Robert O’Brien is a proud Nashville resident, an avid a cappella fan, and a former ICCA Finals competitor as the president of the Belmont University Beltones.
On Saturday, March 15, Vanderbilt University hosted the ICCA South semifinal in Nashville, Tennessee.
Rhythm and Blue – Duke University
The Beltones – Belmont University
No Southern Accent – Florida University
Grains of Time – North Carolina State University
All-Night Yahtzee – Florida State University
Faux Paz – University of Maryland
The Melodores – Vanderbilt University
Acaphiliacs A Cappella – Florida State University
The Accidentals – University of Georgia
Vocal Point – University of Delaware
Guest Performer: University of Kentucky AcoUstiKats
The Acoustikats, famous from last year’s season of The Sing-Off, opened the night with a fun and energetic rendition of “Blurred Lines.” They definitely looked like a group that was used to performing at big shows. ICCA South Producer Lindsay Howerton-Hastings then introduced the evening by explaining the ICCA process, the rules for the night’s competition, and the order of the show, receiving a HUGE cheer for the hometown Melodores. The emcees Kristen and John came on and introduced what was already gearing up to be a very electric night of a cappella!
First up was Duke University’s Rhythm and Blue, a co-ed group, sporting their sharpest black and blue duds. They opened their set with a wonderfully soulful rendition of James Morrison’s “Up.” Good tenor solo with an alto coming in to take the second verse, turning the rest of the song into a duet. The choreography in this song was very effective. They kept it fairly simple, complementing the music nicely, like when they raised their hands slowly until throwing them down on the line “all falls down.” The soloists used the entire front of the stage before ending together hidden in the middle of the tightly bunched group. Nice opener.
An awkwardly long transition gave way to “Skyfall” by Adele. The still bunched group began rotating until they were in an arch behind a new female vocalist, which was a really cool visual moment in the set. Having heard a lot of a cappella groups do this song, I was waiting for the moment that set this arrangement apart, and I wasn’t disappointed in the bridge. Creative use of unison, spreading to some tight cluster chords, building up to a big drop out and then a key change. The end of the song featured the soloist going behind the group to have them lift her up onto their shoulders! A special shout out to the excellent female VP on this song.
The group then completely repositioned before their final song, “Princess of China” by Coldplay. For whatever it’s worth, my one recommendation for this group would be to shorten and smooth out their transitions, which I felt took from the energetic arc of an otherwise good set. That being said, Rhythm and Blue definitely brought the energy for this one. The background voices had many of the same soulful and spiritual tones of their opener—a symmetry that I really appreciated. They also featured a male/female duet playing back and forth, just as they did in the first. Lots of energy at the end of the song as the group came to a shoulder-to-shoulder line at the front of the stage, singing the last line in a strong unison.
Up next was the Nashvillian co-ed group, the Belmont University Beltones, wearing various and bold combinations of black and white. I was expecting big things from this group, as they were last year’s ICCA Wild Card round winners. They started off with a slow intro to Laura Mvula’s “Green Garden,” before picking up the pace with the VP, the bass, and the female lead stepping out in front of the group mics as the rest of the group turned their backs. A small group then gathered around the group mics to sing a looped, tight chord progression. Good energy throughout the song. Really slick arranging here.
The second song was “Cameo Lover” by Kimbra and featured a new female lead. This song saw the group using more of the stage and the female and male members playing back and forth. Lighter and jazzier than the first, it offered a nice contrast in style. The last half of the song featured some strong, high harmonies accompanying the soloist. They ended silently in a bunch as a male soloist stepped out.
“Gone” by Lianne La Havas was the third song—a slow power ballad. The male lead (who had an excellent, cool, jazzy voice) was soon joined by a female lead and the song became a duet. Great middle song with strong emotional energy. Nicely done.
From there, they effortlessly transitioned into “Unconditionally” by Katy Perry, with the group on the far right side of the stage, and the male soloist in the middle. The group brought back a lot of elements from their previous songs, injecting lyrics and melodies from those songs into the background voices, which gave the set a wonderful cohesion. I thought the choruses here could have used a bigger sound—they seemed slightly busy and empty when the soloist wasn’t belting. That said, the group came together at the end for a huge last chord that did have the energy I was looking for. Great set.
Next up, No Southern Accent. The men in this mixed group from Florida University were in t-shirts, blazers, and jeans, while the women were in variously colored dresses. A male soloist began OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars,” with the group silently doing choreo behind—a very cool effect! A female lead joined to make it a duet. I loved the strong, powerful, confident choreography and the excellent energy the group brought to this song. Great opener!
A seamless transition led to “Addicted to You” by Avicii. The group split into two groups with the guys and girls on separate sides of the stage, playing off of each other back and forth. Nice, soulful solo work here from the female soloist.
The group then went straight into Justin Timberlake’s “Drink You Away.” Great choice to have the whole group singing the harmonies. It made for a very fun, energetic song—especially when the bass and beat dropped out in the second chorus and they got the whole audience clapping along with them on the beat. The song ended with the soloist holding his last dance move without the mic to one side, which the next soloist slowly walked up to grab out of his hand. Really neat transition, allowing the mood to drop slowly without altogether losing the energy .
The new soloist began the last song, “Say Something” by A Great Big World (and Christina Aguilera). He was, of course, quickly joined by a female lead to make it a duet. Nice, simple “ooo” in the background, creating an emotional backdrop for the nearly whispered solos at the beginning—a nice contrast in the set. The group moved to two clusters on opposite sides of the stage while the soloists crouched down in the middle of the stage, which complemented the lyrics and tone of the song nicely. On par with the rest of the performance, this one had a lot of energy, this time being much more emotional. Big last chorus before the group dropped out to let the duet whisper the last line. I felt that this song would have better served the set as a middle song, but they brought such intense energy to it that it still made for a good close to a good set.
Fourth on the set list was North Carolina State’s all-male group Grains of Time. Three of the guys came out looking sharp in khakis, blue blazers, white shirts, and red ties and gathered around the center mic, singing a slow, choral rendition of Katy Perry’s “E.T.” The rest of the group came in from off stage in slow motion before dropping the beat for “Dark Horse,” also by Katy Perry. GREAT, energetic, sharp choreography from these guys—really hamming it up in the best way. I have come to expect that kind of energy from all-male groups, but these guys took it to the next level. They went back and forth between the two songs, eventually mashing them up for the last chorus.
Their second song was the American folk song “Wayfaring Stranger,” influenced I think by Ed Sheeran’s rendition. This song was much more relaxed on the choreographic front, with the group forming a large arch for most of it. A dark, haunting, almost spiritual sound on this one, though it did get a little pitchy at times. They busted it loose on the bridge, with some excellent dance moves from the soloist.
Grains of Time began their third and final song with one member coming out in front of the group and directing them in a march like a drill sergeant (complete with “Sir! Yes, sir!” responses from the group). They made a good transition from there straight into “My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark (Light ‘Em Up)” by Fall Out Boy. More hamming it up here with even more energy. The bridge brought back the march calls and built up to a big drop out. They broke into what I can honestly say was the best step routine I’ve ever seen in a cappella. Some members slid under other members, jumping around and changing positions with each other, all while clapping and stomping to the beat. They finished the song in a resounding unison that sounded (understandably) out of breath. Very, very entertaining set from the guys from NC State.
Up next, All-Night Yahtzee. The mixed group from Florida State was looking good in red and black. Yahtzee has an impressive pedigree, having been to the South semi-final 4 out of the last 5 years, so I knew they would come out strong. The first song was Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.” I loved the choreographic play between the female soloist and the rest of the group. I also really appreciated that the arrangement had enough unique elements to set it apart from the many other arrangements of this song I’ve heard.
The second chorus suddenly transitioned into a cool drone with a chilling, sitar-esque descant from one of the female members. The song was “Loosen Up My Buttons” by The Pussycat Dolls, which featured the ladies of the group showing off their best sultry dance moves. Smooth transition from that to Beyonce’s “Déjà vu,” featuring the first male soloist of the set. This one, in contrast to “Loosen Up My Buttons,” had two of the guys in the group in the middle of the formation doing their best Beyonce dance impressions.
Yet another sudden and seamless song transition, this time with three male members doing a nice choral intro to Justin Timberlake’s “Amnesia.” Yahtzee had some great blending in the background voices here. Like the rest of the songs in the set so far, this arrangement had a lot cut out of the original song. I would have loved to hear more of this one, but it seemed this group was less focused on performing individual songs and more focused on performing a through-composed set. It made it a little difficult for me to get into any one of their songs when some of my favorite parts were missing. Still, good vocal energy in this song.
The group’s last song—effortlessly transitioned to, yet again—was “What Now” by Rihanna. Two female soloists traded the mic back and forth throughout the song. I especially liked the first chorus in which the group was quietly singing “ooo” and reaching out with their hands in slow motion behind the soft but beautiful solo. Great choreo in this song, accentuating the lyrics nicely. The key change late in the song was very well executed, though I did feel it was a little gratuitous in such a somber song. The group ended on a great last note, putting an emphatic punctuation on their set.
Sixth on the docket was University of Maryland’s Faux Paz (the Z is not silent). Rocking the all black threads, they started their set with a very choral introduction into “Rolling In the Deep” by Adele. Splendid male solo—especially in the last chorus where the group dropped out and he did a high run, tightly accompanied by the BGV. Absolutely stellar job mixing up this arrangement, adding claps and completely changing the chords on the second verse to give it a chilling, dark, choral sound. Great intensity brought by the group on a great opener.
Up next, “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver. I was immediately taken in by the cool, sweet female soloist voice, unaccompanied at first and then supported by soft background harmonies. The beatbox finally came in at the second verse, building up the energy of the song until the bridge where the group gave a big, clustered chord and then came together in a nearly whispered unison. Big last chorus before a soft outro. Nice, powerful, intricate chords here, and a great energetic arc throughout the whole song.
Third: “Hercules” by Sara Bareilles. Great harmonies from the male voices in the group to back up the female solo. The choreo in this one featured a lot of marching, which seemed out of place juxtaposed against the intricate beatboxing (which was very solid). I would have loved to have heard more of this song. I felt that they ended the arrangement right as I was starting to get into it.
An abrupt transition led to Ellie Goulding’s “Figure 8.” I loved the soloist on this song. The song started with her hidden in the middle of the tightly bunched group before they dropped down to reveal her as she stepped out. Great effect. They really brought the energy in this song, building up to a big last note where the group turned to the back of the stage and left the soloist to sing the last line unaccompanied. Great set!
Vanderbilt University’s own Melodores brought us back from the intermission with a deafening roar provided by their loyal fans that came out to see them on their home turf. Sporting their classic black and gold, the all male group began in a tightly bunched formation with one member out in front conducting them in a short, choral introduction (which seemed to be a theme this year). A tenor soloist stepped out from the group and began Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.” Great solo work here on an ambitious song. The Melodores brought their usual high-energy, confident choreography and had some colorful jazzy chords accompanying the solo. Halfway through the song, they switched into Chris Brown’s “Fine China,” keeping the same soloist. Lots of energy here and a great bass line.
A brief silence gave way to “Colder Weather” by the Zac Brown band. The soloist began by himself but was soon accompanied by some soft, warm harmonies and then the bass. The group elected to keep the choreo subtler on this one—a choice I thought appropriate to the mood of the song. The ‘Dores had a great vocal energy in this song, providing the audience with moments of cutting, belted 3-part harmonies, and more moments of the soloist singing softly without accompaniment. Good second song.
For the Melodores’ finale, they brought a very energetic Backstreet Boys medley/mash-up. They started with “Larger Than Life,” transitioned to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” briefly forayed into “I Want It That Way,” and went then went back into a mash-up of the first two songs. They really used the home crowd to their advantage here, getting the entire auditorium to clap along with them in the last chorus before building up and dropping out to let the soloist run by himself for the last note. Having seen the Melodores win their quarterfinal in Knoxville a month ago, I felt that this performance lacked some of the energy I’ve seen them bring in the past—energy being the bread and butter of this group. Nonetheless, still a quality set from a very talented group.
Next up, the mixed group from Florida State University, The Acaphiliacs. Dressed in purple, the group began their set with “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” by Panic! At The Disco. The group had some really cool moving, percussive parts in the arrangement to model the pizzicato of the strings in the original song. It felt a little rushed, which caused the solo and the group to get off from each other a couple of times. Just a verse and a chorus before transitioning to a verse of “Hurricane,” also by Panic! At the Disco that featured a good, though short solo from one of the male members. Nice dark feel from the group on these songs.
Their second song was “The Wire” by Haim. This arrangement was much more light-hearted, and the choreography reflected that change in mood. Lovely solo work from the female soloist here, complemented frequently by 3 part harmonies out of the other female voices in the group. Good arrangement. Brief foray into “Miss Jackson” by—you guessed it—Panic! At the Disco. In fact, unless otherwise noted, the rest of the songs in the set are by Panic! The choreo turned to a sassy/groovy feel as the group switched into the song “This is Gospel.” I liked the visual effects here, with the group tightly bunched and their hands reaching out on the lines “If you love me let me go.” Fantastic chords in the arrangement, but this one felt like it ended abruptly and awkwardly.
In a brief in media res some of the group sat down before starting “Oh My My” by Jill Barber. A very low alto started this song off before being joined by some other ladies and then the male soloist in front of them. Solid solo here, with the song picking back up on the dark feel of the first few songs. Big key change before a huge last chord, then a slow, choral transition to an excerpt of “The End of All Things” (back to the Panic! songs). Nice, dark, emotional duet work from two of the members. Sudden transition to “Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met…).” The arrangement started with cool, witch-like, soaring soprano lines, but then quickly transitioned into a slow, march-like progression. A little nod to the opening of their first song before the male soloist finished on the last note by himself.
I felt that there was just so much going on in this set that I never knew what was happening, sort of like getting musical whiplash. It seemed as if they had a lot of ideas and tried piecing them all together into one big conglomeration instead of just taking a few and focusing intently on those. That being said, this is clearly a very talented group that will need to be looked out for in years to come.
The UGA Accidentals were the penultimate group, sporting red bowties with their tux shirts, black vests, and jeans. Most of the group started in a block formation in the middle of the stage, but when the song started, a few members ran on from off-stage, including one who cartwheeled his way on! The song was Allen Stone’s “Say So” and carried a good, light-hearted energy driven by the excellent solo. I loved the group blend here, emulating the horns in the original song nicely. The frequent use of snaps and “step-touch” choreography felt a little cheesy to me at times, but overall it was a solid opener.
A new pitch and a new song—“As Long As You Love Me” by Justin Bieber. I liked the arrangement decision by this group to keep the first chorus soft, with the soloist using his falsetto to hit the high notes. It gave the song a much better energetic arc for when they gave a bigger sound in the second chorus. The bridge introduced a mash-up line from the chorus of Backstreet Boys’ “As Long As You Love Me,” which they kept going for the remainder of the song. Big last chorus, going into half time with more snapping.
Another pitch introduced “Mayday” by the Icarus Account. The group was in a tightly bunched arch, beginning the song with some beautiful, quiet chords. Cool choreographic moment in the second verse when some of the members squatted down and then stood up slowly as the verse gained energy. The rest of the choreo was pretty minimal, but the real showcase of this song was the tight chords in the background voices. Excellently done to give the song a great drive, building it up to the last chorus, which featured soaring tenor harmonies over the belted solo. They carried a good emotional arc in this song, though it might have been better suited as the second song in the set. That being said, still a solid set from a group that has certainly earned the status of mainstay in the ICCA South.
Last up for the night was the University of Delaware’s Vocal Point. Rocking all black with the guys in gold ties, the group began their set with a haunting introduction into their first song, “I Had Me A Girl” by the Civil Wars. The lead vocals in this song had me reeled in from the beginning—magnificent duet work from those two. They brought every ounce of soul they had in them, occasionally exploding in both their sound and their choreo, which was clean and sharp throughout the song. I loved the choruses, which were generally quieter than the verses and more laid back, settling into a really nice groove. Great opener.
The second song was Kelly Clarkson’s “Dark Side.” A female soloist emerged from the group and sang the first verse with just two other voices harmonizing her. The group settled into an arch behind the soloist. I really liked this arrangement, quieter and more relaxed than the original version, making for a stellar second song in the set. The group had some excellent chords leading into the choruses that really helped bolster the emotional energy.
In the silence between songs, one of the men came out of the group and grabbed the mic rather forcefully, which drew some laughter in the crowd, and began their last song: “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light ‘Em Up)” by Fall Out Boy. He continued to bring that energy for the whole song, really selling the solo to the audience. They settled into a nice groove in the chorus, which I thought fit their group well. More vocal and choreographic explosions throughout this song. Cool ending where the soloist was shouting the last line as the group gathered around him, pushed him down, and finished with a nice cluster chord on the line “in the dark, dark.” Really excellent set from these guys. They brought it all. Great song selection, solos, arrangements, emotion and energy.
As the judges were deliberating, The Acoustikats came back to the stage to perform. Judging by their warm welcome, I’m guessing there were some fans of The Sing-Off in the crowd. The men started with “Wake Me Up” and then took requests for audience members’ favorite theme songs, ad libbing renditions of the themes from Doug, The Sing Off, Pokemon, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They also performed “I Want It That Way,” “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Bye Bye Bye,” and brought a female audience member on stage to serenade her with Bruno Mars’ “Marry You.” The group closed with a nice, choral version of “My Old Kentucky Home.” Great, professional performance from these guys. They sounded great and looked like they had a great time doing it.
During all of this, I was busy making my picks for the night. While I was fairly confident in the rankings I gave the groups, I had a hard time picking out the special awards. There were a lot of good, praiseworthy performances from individuals in each of the groups—as should be expected at the semi-final level, I suppose. I gave the first place spot to Vocal Point, with The Beltones taking second, and Faux Paz taking third.
Vocal Point did win, punching their ticket to the finals in New York next month. The Beltones grabbed second, setting themselves up to make a bid for their second straight Wild Card title. All Night Yahtzee took home the third place position.
Robert O’Brien’s Picks of the Night:
1. Vocal Point
2. The Beltones
3. Faux Paz
1. Grains of Time for the whole set
2. The Melodores for the whole set
3. Vocal Point for the whole set
Best Vocal Percussion:
1. Rhythm and Blue for the whole set
2. The Melodores for “P.Y.T.”
3. Faux Paz for the whole set
1. Faux Paz for “Skinny Love”
2. Vocal Point for “I Had Me a Girl”
3. The Beltones for “Gone”
1. The Beltones for the whole set
2. Fauz Paz for the whole set
3. Vocal Point for the whole set
ICCA Official Results:
1. Vocal Point
2. The Beltones
3. All Night Yahtzee
Outstanding Choreography: Grains of Time for the whole set
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Faux Paz for the whole set
Oustanding Solo: Vocal Point for “I Had Me a Girl.”
Outstanding Arrangement: All Night Yahtzee for the whole set