Gallagher from Acappology for “Paris”