On Saturday, January 28, 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 and A Cappella Productions did an excellent job running sound. Before we get to the review, a quick summary:
Montgomery Blair high School InToneNation
The Mardela Middle & High School Insongniacs
Rye High School Rhythm on Rye
The Mahopac High School PACapellas
The The Hun School Edgertones
The St. Andrew's School Noxontones
Haddon Heights Baptist Regional School Vocal Forte
The Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands Voices
The Masters School Dobbs 16
The Ridgewood High School Maroon Men
Ramapo College of New Jersey 4GotteN SuitCase
TheWestminster Choir College The Deaftones
The show turned out to be a sell out—quite a statement for the state of scholastic a cappella! Ramopo College’s co-ed 4GotteNSuitCase kicked off the evening, performing while the audience filed into the auditorium. This is a neat alterative the BOCA or BOHSA CDs—it gives the audience a more dynamic form of pre-show entertainment and gives an additional group some exposure. I couldn’t help feeling a little bad for the lack of attention the group received while it sang, though. Selections included “The Lions Sleeps Tonight,” “You Give Love a Bad Name,” “The Lazy Song,” “Runaround Sue,” a lovely mostly choral version of “That Lonesome Road,” an ambitious treatment of “Welcome to the Black Parade,” and “Rolling in the Deep.”
The Montgomery Blair High School InToneNation kicked off the competition portion of the evening. The coed group wore black and red for a sharp look, and started its set with Sade’s “Smooth Operator”. Nice percussion on this one, and well-plotted out movement—the way in which the group crept to spread out the stage was really engaging, and with more experience on stage, I think the rest of the choreography the group had conceived of will come off all the smoother. The group incorporated an excellent soaring soprano line to back up the closing measures of the song.
InToneNation transitioned to “The Scientist” by Coldplay. I really liked the visual of the group clustering together, only for the soloist to emerge from the middle. Speaking of the soloist, he was very good musically, but all the more effective for the way in which he sold the emotion of the song through his facials and desperately clutching the microphone with both hands. The group made the wise call for the VP to enter on the second verse, which mixed up the sound and kept the audience interested at a point when the lurching melody might have otherwise lost some people. On a similar note, the group made the right call to clip the song a bit—the lengthier instrumentals of the original would have tested anyone’s attention span in the a cappella format.
The group closed with Duffy’s “Mercy.” Nice fluid motion on intro with group members crossing past each other to take their places in a line at the back of the stage. The soloist delivered a truly excellent performance--soulful, rich, confident and very clearly articulated. She came across very mature as a performer. While the group had made good use of movement up to this point, “Mercy” marked the point at which the group truly shone with choreography that was both purposeful and creative. Really fun moment with two girls talking in backtrack part. I’m not sure if it was the song itself or its place as the group’s third song on stage, but this was undoubtedly the point at which InToneNation really hit its stride, and it’s unfortunate we couldn’t hear more from them afterward. The group executed a well-rehearsed bow to leave the stage in an orderly, professional manner.
Next up were The Insongniacs from Mardella Springs high School. The co-ed group wore blue, black and gray. The set started New Found Glory’s ”Hold My Hand.” Fun visual to start with the group in two lines, after which they spread out to reveal the soloist. The solo was really charismatic here, demonstrating a level of stage presence and confidence beyond his years. The group showed a lot of ambition in its tempo shifts and dynamic variation, and retained a really high energy level throughout. Nice work on the percussion.
The group followed with “I am Ready for Love” by India.Arie. The Insongniacs demonstrated a nice level of patience in transitioning from the previous song to this much slower one. I loved the stage presence of the soloist, letting the mic stay on its stand and grasping the air with her hands—anytime a soloist can communicate the meaning of a song with more than just her voice and the lyrics, it’s a real plus for the overall performance. Really good crescendos as the group’s sound swelled in a controlled and purposeful way that helped break up the potential monotony of a slow song.
The group closed with a mashup of David Guetta’s “Without You” and U2’s ”With or Without You.” You’ve gotta love the ambition of a performance like this that layers melodies one atop the other, and incorporates some real theatrics. The story of the song was a male and female lead crooning back and forth with an additional young woman—presumably portraying the character of a jilted lover—stealing snippets of the solo for herself as she pined away. The male soloist, in particular, did a great job of showing restraint while also communicating some of the sheer of jubilance of young love. If the members of this high school group can retain this level of creativity in staging performances as they develop as musicians, they’re going to have something really special in the years ahead.
The third competing group was Rye High School Rhythm on Rye, a co-ed group from NY. The members wore different shades of blue t-shirts on top and black bottoms. They opened with ”Tainted Love”. Great attitude on this soloist, who seemed to have a hint of Fiona Apple in the sheer nuance of her voice. Jazzy, soulful, and nice, full sound from the group. The choreography included fun moments like a slow motion run which visually demarcated a tempo change in the piece. The drummer delivered good percussion throughout. Solid opener.
Next up was The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” The basses come through nice and clean on this one. Lots of shifting on the solo, which helps to underscore the diverse talents of the group. It’s a subtle point, but I really appreciate the degree to which the groups actually moved and repositioned itself on the choreography rather than settling for touch-step kind of moves. The group delivered a really nice moment toward the close with selected singers stepping forward to harmonize with one another.
Rhythm on Rye closed with U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Names.” Nice, high energy transition from the slow opening chords to the up-tempo first verse of the song. Solid percussion again. The choreography on this song was mostly good, but probably would have been even more impressive without so much repetition—certain parts like having members pushing their hands up looked good the first time around, but were distinctive enough that they came across as much less interesting the second time around. To contrast with that, the group incorporated a really fun free style dance break (complete with one guy breaking out the disco moves). I also appreciated the way in which the group visually bookended the song, starting and finishing on slow motion raises and drops of their arms. The moments at which the group went choral really delivered.
The Mahopac High School PACapellas were fourth out of the chute. The co-ed group wore purple and black, with sparkles for the women. The group opened with David Guetta’s ”Without You”, which is apparently great fodder for mashups, because they, too, opted to mix it up, in this case working in the Goo Goo Dolls’ ”Iris.” I really liked the component pieces of this number, but the transitions felt a little more abrupt than they needed to be. The female backing solo harmonized really nicely on “Iris.” Tons of energy on the movement, and the choreography was well-planned, between the group members starting out crouched around the soloist, and later forming two lines for the soloist to work his way through.
Next up was the Mission Impossible theme. It’s really ambitious for a scholastic group to attempt an instrumental number, and The PACapellas did an admirable job of capturing the audience’s attention through movement, complete with two hands-free backflips, a barrage of sunglasses, faux gunplay and tons of other theatrics. This was a lot of fun.
The group wrapped up with Lady Gaga’s ”Edge of Glory”. The group members started with their backs to the crowd before their staggered, slow motion turns. One of the strongest solos of the night on this one—so much charisma and clarity of sound. The movement demonstrated good energy again, particularly with some really sharp fist pumps and reaching motions on the choruses. The percussion really pumped through the song. All in all, this was the kind of performance for which you could really tell the group was enjoying itself—and that’s exactly the sort of difference that can elevate a really good group to sublime status, if just for a few minutes.
The Edgertones, an all-female group representing The Hun School of Princeton perfomed next. Blue tops, black bottoms, and necklaces for the ladies. They opened with Regina Spektor’s “On the Radio.” Excellent charisma from the soloist who delivered a confident, but perfectly understated lead. Smooth slick sound from group, demonstrating a ton precision, particularly on the tempo changes. Solid percussion. A few girls deliver some really fun “uh-oh” echo sounds—a pretty literal interpretation of the original song, but they nailed it. The group demonstrated excellent control as even their clap/snap body percussion faded out elegantly on the finish. Really strong opening song.
The group huddled together for its second song, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.” Choral treatment of the song, which once again highlighted the group’s precision and tuning. I would have liked to have heard a little more variation in dynamics or tempo to spice up the piece—for a song so many groups have performed a cappella, groups need to think about how they’re going to distinguish themselves. Things did pick up toward the close of the song as the group split up parts more on the final leg and executed a perfect dip to a pianissimo sound to finish.
The Edgertones closed with Jessie J’s “Price Tag.” After two songs that were all about precision and restraint, it was really enjoyable to hear the girls go for it on an up-tempo pop song that incorporated its fair share of choreography. Regarding the choreography, this is the type of visual presentation I’d love to see more of from groups at any level—completely unself-conscious movement that you can tell the group members had a lot of fun planning out. Similar to the group’s first solo, this song’s lead demonstrated both great stage presence and control. Fun moment as one of the members donned sunglasses to rap the breakdown. Excellent choice for a closer to show the group’s most human side and keep the crowd smiling.
After intermission, The Noxontones from St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, DE took the stage. Red tops, black bottoms for the co-ed group. They opened with “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane. The group clustered at the start, then spread out into arc over the course of the first verse. While I would have liked to have heard a little more nuance to the execution, this was a smooth, polished performance. Nice fall out from the group, then gradual re-entry into the last chorus. The group came together for a fine bit of unison, raising their hands as they sung at that point. The group pulled off a good visual in returning to a clustered formation in front of the soloist to finish the song.
Up next, we got a medley of songs from The Lion King. The group demonstrated a really good consciousness of stage formations over the course of this piece, circling behind the leads, spanning out to forma long arc along the back of the stage, and pouring in some real theatrics. It was a nice touch for groups members to retain their “parts” throughout the song, including recurring appearances of Simba, Timon and Pumbaa—though, presenting the narrative songs out of order was a little disorienting (e.g., Simba leaving behind his friends in “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” before he first meets them in “Hakuna Mata”), but that’s a minor quibble. The piece reached a real climax on “Circle of Life,” complete with a cool whistling effect in the background, an excellent solo, and a beautifully layered set of harmonies. Strong finish.
Vocal Forte from Haddo Heights Baptist Regional High School competed next. The co-ed group wore all black with untucked tops over black bottoms, and red, white and blue striped ties. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but the group had a real air of professionalism when it stepped on stage.The group kicked off its set with “Sing A Song” by Point of Grace. Powerful, almost gospel-like sound from the group. We heard rotating pairs of soloists, including some really striking vocalists. It’s a compelling way of introducing the diverse voices of the group to the crowd. The percussionist proved to be the truest showman of the group, putting on a clinic during his drum solo and introducing the various vocal parts of the group, one by one, to join him. Excellent opener.
The group members knelt toward the soloist, standing in middle of the stage for Kelis’s “A Cappella.” Very cool song choice to deliver a layered meaning in this setting. Very nice solo and pounding percussion here. Fun visual rearrangements in the background. The coolest part of all for this song was the complexity of the arrangement, including plenty of tempo shifts and a pattern of having vocalists join one another to organically build the sound as the song went on. Nice fade out on the ending.
Vocal Forte used its ending positions on stage to set up the third song, John Legend’s “If You’re Out There.” Exceptional female lead on this one, who showed good restraint early on, and particularly on portions of the song when she sang unaccompanied; but who also proved fully capable of belting when her moment arrived. Lovely layered harmonies on the chorus. The perc entered on second verse, which was a nice artistic decision to diversify the sound as the song progressed. Once again, the group demonstrated some really compelling decision-making in terms of how the group entered and exited the song, and particularly how backing vocalists echoed the solo for this song. A couple of the visuals reminded me of The Washington University Stereotypes’ inspired rendition of this song from last year’s ICCA finals, but the group did an effective job of making the song its own, and literally drew goose bumps for me at some of its biggest moments. The crowd positively roared on the finish of this outstanding closing song.
The Highlands Voices drew the unenviable task of following Vocal Forte. Nonetheless, the co-ed group from Northern Highlands Regional High School proved up to the task. Clad in black and red, they led off with co-ed Sugarland’s ”Stuck Like Glue”. Slick solo here that really commanded the stage, and only got better with the addition of a male backing solo on the choruses. The group sound and the percussion were both exceptionally polished. In addition to everything that went right aurally, the group was a treat to watch, with dancing transitions that were confident and smooth, and included one explosion into freestyle dancing that spanned the stage. This is one of those groups where you can look at any individual group member at any given time, and they’re all “playing the part” having fun and performing every moment. Excellent first song.
The group crouched down with its soloist standing in back for the start of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Deep Blue Something. The group started really soft and even on the opening measures, before growing bigger. The perc, in particular, was really impressive as he subtly worked his way in, showing impressive control of his craft. A second soloist joined the lead for a nice male-female dynamic. At last, the song burst into full tempo with a third soloist, fast and fun, before slowing back down and giving way to another lead. This is not an original song choice, but The Highlands Voices put on a clinic in terms of demonstrating how you can take a classic and make it vital again. Very strong performace.
Next up was Gloria Estefan’s “Conga.” The song opened with guys’ backs to crowd, and the girls showing off their best dance moves for a really fun visual. Excellent moment as the guys took over with the brass and full percussion section in which I’m pretty sure I actually heard vocal sandpaper blocks—very cool! Great dueling female solos. One of the guys took the lead to sample Ritchie Valens’s “La Bamba” for a very nice mid-song surprise. Fun stop-motion moments embedded in the choreography. My only knock against this was that the transition back to “Conga” at the end was a bit abrupt and clipped—I would have drawn it out a little longer. That’s a pretty minor issue, though. Stellar song to wrap up a stand-out set.
And then it was time for The Dobbs 16, a co-ed group from The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, NY. The group wore red t-shirts and black bottoms. Really fun audio effects with the bass and perc guys sampling “Drop it Like It’s Hot” on the intro and directing the movements of the group, from slouching down to re-elevating. I might have suggested the guys save the audio effects to transition between songs, but it was an entertaining moment nonetheless that helped assert the groups’ personality from the get-go. The Dobbs 16 launched into “Grenade” by Bruno Mars. Very strong solo here, and a nice visual with group members reaching toward the soloist. The group sounded great as its sound swelled, and particularly when it featured the bass and perc guy again on the bridge. The soloist delivered a nice power moment launching into the final chorus. Very clean sound all around.
Next up was “Everything” by Michael Buble. Good solo here, and the percussion functioned as a rock to keep this all together. Really fun band moment as the group members simulated different instruments, most noticeably a trombone in the middle.
“Breakeven” by the Script followed. Really nice, clear bass sound on this one. The VP was stellar again. The group executed the arrangement really nicely for this song with temporary swells of sound for each aprt, and dynamic variation to really pop into the chorus. Impressive falsetto from the soloist who shows some real maturity and range on his vocals. This proved to be a really strong wrap-up for an inspired three-song set.
The last of the evening’s competitors were the all-male Ridgewood High School Maroon Men. The guys took the stage in black t-shirts and jeans and kicked off their set with “Good Old A Cappella.” Very clean sound on the classic, with lots of firepower and a really nice tenor on the opening. They kept the tempo really quick, which was impressive, though I think the performance on the whole may have been a touch more successful slowed down just a nudge. The group rotated through three good soloists, the last of whom sung his part particularly well, and introduced the group to the crowd, saying they were excited to be there. It’s a fun bit of showmanship when groups do that—unconventional for competition, but one of those subtle things that helps establish a group’s personality and make the performance feel more casual. Good opener.
The group moved on to George Harrison’s “I’ve Got My Mind Set on You.” Really fun sound on this one all around. Nice dynamics, shrinking the sound down and demonstrating impressive control, particularly for an all-male group this age. Nice, smooth solo work.
The guys’ third song was Sister Hazel’s “It’s All for You.” Excellent backing solo leading into chorus. The primary soloist himself was really good, but could have been all the stronger with a touch more animation and stage presence. The group implemented a fun clap-along at the end. All in all, this song did a good job of summing up the Maroon Men set—entertaining performances and crowd-pleasing, familiar song selections from a group that would probably fit right in performing in just about any setting.
The Maroon Men wrapped up with Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me.” Cool, slick sound leading into this one, with rotating duel soloists throughout. The use of so many soloists seemed to communicate the universality if the song’s subject matter—of men lamenting loves gone by. Nice slow, clean choral finish to round out a good set.
While the judges deliberate, The Deaftones, out of Westminster Choir College, did their guest group duties for the evening. They took the stage in their trademark black with green suspenders and belts. I always love the clean, precise sound of this group. They have a tendency to pass on so many contemporary trends in favor of paying close attention to musicality and tuning. Combine musical professionalism with a willingness to pick less serious songs with which to showcase their abilities, and you have the unique sound of this group. Their set included “We Built This City,” “Blow,” “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” “Suddenly I See,” a startlingly faithful then creatively disparate version of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” a surprising mashup of “Africa” with “Replay,” “Skyscraper,” “Tubthumping,” and, as the deliberations continued, a really fun teach-the-audience sing-along.
It was an interesting competition because, as I saw it, things were very tight for both first and second place and third and fourth—two high stakes positions because only the first place group would go on to the ICHSA Finals, and fourth place wouldn’t get announced to the crowd. For me, Vocal Forte and The Highland Voices were duking it out for the win, with a pair of sets that inspired, innovated, and delivered for all three songs. Meanwhile, I had The Edgertones and The Dobbs 16 right behind them—The Edgertones for a more controlled and precise approach to the music, and The Dobbs 16 for creativity. Overall, I had The Highland Voices just nudging out the victory and, because I’m not a judge and don’t have to make the really tough decisions, placed The Dobbs 16 and The Edgertones in a tie for third. The judges seemed to have similar feelings, at least for the top two, as the official ICHSA score report showed The Voices nudging out the win by just two points over Vocal Forte. (The full report of ACB and official picks appears below.)The home group, and newly crowned regional champs, closed out a top-notch evening of a cappella with a sweet rendering of The Platters’ “Goodnight Sweetheart.”
Thanks for checking out this review, and be sure to check back in the weeks ahead for a series of ICCA event reviews.
ACB Picks for the Night:
1. The Highlands Voices
2. Vocal Forte
3. TIE: The Dobbs 16 and The Edgertones
1. Vocal Forte for “If You’re Out There”
2. The Edgertones for “On the Radio”
3. The Highlands Voices for “Stuck Like Glue”
Best Vocal Percussion
1. The Dobbs 16
2. TIE: Vocal Forte and The Highlands Voices
Best Visual Presentation
1. The Highlands Voices for “The Conga”
2. Vocal Forte for “If You’re Out There”
3. The Highlands Voices for “Stuck Like Glue”
Official ICHSA Results
1. The Highlands Voices
2. Vocal Forte
3. The Edgertones
Outstanding Soloisst: The Dobbs 16 for “Everything” and Vocal Forte for “If You’re Out There”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: The Dobbs 16 for the full set
Outstanding Arrangements: Rhythm on Rye for the full set and Vocal Forte for “If You’re Out There”
Outstanding Choreography: The Highlands Voices for the full set