On Saturday, February 18th, UC Berkeley hosted the ICCA West Quarterfinals. Nine groups competed:
UC Santa Cruz - Acquire
UC Davis - Afterglow
UC Santa Cruz - Cloud 9
UC Berkeley - DeCadence
UC Berkeley - Dil Se
UC Davis - Liquid Hotplates
Stanford - Mixed Company
UCLA - Scattertones
University of Colorado, Denver - UCD6
Hosts: UC Berkeley Men's Octet and The Golden Overtones
Unfortunately I missed the first three groups--last year's quarterfinal 2nd placers, UCD6 from Denver; UC Davis's all-men's barbershop group The Afterglow; and the Liquid Hotplates, also from Davis. I arrived in the middle of Decadence's set and wasn't quite sure who I was watching at first.
On the several occasions I've seen DeCadence perform, they've been decked out in crazy blue and yellow glittery capes. These are the pottymouths who gained notoriety for their Ben Folds-inspired "Bitches Ain't Shit"; the very same group who sang the Mortal Kombat theme song to two dudes sparring in Central Park. The group onstage at ICCAs was a completely different crew--and for the better. The choreo was crisp and flawlessly executed. The emotional focus on each singer's face and in each voice was palpable. And the sound was just unbelievable. Seventeen members is already bordering on big for a collegiate group, but it really sounded like thirty or more voices onstage. I recognized "Drumming Song" as a Florence and the Machine song not because I'd seen it on a track listing, but because the soloist's voice was just dead on for Florence. This is a powerful song with a lot of repetition that doesn't necessarily translate well to live performance, but DeCadence pulled it off amazingly well. They brought that power and made each repetition a build-up, not an echo.
I was really looking forward to seeing The Scattertones. I've been fans of theirs for a long time, ever since I YouTubed their impeccable '08 ICCA performance of "Always Be My Baby." I knew they had the vocal power, experience, and professionalism to aim for a Top 3 spot at these quarterfinals--I just didn't realize how much talent they had until they came onstage in their trademark hot pink on black. They opened with Jarle Bernhoft's "C'mon Talk," a smooth and soulful tune that I could have mistaken for John Legend. Immediately, they seemed very natural and comfortable on stage, especially the confident soloist. They had a mic for their bass, which was very effective here.
Next was a slower song that the audience didn't seem to recognize at first. It was kind of choral and kind of R&B, like a K-Ci & Jo Jo song. The mic'd bass that lent itself so well to "C'mon Talk" was a little overwhelming here, and some of the higher parts were getting drowned out. But I think everyone got over that when we all collectively realized that it was "No Woman, No Cry"--possibly the most moving arrangement of the night. The "everything's gonna be all right" breakdown in the middle was weep-worthy, and the super-tenor carried the solo effortlessly all the way through. The layering of voices and patterns throughout the song made it an easy contender for Best Arrangement.
They wrapped up the set with Beyonce's "End of Time," a feat of female vocal power that was knock-your-socks-off amazing. They started with a gradual buildup of one girl's voice on top of another, similar to Delilah's "Whataya Want From Me" from this season's Sing-Off. Every girl had the potential to be a fantastic soloist, but they divided up the solo duties rather than assigning them to just one. The harmonies were so solid, the rotation between different girls for solo was quite smooth, the tempo variations were flawlessly carried out, and they made it look so easy. What was really astonishing about the Scattertones was that they had the experienced ease of a professional a cappella group, not a college group in their very early 20's. I had to remind myself that these singers were as old as my kid brother - but it was hard to wrap my head around, with a performance like that.
After intermission came Mixed Company, a co-ed group from Stanford. I wasn't too impressed by these guys. Their opener was Lady Gaga's "Edge of Glory," a high-energy song that takes a lot of commitment and a killer arrangement to translate to stage. Mixed Company's performance just didn't cut it. Their soloist had the potential to be great--she could really belt those high notes--but everything was a little pitchy. And everyone just seemed a little too happy; to me, this song is about being in love and driving with the top down at 4 in the morning with fire in your lungs... not about cute smiles and odd, rhythmic posing in place of choreography. They could have also trimmed the arrangement; the chorus repeated about three or four times at the end, and it started to get tiring.
Gavin Degraw's "Not Over You" was next. Unfortunately this suffered from the same arrangement flaw as the first song; it was lots of "ahh" over beatbox. Nothing rhythmically or harmonically complex. The sopranos were up super high, and there wasn't anything going on in the altos or tenors to support them. Their last song, David Guetta's "Night Of Your Life," had the best sound of Mixed Company's set. The soloist had a lot of feeling, and there was a well-done breakdown in the middle, and the whole group seemed to be genuinely having fun with this one.
I felt that their set was rather one-level--there was nothing to catch my attention or make me think, no variation between energy levels or song types. And maybe I'm getting old, but I also felt that several of the girls' skirts were way too short, like make-your-Catholic-grandmother-faint short. It made the girls look uncomfortable moving from one spot to another, to say nothing of dancing or trying to get into the music. It was distracting and unprofessional.
Up next was Cloud 9 in purple and black (dresses for the ladies; shirts, slacks, and bright purple suspenders for the dudes). They opened with "Hollywood," an upbeat song that I knew had to be Michael Buble because the soloist Jordan's voice is just that smooth and effortless. It was a great arrangement, with lots of vocal levels providing depth, and very nicely done coupled-up choreography--but performed a little too fast for my taste.
They followed with "What A Wonderful World," a performance that didn't thrill me. I would have liked to see some kind of emotional centerpoint, because at times it felt like they were singing the National Anthem. Nevertheless, the sound was solid and together, and it was an innovative arrangement. There was a lot of deep bass and alto in the opening, and the song benefited from keeping the bass mic'd.
But that closer! Oh man! "We Are Young" by Fun. suited these guys incredibly well. They split the solo between a guy and a girl, and the girl's voice had this wonderful indie lilt that made the overall sound perfect. The harmonies between the two soloists were flawless, and the feeling of unity from the group suited this youthful anthem very well. The three-part girls' harmony near the end was very crisp.
I had never seen Berkeley's own Dil Se perform before, and I was a little curious as to how a group that primarily sings Hindi film music would fit into tonight's competition. Answer: they kicked ass.
It was so nice to see a group doing something entirely different from any other group that night, or really any other group I'd seen at ICCAs. It takes a lot of balls and a lot of practice to sing in a different language, hence my furious scribbling in my notebook - "How is it that most groups have trouble matching their vocals in English, and these guys do it perfectly in English and Hindi?! No fair!" Despite the fact that 98% of the audience couldn't understand a word from their songs, the emotion conveyed through their performance reached us loud and clear. The opening song, "Naina Thag Lenge," had a great, deep sound and some killer minor chords. There was a dubstep breakdown near the end that I'm sure wasn't in the original song, but it fit surprisingly well and got a laugh out of the audience. Their soloist Rochit had an effortless ability to do melismas at the top of his range.
I thought at first that their second song was OneRepublic's "Good Life," and then they started singing "Adhoore" in Hindi and I thought I was wrong... then it was OneRepublic on top of "Adhoore" and I realized it was a very clever, very well-done mashup! It was really something to hear familiar lyrics sung against the Hindi song's melody; both songs had an upbeat vibe and were quite well suited to being sung together. I'm not ashamed to say that I preferred their mashup over the original OneRepublic song.
Their third song was Leona Lewis's "I See You" from the Avatar soundtrack. There was lots of feeling here in the singers' faces and body language, and choreography fit the somber but driving feel of the song. Their performance seemed extremely well-rehearsed but full of energy and motivation. I was a little surprised when they started on a fourth song, "Beedi Jalaile." I started biting my nails when I saw the ICCA official in the front row raise the one-minute warning sign; if a group goes over the twelve-minute mark, they get demoted one place ranking, and I knew that Dil Se were top three material. But they finished in the next thirty seconds or so in a confident pose with the soloist on two guys' shoulders, and the audience cheered wildly.
The final singers were my own alum group, Acquire. I got to attend to one of their rehearsals about two weeks ago, and at that practice they were missing several female members and hadn't quite gotten down the choreography yet. I was a little worried about how they would pull everything together.
They opened with Beyonce's "Best Thing I Never Had," with the group facing the audience and the soloist Dipika with her back to us. When she did turn around after the opening lines, she had a pair of aviator sunglasses that were quickly removed--a fun little mood boost at the beginning of the song. I realized with a jolt that they had gone way, way sharp from the notes Caitlin had given at the start, but Dipika and everyone else moved together, which was a relief. The arrangement was amazing, but the performance was too fast and too sharp to have really sounded on the mark. The beatbox was also a little too loud, making it hard to hear the background vocals. Next was "Cottonfields" by The Beach Boys. Director Mitch took this solo, which calls for a pretty wide range for a dude and a lot of energy from the background vocals. The background vocals were great here, and I love the arrangement, but the energy level never really changed throughout the song.
Their closer was The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done." Katie's solo soprano opening --I think that's a high F?--was spot-on, and everyone else joined in after the eerie high note had a chance to echo. Matt is a fantastic soloist, and at the beginning I was worried that he wasn't holding the mic close enough to his mouth, but once he started really belting, I figured he didn't need it. He had a very natural frontman attitude and played off the energy from the crowd and from his secondary soloist, Brandon. The air guitar at the breakdown wasn't cheesy, to my surprise, though the "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier" breakdown got a bit pitchy. It's hard to hit notes that low, even for the bass range, but it pulled together and the group finished off in a very powerful single line down the stage, Matt with his fist in the air in triumph.
While the judges took off to calculate scores, we got to listen to The Golden Overtones. I hadn't been too thrilled about their performances for the past year or two, but they've brought in some amazingly strong new voices and they were a pleasure to listen to. Instead of a prose recap, I'll just give you the notes I took:
* hot damn, new bass! consider it brought!
* "Beauty in the Breakdown" very well suited to all-female.
* "Material World" really great arrangement! love the little "woof"s - made audience laugh.
* heck yeah Andrews sisters-style "Rockin' Robin"!
* "When Will I Be Loved" - really dig the solo
* omfg Destiny's Child medley. very strong, so together! good thing they didn't compete, haha.
I also scribbled down my predictions for the overall placement:
2. Dil Se (Andrea's favorite)
And the judges' choices here:
Outstanding Arrangement - Taylor Fugit from Scattertones, "No Woman No Cry"
Outstanding VP - Maxwell Fisch from DeCadence, "Drumming Song"
Outstanding Choreography - Hannah Glass from DeCadence, "Drumming Song"
Outstanding Solo - Rochit Gupta from Dil Se, "Naina Thag Lenge"
3. Dil Se
The members of Decadence screamed and immediately began jumping up and down and hugging each other when their name was announced. They then took the stage for their encore performance, which was an incredible arrangement of Sam Tsui and Kurt Schneider's mashup of "Love the Way You Lie," "Dynamite," and "Teenage Dream." Congratulations, Decadence! And well done to all the groups who performed.
P.S. Several videos from the Berkeley show have been uploaded under the YouTube username ICCA2012Follower. Enjoy!