ICHSA Mid-Atlantic Semifinal at Northern Highlands Regional High School

Event Reviews

On Saturday, January 26, Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, NJ played host to the International Championship of High School A Cappella Mid-Atlantic Semifinal. The event featured 10 competing groups. Before we get to the review, a quick summary:

The Competitors:
The Hun School Edgertones
St. Mary’s High School Nothing But Treble
The Mahopac High School PACapellas
Rye Neck High School WeRNTune
The Masters School Dobbs 16
Haddon Heights Baptist Regional School Vocal Forte
Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Voices
Cherry Hill East High School Stay Tuned
Rye High School Rhythm on Rye
The Wheeler School 18 Wheelers

Guest Groups:
Wanaque School 2nd Encore
The University of Massachusetts-Amhert Vocal Suspects

Photos of the event are available now on our Facebook page.

Sold out crowd for the show—very cool to see so many faces for a high school a cappella competition. Middle school group 2nd Encore opened things up with a mashup of Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” and Alex Clare’s “Too Close.” Very good solos, each of which built nicely from the verses to the choruses. Cool arrangement, sliding the songs right into place with each other. Very nice work on the percussion. Above all else, it’s cool to see a middle school group in action. Hopefully we’ll be hearing more from these young singers as they advance to the high school ranks.

The Director of the ICCA, David Rabizadeh, made the standard announcements before handing things off to emcee, Hannah Juliano of Delilah, Musae, and Pitch Slapped fame.

The Edgertones were the first competing group. Awesome to hear all-female a cappella from this age group. The ladies wore red dresses. Sharp visual on the intro to ”Lollipop” by The Chordettes, with the group members in two straight lines before they crossed the Stage to meet . Nice, choral handling of the lyrics. The choreography was fitting for the song—cutesy and sweet. The song revolved around a comic little insertion of a popping sound from one of the young women (think the sound of a lollipop being pulled from between your lips). It was fun, and building the piece around such a simple, recurrent device worked really well for them. Nice fall out moment toward end before the group re-entered in pieces.

The ladies followed up with “Wayfaring Stranger” Very nice, soulful solo on this one. Like last year, this group’s greatest strength lay in their restraint and maturity—contained energy and a full understanding that soft moments are as valuable as the big ones, and make the louder ones all the more impactful for the contrast. Nice subtle movement with the group members leaning and bobbing without choreographing—just enough to keep the audience engaged without ever distracting from the music. Powerful fallout moment when the group left the soloist all alone for the length of the last verse. And what a job she did with it! Very interesting contrast to group sound we’re accustomed to hearing in contemporary a cappella. I dug it.

The group closed with KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.” Bold choice to take the song at full tempo. The group, and particularly the soloist, were up to the task. Very good body percussion of stomps and thigh slaps, though I think the group could have taken it a step further—hitting harder to really punch those sounds and develop a true power moment. Nice backing harmonies building in the background on the bridge—good call to make the moment memorable—distinctive from the rest of the piece. Strong finish to a strong set.

Next up was Nothing But Treble. Another all-female group, and it was reportedly their first time competing. Awesome sauce. Nice black and red duds for the group. They opened with Fun.’s “Some Nights” Excellent call on stomping their way into the second verse—great way of simulating the marching beat of the original and really bringing it to life. Very nice stage presence on the soloist. Good percussion. Good use of movement to change up the presentation without getting overly literal on the choreography. One of the strongest parts of this performance came when the group was tested—the soloist had a minor lyric flub (the kind of thing you probably wouldn’t notice if you didn’t know the song quite well) but went along completely unfazed. Excellent poise. All in all, this was a very good opener.

The ladies continued their set with ”The Chain” by Ingrid Michaelson. Interesting formation with two straight lines to start, which peeled out from the center for the soloist to make her way from the back. Another interesting bit of staging with the ladies linking arms on the first mention of “the chain.” More good movement on crossing the stage creating some visual chaos to complement the vocal confusion of the moment—very nice. The group worked its way into a three-part lead, and I loved hearing the initial soloist rip loose a little in the endgame, driving home the emotion of what this song is communicating, while the other young ladies sang in a round. Excellent moment to finish with all of the background sound falling away for the soloist to finish unaccompanied.

Nothing But Treble wrapped up with ”I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift. Again, the group used some unconventional staggering on stage to really draw in the audience. Very nice soul on the soloist. While the percussionist may have been a little overpowering on this song, I very much prefer to hear that level of exuberance at this level of a cappella—better loud and proud than too timid. This was a good closer overall, but if there’s one element of performance I thought could have taken the piece to the next level, it would have been the facials. This is a song about acknowledging that someone is trouble. It’s not a happy song, and there were a few too many smiling faces throughout the song to really get that across. As a counterpoint, I loved the creative decisions late in the song as the sound got bigger and the group broke into a free style dance party to break down the finish.

The PACapellas drew third in the batting order. Sharp purple and black duds for our first co-ed group of the night. They opened with ‘N Sync’s “I Want You Back.” Is a song choice ironic if you were barely alive when the song was cool? Man, I feel old listening to this, and realizing I was the age of these kids when this song was cool. I digress. The soloist kicked things into gear with a back flip. Some folks argue that visuals like that don’t add anything to the music, but I do think there’s something to be said for getting the crowd on your side and the acrobatics were a great way of getting everyone’s attention from the very beginning. Perhaps because The PACapellas were preceded by two all-female groups, their low-end came across like gangbusters here—nice, full sound. Good opener.

The group followed with a choral take on Michael Jackson’s ”Man in the Mirror.” I liked the song choice, but I couldn’t help feeling this performance didn’t quite find its center. The ways this song might have been more effective: First, I think it would have benefited from a soloist. It’s a lyrically complex message song about an individual looking in the mirror—as such, I think starting with one lead and maybe growing to the full group lead could have communicated the message more effectively. Secondly, as much as the choreography was well-planned and well-executed, I think a little more focus on the music over the movement may have helped the group out. All of that said, the group did pull off some very nice visual moments and the high harmonies on the second chorus were excellent.

The PACapellas ended their set with “I’ve Got the Music in Me.”

The group used rotating soloists here, and I loved that choice. Ton of energy and charisma on the stage, and I particularly liked this song selection for a set closer—sort of a musical call to arms. Fake out finish, then the dancing and singing went on—I think they should have gone for a clap-along with the crowd there. The audience seemed ripe for participation at that moment. Nice symmetry to the set as the song finished with another back flip from the first soloist.

WeRNTune performed next. Black and blue threads for this group—nicely cohesive look, without being purely uniform. They opened with a choral version of “Go To sleep You Little Baby” The little echo effect from the background added some nice texture. Nice control of dynamics. This was well-performed, but I couldn’t help thinking something a little more dynamic would have served the group better for its opener.

The group followed with Coldplay’s ”Viva La Vida” Unaccompanied solo to start—nice bit of understatement there to draw the audience in, then the group picked it up the song chorally. I thought we might get a new soloist for the second verse, but then the song just ended. While I like when groups make critical decisions and cut material that isn’t going to engage the audience, I couldn’t help thinking the finish was a little abrupt on this one.

Next up was ”Because” by The Beatles. I like this song choice for a group that seems to be emphasizing choral choices—it was off beat and yet still has a traditional taste to it for being a Beatles song. Nice blend, and just the same the group did a fine job scattering its sound for the parts of the piece that are supposed to sound disjointed. Well done, though, again, the song seemed to end rather suddenly.

The group finished up with “My Heart With You” by The Rescues. Nice warm sound, well-rounded, full, with an excellent transition to the higher harmonies. Nice build toward the finish, with some fine dynamic variation. This group is quite talented musically, but the choral emphasis and lack of movement was a little out of place in a contemporary a cappella competition. That’s not a knock on the group, but I wonder if the group’s interests would be better served in a different competition, or by mixing up their style a bit—not necessarily to conform, but to va;idate some of the audience’s expectations while still honoring the group’s identity. I’ll be interested to hear where the group goes from here.

The Dobbs 16 sang next. Red group t-shirts, black jeans and matching red chucks for a neat uniform. The co-ed group started, hands locked for a choral bit of “This Little Light of Mine” before breaking into the rap and rich bass sound of “All of the Lights” by Kanye West. The group was very fortunate to follow WeRNtune, as the contrast in styles really sold how contemporary and aggressive the group’ s sound was. Great stage presence from the soloist, working the crowd like a pro. Nice female backing solo on the choruses. Stellar percussion. Then came the dubstep. Nicely timed and well executed.

Nice transition with the group crouching at the end of the first song, then rising in three separate clusters for the opening of M-Pact’s “Without Your Love.”Very good, silky smooth vocals on this lead. Very nice percussion again. Fun moments of the group sound falling out to give background players brief moments to work the transitions. The low end and percussion were excellent. Strong doubling of the soloists on the finish—it was a good creative decision, and probably could have come a little sooner, or the group might consider switching between the two soloists before the climax when they sung together, to diversify the overall presentation a little more. Just the same, a solid middle song.

The group finished with The Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ It to the Streets”. Nice message song closer. Realsoul from the soloist. Really nice groove on the low end. Great dynamic variation . I loved the un-mic’ed three-part female lead on the bridge. I think the group could have pushed the tempo a little to have made the song more vital, but it’s a minor quibble. The group went for a clap along, but strangely enough the crowd didn’t bite on it. Odd, because they certainly deserved it. Just the same, it was a great closer.

Vocal Forte kicked off the second half of the show. The coed group wore all black with purple ties, and led off their set with a medley that included “I Gotta Feeling,” “Walking on Sunshine,” and “I Feel Good.” Excellent group sound, killer percussion, and very good soloists throughout the song. I had mixed feelings about the choice to open with a medley. On one hand, I like that it spotlighted many different talents, and the medley itself made thematic sense, as a collection of songs about being happy. That said, the transitions seemed a little abrupt, and I struggled to really get into the music becaue Each time I started to, the song changed again. All of that said, the group came out with a ton of energy and power to lead off its set well.

Vocal Forte pulled out a series of chairs and stools for the next number. I love it when groups think outside the box, and this was an excellent choice to grab the audience’s attention, take control of the visual presentation, and do something fundamentally different from what anyone else did that night. They sang a slowed down version of Phillip Phillips’s “Home.” Very soft, slow interpretation. I loved the creativity, and particularly appreciated that, despite reinventing the song, the group didn’t contradict the core of what it’s all about. It’s a sensitive, personal song, whether you handle it with upbeat acoustic guitar strums or soulful backing vocals. Big choral take into chorus. Truly excellent middle song.

Next up was David Guetta and Sia’s ”Titanium.” Nice slow build on this one, too, with percussion and slow choral take on the first chorus as the group remained seated from previous song. The perc fired into second verse, and, in turn, the group stood and moved the chairs aside. Another excellent solo. Nice staggering on stage, from clustering behind the soloist to building an arc around her. The group wove in a false finish that got the audience clapping. After the applause settled down, the soloist sang unaccompanied before the percussionist joined, her, then the rest of the group. Excellent build. Excellent solo. Very strong closer.

Highlands Voices took the stage next. Black and red formal duds for them. They opened with Colbie Caillat’s “Brighter Than the Sun.” Exceptional stage presence from the soloist, and such a polished sound from this group—just on another level from just about anyone else we had heard up to that point in the night. Excellent perc. Clean, smart presentation. The second soloist lived up to the first. Stellar charisma all around. This opener was simply a joy to hear.

Next up was a mashup of Christina Aguilera’s ”Beautiful” and The Pretenders’ ”I’ll Stand By You.” In a word: goosebumps. A pair of simply superb soloists on this one, clean backing sound again. Finally, the point came to combine the songs, the sound was simply incredible. These songs complement each other beautifully, and the group delivered the requisite emotion in spades. Simply lovely.

Highlands Vocies wrapped up with U2’s ”Beautiful Day.” The group offered up a pair of really strong soloists who offered up distinct, powerful vocals. Equally impressive to their vocals, though, was the thoughtfulness of their visual presentation. The first lead had clearly planned every bit of what he would do with his hands, and was positively channeling Bono over the course of his lead. The second hammered home incredible emotion through his facial expressions. Together, they were a real treat to both hear and watch. Really sharp movement from the group, with everything so well in synch. Slick fall out to pianissimo close. Excellent finish to a top-notch set.

Next up, Stay Tuned. Black and white outfits for them with some serious sparkles on the ladies. Their first song was ”Sounds of Silence.”Nice dramatic lead in with the group members dropping to the floor for soloist to stand tall at center. Excellent vocals from that young woman. Such an ominous bass hum, giving edge to a Simon & Garfunkel classic. Really interesting. A second soloist joined the mix. I just couldn’t get over how rough, harsh, and textured the group made this song. Ordinarily, I write off a song selection like this as bland and cliché—this performance was one hundred percent electric. Two male leads took up the cause from there, before spreading to a four-part lead. Though I usually don’t endorse overly literal choreography, the group arrived at a near-perfect visual moment on the “soflty creeping” lyric, with guys sneaking out behind the girls, and the girls look terrified. It’s the sort of visual that wouldn’t fit the original, but was sublime given the context of this reinvention of the song. Power choral finish. Full bass, pounding perc breakdown. That was something else.

Stay Tuned followed up with “I Won’t Give Up” by Jason Mraz. I love that they went to a stripped down and ultra-sensitive ballad to follow up on that first monster of a song. Superb solo. Really nice doubling on the solo for the second verse. Very good percussion again. This group is so smart about featuring multiple soloists but doing so in really organic, complementary ways. Incredibe dynamic build over the course of the song. Just superb.

Next up: our second look at “Titanium.” Whir of motion in the background behind the soloist. So much energy all over the stage. Excellent percussion. Great stage presence on the soloist. My only knock here is that I worry the soloist started a little too big and didn’t give herself enough room to grow. While she did a remarkable job of hitting the notes she ended up going just a shave past where I wanted to hear her on overall volume. Sublime visual with group falling in the soloist’s wake as she moved to front of stage. What a moment! All in all, a tremendous closer to a truly powerful set.

Rhythm on Rye was up next. The mixed group wore black group t-shirts and jeans. Really fun intros with group members maneuvering in slow motion around each other. They started with ”Annie You Save Me” by Graffiti6. Really well-controlled solo, covering even the high parts with real skill. Very good four-part breakdown on the chorus. Good perc. The choreography was good, but a little excessive—when the group was legitimately moving it looked great and seemed to complement the music. Moves like a box step and grapevine had many of the group members looking like they were really concentrating—the key is to do cool things visually while making it look effortlessly. Nonetheless, a solid opener.

The group used a choral opening for Simon & Garfunkel’s ”Bleecker Street” Very sweet recurring dance breakdown in which, in each case a male member of the group paired with a female member for a brief dance interlude. Very nice soft cymbal percussion anchoring this one. Nice, understated middle song.

Rhythm on Rye closed with “Some Nights” by Fun. Very god solo, pounding percussion, and when the group let loose to dance the visuals were great. I couldn’t help feeling all of the hand drives were excessive again, though, and took away from the music. I loved the group’s handling of the “come on” entreaty, which felt like a genuine call to arms, building with each iteration. All in all, a fun, energized song to close with.

And on to the final competing group of the night: The 18 Wheelers. Multi-colored tops and black bottoms for this co-ed group. They led off with ”Not Alone” by Sara Bareilles. Very nice understated solo. Some fun visual moments with group sliding into slow motion and posing. While I liked the creepy motif the group was working with, just the same, they seemed to feel most at home on the jazzier parts of the song. In cases, like this, I think a group needs to evaluate what’s most comfortable for it, and use that as compass for future song selections. Fun dance break from one of the men and women, employing a concept that wasn’t altogether different from what Rhythm on Rye did with “Bleecker Street”. Great backing solo toward the close, which really helped pop the sound.

The group followed up with “All At Sea” by Jamie Cullum. Nice, soulful solo on this one. Lovely echoing high harmonies, not quite matching the lyrics, but adding depth to them with insertions like “home is where the heart is.” Very god percussion. Nice hum of bass sound. Really lovely high choral take on the bridge—brief, very sweet—really nicely done. The group built well leading into the finish, pushing the tempo a bit and getting a little louder. The piece probably would have benefitted from a little bit of movement. Just the same, it was a fine middle song.

Last up, The 18 Wheelers sang Beyonce’s “Love on Top.” Really lovely solo. Nice low end. The choreography on the choruses was very well executed, but I couldn’t help wishing the group had aimed for more power and something a little less cutesy for the visual presentation here—particularly when they revisited the same moves on the second chorus as the first. Solid effort on the key change. Fine closer.

The Vocal Suspects entertained the crowd while the judges deliberated. Their set included “Titanium,” “Coming Home,” “Too Close,” “Good Girl,” “All Shook Up,” “Fix You,” “I Will Wait For You,” “Raise It Up,” “To Make You Feel My Love,” and “Iris.”

As The Vocal suspects sang, I figured out my own picks for the night. The choice for who should advance came down to two top contenders for me: Highlands Voices and Stay Tuned. The Highlands Voices were superbly polished, and offered up a near-error free set. Stay Tuned had a couple suspect musical moments, but attacked the stage with such raw energy and a willingness to innovate. As long-time followers of The ACB know, if it comes to a coin toss, I’ll favor the group that shows me something new. As much as I loved the Highlands Voices set, and particularly the mashup in the middle, “Sounds of Silence” was far and away the song of the night in my book, and the song that I could really see getting people talking at the ICHSA Finals in New York. Thus, I very narrowly gave them the duke.

Ultimately, The Highlands Voices edged out Stay Tuned for first place (there was a ten point difference in scores). They sang “Good Riddance” for their encore. Very sweet and emotional. Beautiful finish to the night.

All in all, a stellar show and excellent way to open the 2013 Varsity Vocals season. Congratulations to all of the night’s performers. Readers, be sure to check back next week for a review of the ICCA quarterfinal at Rutgers.

ACB Picks:

Overall Placement
1. Stay Tuned
2. Highlands Voices
3. Vocal Forte

Outstanding Soloists:
1. The Edgertones for “Wayfaring Stranger”
2. Highlands Voices for “Beautiful”/”I’ll Stand By You”
3. Vocal Forte for “Home”

Outstanding Vocal Percussion
1. The Dobbs 16 for the full set
2. Vocal Forte for the full set
3. Stay Tuned for the full set

Outstanding Arangement
1. Stay Tuned for “The Sounds of Silence”
2. Highlands Voices for “Beautiful”/“I’ll Stand By You”
3. Vocal Forte for “Home”

Outstanding Visual Presentation
1. Stay Tuned for “Titanium”
2. Highlands Voices for the full set
3. Vocal Forte “Titanium”

Official ICHSA Results
Overall Placement:
1. The Highlands Voices
2. Stay Tuned
3. Vocal Forte

Outstanding Soloists: The Highlands Voices

Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Dobbs 16

Outstanding Arrangements: The Edgertones

Outstanding Choreography: Stay Tuned