On Saturday, January 31, Rolling Hills Church in Tualatin, Oregon played host to an ICCA West Quarterfinal. Phots from the show are up now on the A Cappella Blog Facebook page. Before the review, here's a quick summary of the event.
Western Oregon University Suspended
Oregon State University Power Chord
Portland State University Green Note
University of Oregon On the Rocks
The Linn-Benton Community College Sirens
Western Oregon University 15 Miles West
Oregon State University Outspoken
Willamette university Headband
University of Oregon Mind the Gap
Linn-Benton Community College Blue Light Special
Guest Performer: Wilsonville High School Soul'd Out
Emcee: Courtney Jensen
Varsity Vocals Producer Courtney Jensen led off the evening with an explanation of the rules and the ICCA tournament, and proceeded to function as one of the most entertaining emcees I've seen, with antics including training the crowd on beatboxing and belting "this whipped cream's expired" to the tune of "This Girl is on Fire." Seriously. @CourtneyJensenB for #ICCA Finals emcee. Get on Twitter and go make it trend.
The first competing group was Suspended. The all-female group took the stage in black, red, and white. They opened with The Cranberries' "Zombie." Nice visual move to start in a tight cluster and spread as the recognizable music leading into the chorus keyed in. The choreography felt a little forced and borderline comedic with a lot of zombie imagery--that's fine for a campus show, but I worried that they weren't hitting the right tone for a song this severe. The group quickly segued to The Black-Ed Peas' "Where Is the Love" which sounded a little too high. Nice segue into the rap which brought some really good sass to the part--a much needed infusion of confidence and energy at this stage of the song. When groups decide to combine two songs like this, they need to think about why they fit together musically, thematically, or even visually--these two pieces felt a little detached for my tastes.
They followed up with Florence and the Machine's "Shake It Out." So many groups have used this song as a powerful closer that I had trouble wrapping my head around how they might make it work as a middle song. The group kept this one pretty mellow and even keel which was a step in the right direction creatively speaking--not really realizing the potential of the song, but generating a mood change--a valley between the peaks of their more intense opener and closer. I really liked the choice to have an un-miced backing solo join in on the last chorus, which infused an extra little kick there.
Suspended sounded as though they were keying into Susanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" but quickly re-routed to Fallout Boy's "Centuries" which I liked as a closer, though it kind of got me thinking they might revisit "Tom's Diner" later on (maybe it's me, but I hadn't recognized the similarities between the two songs previously, and kind of liked the idea of working with both). The group was at its best when it resisted the urge to choreograph and worked, instead, with whole-body movement in response to the music--less of the cutesy synched hand waves, more of the bobbing in time with the music. I did like the continued use of un-mic-ed parts getting a spotlight to add layers of depth to the song. They went for a big fall out moment in which the perc keyed the group back in. I liked the impulse to close the song (and the set) with a staged lift of the soloist, but the move itself seemed a little telegraphed and I would have liked for it to have come across as either more organic to the movement leading up to that point, or more spontaneous.
Power Chord was up next. The co-ed crew sported black and blue and led off with Greg Laswell's "Come Back Down" Really nice bass sound here. On a practical level, I thought it was a smart choice to have two soloists here--there seemed to be some nerves on stage and sharing that load was a nice functional way of dispelling that. The two soloists operated from opposite ends of the stage for most of the song leaving, the group occupied the middle with some good, measured movement and a couple really nice moments of rearrangement to keep the visual presentation interesting.
Next up, "I'm Gonna Find Another You" by John Mayer. I loved the timbre of this soloist's voice --soulful and slick, and just right for this song. Again, the low end really shone for the group on this number. Really lovely lilting female backing lead on the second chorus. While this number was a little over-choreographed for my tastes, I did like the way in which the complex movements synched up with the sound and seemed to fit the vibe of the music nicely.
The group fluidly gave way to "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas and the Papas. The ensemble sounded good here, with its fullest sound up to that point and another strong solo, but I did have to question the song selection here--songs of this vintage typically only work in competition if you're really prepared to innovate and reinvent them, and I wasn't sure The Power Chords really justified this pick.
From there, it was time for Alison Krauss's "Down to the River to Pray" which promptly gave way to Ella Henderson's "Ghost" This was exactly the sort of turn the group needed--moving from a standard to something more contemporary. The VP came into its own nicely on this one and there was solid solo work. I would have liked to have heard a little more complexity in the background otherwise. Really nice moment in which the group let the third soloist operate unaccompanied before all three teamed up at front and ripped loose. Nice finish to the set, that I felt really elevated Power Chord's standing overall in this competition.
Green Note was up next, suitably clad in black and green--sharp look with untucked shirts and matching ties. Nice off-stage high opening notes from the soloist before he took center stage and things got into motion on Matt Corby's "Brother" Nice, sharp choreo on this one with the group looking crisp and perfectly in synch. Nice high work from the soloist. This was a good, high energy opener on the whole, though it started to feel a little long to me--I might have clipped a verse from this one and kept the set moving. Nice moment in the end game with a female lead in the fore operating with the original lead to sing in unison en route to the last chorus. Cool effect when the group clustered around and buried the lead, setting them up for the second soloist to emerge from the pack.
What followed was a really interesting reinvention of Emeli Sande's "Next To Me"--both modified to feature a male soloist and slowed down from its pop origins to create an almost a hymnal sound. Really nice emotional delivery from the whole gorup and most particularly the lead. Great little creative moment when on the "hard to breathe" lyric when the group fell out altogether, and then the soloist audibly exhaled before they went on. I don't mean to belabor that specific moment, but it's a demonstration of what a group can accomplish when it listens closely and picks apart ways in which it can tap into the meaning of the song and how it can reinvent those elements in their own interest.
Cool snapping lead into Ariana Grande's "Honeymoon Avenue." The group infused a lot of co-ed choreo with male and female members pairing off for this one which was a little cheesy for my tastes, but, again, to the group's benefit, they sold the movement really nicely. Fun bit toward the end, as group members called out "hey"s from the background to add some attitude and kick to the piece. Nicely handled beatbox here.
On the Rocks were up next. The guys took the stage in white shirts, black slacks, and matching green suspenders and ties--a nice simple, uniform look that represented their school identity. They opened with "Gorilla" by Bruno Mars. There's such a slick sound from these guys and I loved that they held back on the volume and busted in with these strategic bursts of sound to hint at their power. And when the movement came into play, they exploded on it. For an all-male group with this much firepower, the temptation is to go all out from the get go and I liked that they paced themselves and used comedy to their advantage early on to give themselves a ton of room to grow and diversify down the road. All that said, I'm not positive a song like this will cut it as an opener at the semifinal level--a little too silly for the audience to take the group altogether seriously. In my mind, a group of this caliber should have its eyes on a bid for ICCA Finals and, should step it up a notch to "play at that level." All that said, it was a fine enough song for quarterfinals. Nice subversion of expectations as a backing lead joined the soloist up front and hit the high notes alongside him. All told, this was a really fun opener.
The guys followed with Zac Brown Band's "Colder Weather." Really nice warm sound on this one and another star soloist. It was definitely the right call to make things more serious at this juncture of the set and more fully demonstrate what the were capable of beyond comedy, but on pure musicality. A quartet took the lead on the second chorus--a nice way of mixing up the sound en route to the bridge when the guys upped the tempo and got the energy up a smidge. On the final chorus, the group fell out altogether to let the quartet run the show unaccompanied and prove their chops once and for all. Really lovely performance.
The guys clustered themselves into a double-half-circle at center stage to lead off their closer, "Feel Like Making Love" by Bad Company. I wasn't so sure about this song choice--I found myself waiting for a really big moment or transition to justify this pick, because I felt these guys ought to have been finishing huge. Sure enough, the choreo did key in on the chorus with the guys kicking their legs, bobbing, and letting loose with a couple air guitars. They transitioned to Queen's "Fat-Bottomed Girls." Great energy on that switch and the guys had fantastic chemistry playing off each other as they mashed the two songs together. Cutesy choral transition, then the two soloists riffed off one another, alternating between the lyrics of each song for a part of one verse. This was a little too straight-up comedy for my tastes but, you can't deny their showmanship.
The Sirens hit the stage next. Fun bit of staging to start the set as they posed to lead off Meghan Trainor's About the Bass." Unfortunately, there were some mic-ing issues for the lead up until the first chorus which cost this one some of the sass it should have had. Really nice attitude from the group and I liked the call to play this song for comedy and sex appeal. They transitioned to "Sexyback" and then "Holla Back Girl," and "Bang, Bang." I can hardly describe how much I agree with the decision to start big and hang loose to break the ice--you can't have nerves when you're belting and having fun on stage. The medley seemed to lose a little steam and ended pretty abruptly. Just the same, it was a really fun opening number.
Great patience for the group to stay still and silent after that barn burner of an opener and reset things for their second song, A Great Big World's "Say Something" Nice soft, subtle opening there, perfectly capturing the spirit of the song. The women doubled up on the lead in the chorus, which I felt communicated a sense of the communal experience of heartbreak a song like this embodies--really nicely done. Nice transition on the third verse when the women stepped out of rows and backed up the leads visibly, growing in sound and visibly showing their unity. This is an emotional song, and this was an emotionally arresting take on it.
On a really picky note, on the transition to this song, as well as the previous one, one of the group members (I assume the director) walked across the stage, with her heels clicking loudly in such a way that it seemed like it was part of the next song--and when it turned out not to be, it just seemed strangely conspicuous--almost comedic. I don't want to belabor this too much, but it's a prime example of how thinking about transitions, including where everyone is standing to end one song, and where they will stand to start the next one, is key. Fluid, if not seamless sets help preserve the audience's attention and commitment to what you're doing dramatically on the stage. All that said, The Sirens wrapped up with Sia's "Chandelier." Excellent stomp percussion that spread across the group en route to the first chorus. The Soloist stepped forward off the stage onto the steps. One of the things that I really appreciated about this one was how committed all of The Sirens looked on stage, selling the facial expressions befitting the song at each moment.Once again, the group completely, sincerely, captured the spirit of a song. I would have liked a little more complexity and precision, given the level at which the group was performing in general, but just the same, I can't knock what they managed on the whole. A fun side note: I think this group had twin sister beatboxers--I experienced a strange moment when I was trying to capture one of them on camera, only for the soloist to step into frame, so I switched to the other side of the stage, only to land on a person who looked to be exact same person. #Trippy. In any event, the group did a really nice job on this song, though, regretfully, it looked like the crowd cut off the end of the song by applauding during the false finish and continuing to applaud despite the fact that the group was pretty clearly waiting to finish--ultimately, they let it go, cut off the song and curtsied on their way off stage. It's possible I misread that moment, but if I'm right, I do feel poorly that they didn't get to end the set on their own terms.
15 Miles West was up next. The all-male group took the stage in jeans, red t-shirts, and custom jackets that they unbuttoned in perfect synch upon taking their first note for Jamiroquai's "Canned Heat." Really nice attitude on the solo there and the guys kept the movement simple and fun. Fun moment when the soloist collapsed and they transitioned to George Michael's "I'm Never Gonna Dance Again". The tempo picked up again, and the guys did a fun bit riffing off of other groups' names and calling them out with paraphernalia from their costumes, including Outspoken bow ties and On the Rocks ties. Things got a bit cheesy when they broke out sunglasses for "I Wear My Sunglasses at Night" with an undercurrent of "Sweet Dreams." Around this point, I started to feel the medley was getting too scattered for its own good, and the sound wasn't quite clean enough to really work, but I appreciated the concept of the song. It might have worked better were it a little more streamlined and re-purposed for the group's closing number.
Next up, Michael Jackson's "Lover Never Felt So Good." Nice solo here, and a very good bass sound from the background. Really nice fermata on the falsetto from the soloist. I liked the vulnerability of this number. The guys transitioned to a jazzier take on the song as it went on, and the VP was pretty killer here.
Fun, but potentially offensive spin on the sunglasses theme as a the soloist for Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" put on the shades and bobbed around like Stevie. Good sound from him, and this song overall wasn't bad, but I kept waiting for the guys to really justify the inclusion of such an over-exposed a cappella song, and Id didn't feel as though they ever quite got there on this performance.
15 Miles West finished up with Beyonce's "Crazy in Love." The song started with three guys taking off their jackets and putting on baseball caps. Full-on comedy with the high-octane Beyonce choreo up front with the guys bobbing in the background. I loved the energy and effort on this one, though I really wish the guys had innovated a little more--I have to have seen about a half dozen all male groups give more or less this exact performance by this point, and would have liked to have heard them take on something more original. Just the same, it was a crowd pleaser, and the guys earned a big reaction from the audience to close out their set nicely. finish.
Outspoken opened the second half. They led off with Stevie Wonder's "I Wish." Fun bit of air instruments going on throughout this one. The guys were missing a certain firepower I would have expected from their opener. They jazzed it up a bit, picking up the tempo and loosening up the choreo a little as this one progressed. All that said, this sort of felt like the wrong song at the wrong time to me--not quite as powerful or as energetic as I'd hope for an opener to be, and while the soloist clearly had a great voice, this song didn't sound like quite the right fit to showcase his talents. There were some fun bits of choreography as this one went on, but it almost felt as if the performance was more invested in that visual element of the performance than the sound.
The guys followed up with "Will You Marry Me" by Train. Really nice solo work here--crystal clear and captivating. I really liked the arrangement, which included plenty of moments when different parts fell out and others carried the load, creating a simple sound that was actually deceptively tricky for those transitions and creative choices. Really impressive falsetto from the soloist in the end game. Nice stripped down finish with the guys going to their quietest for the soloist to really shine with his terrific sincerity. After a rocky start, this song went a long way toward putting this set back into contention in my mind.
Outspoken closed their set with Justin Timberlake's "Not A Bad Thing." The choreography was really nicely executed here. Moreover, I really liked the thematic elements of the second two thirds of this set, showing a softer side of the group and telling a love-themed story. I appreciate when groups buck tradition and try to carve out their own identity--Outspoken wasn't going have the same showmanship as On the Rocks, or the beat out the comedic charisma of a group like 15 Miles West, so they established their own, fundamentally different identity. I don't think that their chosen persona necessarily communicated a sense of urgency enough to place Outspoken among the top finishers for the night. That said, I appreciated their interest in doing something divergent, and hope they'll continue to develop that identity in the years ahead, because it lead to something pretty special.
Headband was up next, suitably clad in headbands, plus jeans, untucked white collared shirts, and ties. They opened with a choral take on "You Don't Know You're Beautiful" by One Direction. This was actually a shrewd choice to double dip on showing off their musical chops through a pretty technically proficient bit of music plus achieving a fun comedic moment. They transitioned to Tenacious D's "Wonderboy," performed in the same style. Fun bit as they hit the "in three part harmony" lyric and, in fact, broke into three-part harmony. The guys probably could have done a little more with the dynamics of the piece to really make the most of the musicality, clipped its length a little, and taken a little more care on their tuning, especially after the transition. Just the same this was a really fun, off-beat opener.
Jazzy opening on Queen's "Killer Queen." For this song to work, a group has to one hundred percent go for the jugular and not be the least bit self-conscious--to its credit, the group seemed to have no issue with that. Fun movement across the stage--precise to keep this one visually engaging, almost lending it a musical theater feel. This song, too, felt a little long and I might have mixed up the style or transitioned to the next song sooner.
Last up, Headband got to what sounded like its most sincere point with Aerosmith's "Cryin'." I liked the choice to go more serious here, though I might have mixed this into the middle instead and hammed up "Killer Queen" all the more for a closer. Relatively simple, straight forward take on the song. This one went a little flat, but I still appreciated the rock star sensibilities on the solo and the attempt to do something different by taking on a well-known, but just the same under-exposed song. Comedic little monologue in which one of the guy made romantic overtures to Barack Obama--which, while reasonably fun, also seemed kind of out of context as if they were trying to turn it into a comedy number for the sake of doing so.
Next up, Mind the Gap. This was a coe-ed group, clad in black and gold. Nice sassy beginning to Fergie's "A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)" with the group on stage, the soloist out last, flashing a look at the crowd, then striking a pose before the group keyed in. Excellent attitude on this solo, besides a solid vocal. Really fun dance interlude from three of the ladies before the group worked in some interaction between the men and women on stage. I know that I've knocked overt co-ed theatrics earlier in this review I'm much more comfortable with that dynamic on a song like this that the group was playing so sensually from the beginning.
They followed with The Neighbourhood's "Sweater Weather" Nice interplay before this soloist and the first one on the transition. A lot of really compelling movement here--crisp and purposeful. Really nice choice to have the group sound sink to just the lowest hum and build back up en route to the last chorus. Very precise and well-planned. Nice fall out finish with just the soloist singing unaccompanied. This was a pretty great middle song.
Mind the Gap wrapped up with "Here's Where We Stand" Nice stripped down intro on this one and another really nice lead vocal here. This was an interesting choice for a closer because it starts awfully slow, but the group built the song nicely to give themselves room to grow and ultimately explode as it moved along with some pretty stunning solo work and some nice pops of movement in the background too. The group made all the right choices to leave an impression with that distinctive last number.
The final competing group was Blue Light Special. Killer energy from the guys running and screaming their way on stage in shiny blue shirts, white bow ties and suspenders. They crouched with their first soloist at their center to key into 2 Unlimited's "Get Ready For This" which quickly bled into Quad City DJ's "Space Jam." It may not have been a musical dream, but the energy and completely unselfconscious comedy was a breath of fresh air at the end of the night. The guys delivered a terrifically entertaining pantomimed slam dunk moment with one guy on another's shoulder, arms stretched to form a hoop, before another set of guys lifted another to deliver the dunk. That song fed into R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly." It became apparent they were going for a Space Jam medley which immediately had me crossing my fingers that they would please, please, please include "Basketball Jones," but alas, it wasn't meant to be. In any event, "I Believe I Can Fly" soloist delivered a pretty fantastic lead vocal, while still feeling just tongue in cheek enough to maintain the good will the group had already generated. The group ended up sticking with this song, which made the medley feel pretty imbalanced, or maybe they really were just using the first two snippets to set up the real song. A second backing solo joined the mixed, but the guys oddly chose to cut this one off before the soloist would have gotten his biggest notes, which just felt like an odd creative choice given how well things had been going up to that point.
The guys followed up with Alex Clare's "Too Close."--no wait it's Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl"--only to cut off right before the chorus to go back to the previously promised Alex Clare. They handed things back to the "I Believe I Can Fly" soloists to sing a quick segment of "Wake Me Up," which ended really, strangely abruptly. The guys demonstrated such energy and really impressive vocals, but I had trouble understanding what they were going for on all of these transitions and the overall creative direction of their set.
Blue Light Special wrapped up with Ed Sheeran's "I See Fire." Lovely unaccompanied vocal on the intro before the group keyed in and there was a perfectly synched double-lead to carry forward. This was a pretty lovely execution, though I couldn't help feeling as though "I See Fire" was a really strange choice to end on after how upbeat the rest of the set was. Great dramatic moment as the guys let their sound swell and really popped. Shrewd call to stomp and clap in the end game and slowly lure segments of the crowd into clapping along. Nice intensity on the finish, but there's little question in my mind that this song should have been their middle song, and either of the others was better suited to close.
While the judges deliberated, Wilsonville High School Soul'd Out entertained the crowd. Their set included "Just Keep Breathing," "Rumor Has It," "Taking Chances, "You Were Everything," "Echo," "You Need Me, I Don't Need You," and "ET."
While Soul'd Out performed, I made my picks for the night. There were quite a few groups worthy of recognition. I appreciated Outspoken's stab at a unique identity, 15 Miles West's comedic sensibilities, the gusto of both The Sirens and Blue Light Special, Green Note's range and particularly wonderful take on "Next To Me."
For me, though, this competition came down to just two groups--Mind the Gap and On the Rocks. These two groups each put on memorable sets and demonstrated remarkable sets, but did so in near-opposite ways. Mind the Gap seemed to want to win more than any other group, from the barn burner of an opener, to a lovely take on "Sweater Weather," to their epic closer. On the Rocks did not demonstrate quite the same level of creativity or energy in their performance, but they did display pretty phenomenal sheer vocal talent, and the sort of stage presence and charisma that you just can't teach. In the end, I had On the Rocks just barely squeezing out the win.
In the end, Mind the Gap edged out On the Rocks, though. What can I say? I'm happy both groups are advancing. Mind the Gap closed out the night with their encore "Higher Love" by Steve Winwood.
Mike Chin's Picks for the Night
1. On the Rocks
2. Mind the Gap
3. Green Note
1. Mind the Gap for "A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)"
2. Blue Light Special for "I Believe I Can Fly"
3. Outspoken for "Will You Marry Me"
Outstanding Visual Presentation:
1. Blue Light Special for their Space Jam medley
2. Green Note for "Brother"
3. On the Rocks for the full set
Outstanding Arrangement: Green Note for "Next To Me"
Outstanding Vocal Percussion:
1. Power Chord
2. On the Rocks
Official ICCA Results
1.Mind the Gap
2.On the Rocks
3.15 Miles West
Outstanding Soloist: Mind the Gap for "A Little Party Never Hurt Nobody"
Outstanding Choreography: Mind the Gap for the full set
Outstanding Arrangement: Green Note for "Next To Me"
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Power Chord for the full set