On March 23, 2012, South Lakes High School in Reston, VA played host to SingStrong’s ACA Idol competition. The night’s winners would receive $1,000 and a professional photo shoot. Before we get to the review, a quick summary of the event:
Case Western Reserve University Dhamakappella
The University of South Carolina Cocktails
Ohio State and Marion Technical College InChant
James Madison University Note-oriety
The Virginia Commonwealth University RAMifications
The University of North Carolina Greensboro Sapphires
Danielle Withers of Afro-Blue
Kim Hudson of MAXX Factor
Proceeds from the night’s event (and the weekend festival on the whole) benefited The Alzheimer’s Association and Parents for Choral Arts.
Photos from this competition are available now on our Facebook page.
SingStrong organizer Jonathan Minkoff had emcee duties for the night. The judges sat together in the crowd and had microphones to provide commentary after each set.
The first group was Shameless, a barbershop quartet made up of US veterans from four different military branches. It was clear that the guys were showmen and had a real sense of humor. Each member carried a bottle of water on stage, each bottle progressively larger, culminating in the guy who brought a water cooler jug with him and made a quip about size mattering. This visual set the tone for the piece, and indeed the set to follow. The opening number was full of lyrics like “I don’t have indigestion but my heart’s on fire,” but the guys were more than up to the task of making the music live up to laughs with some beautiful harmonies and really slick slurred notes. No, the sound wasn’t 100 percent clean, but the guys offered up more than enough charm to remain far more endearing than creepy when they sang about 17-year-old girls—no small feat for a crew of gentlemen with their share of life experience.
After a touch of witty banter, the guys resumed their set with a song by the man they called “one of the greatest song writers of all time”--Adam Sandler’s “Grow Old With You.” Lovely blend on this one, and the guys were shrewd to play to their old school, masculine charm via cute moments like when they stopped to laugh at the notion of letting their lover hold the remote control. The performance encapsulated every bit of the humor and kind heartedness the song called for—excellent stuff.
Shameless closed with Frank Sinatra’s “Just In Time.” The guys demonstrated really good control over their dynamics in this one, letting the piece build upon itself as they rolled along, growing incrementally bigger. They pulled off a huge and quite clean sound for their final chords.
On to the judges. Kim Dawson lauded the group for its humor, but warned them to be careful about making sure their chords locked. Dave Brown thanked the men for their service to the country and said the crowd loved them, but noted that we could hear their breaths, which made for a less clean sound. Danielle Withers called the group seamless and noted their smooth sound, but also pointed out that some of their cut offs were not as clean as they should have been.
Capital Blend, a group of 16 DC-area women took the stage in black and silver. The group opened with “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks. They used some really smart samplings of “Bootylicious” on their transitions between verses and choruses to both give the piece more of a contemporary feel and keep the audience on its toes. Nice, full sound, particularly for an all-female crew. While I liked the way in which the group bounced from side to side over the course of the performance and how that complemented the pulsing rhythm of the piece, I couldn’t help feeling they should have actually moved around more. Just a touch of choreography can go a long way in engaging the audience. Nonetheless, a fun start.
The group finished on Marc Broussard’s ”Home.” Nice, subtle patting-of-thighs body percussion on the intro. One of the surest signs your set is clicking with an audience: about half of the heads in front of me—including one of the judges’—were bobbing with the beat, clearly digging this song choice. Really nice, soulful sound on this soloist and some beautiful riffs from her on the second chorus. Cool step and clap percussion on the breakdown as the soloist ripped loose—I would have liked those stomps to have been even bigger, but I suppose that may be one of the shortcomings of performing in heels. The group fell out to let the soloist own it late in the piece. Little bit of reverb on her solo at the end—I’m not sure if that was intentional, but it actually made for a pretty cool audio effect. Beautiful warm tones on the backing chord for the finish.
Danielle commended the group’s confidence and their attire. She noted the way in which cut offs and choreography could be a bit out of synch on account of the size of the group. She lauded the whistle on “Moves Like Jagger,” but said of the chorus parts weren’t as clear as she would have liked. She suggested they work on their vowel choices. Dave said the group was great, and at its best when they were most excited. He noted how rhythmic their arrangements were, but how much clearer the sound was when they opened their mouths wide. Kim called the group “hawt.” She praised their ability to command the crowd’s attention, but commented on the group’s need to pay attention to the details. She lauded the “Home” soloist.
Dhamakappella was up third. The co-ed group out of Cleveland opened on Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name.” Nice sudden, bold opening. The complementary yellow tops on the guys and purple tops on the women looked fantastic, and really augmented the visual presentation of the set. The choreography itself was sleek and distinctive, and very wisely planned for keeping the women up front as they looked the most at ease with the movements. Very good bass groove on this song. Nice Hindi interlude. My only real qualm with this opening number was the song selection itself. So many groups have covered this song that any group that wants to take it on in the next ten years really needs to think about how it will make the piece its own. The group demonstrated the right energy and a strong enough visual show to make this work, but it’s still a song I’d be pretty reticent to take into a competition.
Beautiful choral blend on the intro to Beyonce’s “Halo,” accented by a lovely Eastern-tinged lead on the instrumental intro. Cool Hindi second solo—in most regards I liked this approach to fusion sound, though there were also points—particularly in this song—when I felt the use of different languages weakened the narrative thread of the piece and lent it disjointed feel. The choreography was a little excessive here—while I won’t go so far as to say that a group shouldn’t choreograph a ballad, I do think that the movement choices need to be a lot more conscientious to engage the audience without undercutting the emotion of the song itself. Really clean moment when the soloist operated alone, then the group comes back in with a rush of sound. Lovely song overall, that I think could have been stronger if the group worked a little less hard—playing with the sound and especially the visuals a little less, and trusting their own fundamentals to deliver beautiful music.
The group closed on LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem.” The percussionst from the first two songs got his shot on the lead to open, and succeeded in getting the crowd clapping along. Uneven lead vocals on this one, but you could see the group having a ton of fun and the choreo was really fluid. This is exactly the type song of song on which a group can afford to choreograph out the wazoo. The lead vocals got lost a number times throughout, but I think it was more of a mic-ing issue than a fault of the group. The perc breakdown part looked great and it was clear the guys were having fun but the sound wasn’t quite clean enough to justify it. Nonetheless, this was a really fun, energetic way to wrap up the set.
Dave said he loved the group. He said they had a strong start and praised the vocal percussionist. He liked the contrasts in the arrangements. He said that when the group choreographs for everyone, they need to make sure it’s all perfectly synchronized. Kim lauded the group’s color scheme and choreography and the “Halo” lead—mentioning her vocal was a little lost at the start of the song but that she shone as the song moved along. Danielle said she was enamored with the group, and particularly the way in which they melded different styles of music. She complimented the bass and the first lead, and said “Halo” was beautiful. She praised the rap on the finish.
The Cocktails were up next out of The University of South Carolina. In true southeast collegiate style, the group offered up a seamless set that felt more like a medley than a set of distinctive songs. This is a trend that groups like The AcaBelles have helped push to the edge of the a cappella mainstream in recent years, and it when it’s well-executed, it goes a long way toward giving a set a cohesive feel and contributing to a group’s identity. I loved The Cocktails’ implementation of the technique here, as they chose to theme their set around the collected works of Lady Gaga. They opened with ”Poker Face” Awesome stage presence from the lead. The choreography was clever if a little overly literal, but this is exactly the kind of song and artist that calls for over-the-top movement. They wrapped up this piece my mixing the lyrics of “Marry the Night” with the rhythm of “Poker Face” for a clever transitional piece.
Very intense start to “Paparazzi” as the girls slowed the tempo way down, and the backing vocalists weren’t the least bit scared to put on stalker faces for a cool visual. Very soft group sound behind the solo, leaning heavily on the low end. Very good percussion. Nice control on the lead, who showed a lot of patience. I probably would have spiced up the second verse—upping the tempo or clipping it shorter. The slow speed added to the intensity of the first verse and made it more interesting, but threatened to lose the audience’s interest as it lingered on.
The Cocktails transitioned to “You and I” very fluidly—you can tell the tempo was set up for that. Smart. The perc joined in and sped things up nicely. Simply fantastic lead for this leg of the medley who offered up a nice country flavor, but also the ability to slam home the power moments of the song. You could see the smiles on group members’ faces as the song went on, and I have no doubt this was most of the their favorite piece to perform. Slick cut off to just the low end singing “you and I,” then the rest of group joining in, part by part, for a lovely effect as they mashed it up “Poker Face” and “Paparazzi”—this generated exactly the sort of electric feel that every group should aspire to on its closing number. I kind of hoped they wouldn’t slip back into “You and I” as it felt like a bit of an anticlimax when they did, but it’s a minor quibble. Strong finish to a really smart set.
Kim said the group was unbelievable and lauded the bass sound, but noted the danger of the arrangement sounding empty in the middle between the bass and the high parts. She lauded the finish, saying they nailed it at that stage. Dave called the group sultry, called the visual presentation professional, and credited the group’s range. He noted that bass note sometimes sounded like more of an alto. He praised “You and I,” but noted the energy flagged a little on the quiet parts. Danielle applauded the group’s swagger. She loved the arrangements. She was looking for more of a climactic moment on “Poker Face” but said the group made up for it on the close. She observed the group’s ability to feel what they were singing and how that translated to the audience.
The final group of the first half was GQ, winners of the Mid-Atlantic Harmony Sweepstakes, from Baltimore, MD. The all-female foursome opened with Mumford and Sons’ “Timshel.” It’s incredibly difficult to describe this quartet’s sound to someone who hasn’t heard them before. They’re not barbershop, though that instinct definitely informs the way they lock chords. They don’t really sing in the contemporary style either, for the dependence on harmony and the general patience of their sound, in place of the percussion and choreography that tend to define the contemporary style. Regardless, hearing GQ felt a lot like hearing the natural evolution of every a cappella group that’s ever sung in any style. They layered harmony upon harmony, anchored by a steady bass. Such a fullness of sound for only four voices, and awesome use of dynamics. I loved the lead on the finish to this song—so clean and the group’s ability to build chords beneath her was simply sublime.
The group followed with Regina Spektor’s ”Samson,” as arranged by Jessica Graham. Beautiful en medias res start to this one—great groups know how to trim songs down to what suits them, and GQ absolutely made this song their own. Beautiful recurring piece as one member of the group would sing a line, then hand it to the next woman, to the next, to the next, before unifying again. When a song is already as beautiful as “Samson” originally was, the best thing for an a cappella group to hope for in a cover is to make the song interesting--that’s exactly what this group did. When the group hit its unisons, each time it felt like a moment. Nice spin off of a theme when they had two voices start a phrase, then the other two finish it, before bringing the four voices together again—so clever. The chords here were not just locked, but friggin’ dead-bolted. The ladies earned a standing ovation from an overwhelming percentage of the crowd, and they still had one more song to go.
The group closed with an old school, almost barbershop sound for Herman’s Hermits’ ”I’m Into Something Good.” Part of what was so fun about this piece is that the woman sounded like an entirely different a cappella group—but no less polished. Incredibly complex sound for just four voices. The song eventually bled into The Turtles’ “Happy Together.” The chorus was huge on this leg of the song—while the sound remained every bit as clean as it had up to that point, they still pulled off a true power moment. The group positively ripped loose on the finish, tying back to “Something Good.” Awesome breakdown on the finish, on which there was no question every single one of these women carried her weight and then some. I love hearing an a cappella group for the first time, but I can probably count on one hand the number of times any group has left even close to as good of a first impression on me as GQ. Sensational set.
Kim said she was falling out of her chair and the group had rendered her speechless. She reminded everyone that it’s a singing competition, and said GQ “just took some people to school.” Dave talked about how the group has outstanding breath support for figuring out how to sing two parts at once. He lauded the dynamics, the selection of arrangements, and how well the group blended. Danielle said they sounded like one voice and called the set beautiful.
InChant opened the second half with Jessie J’s ”Pricetag” Nice perc lead-in, but the intro to the piece nonetheless felt a little abrupt--I probably would have paced that out a little more. Really nice tempo change on the “can we all slow down” lyric, and nice attention to detail for all of the group members looking stage left (rather than their literal lefts) on that lyric. You can tell the group put some thought into this presentation and connecting with the song. Great attitude on the lead. Very good perc. A second group member stepped up to double up with the lead on the rap for a nice moment which culminated in him throwing his fedora into crowd—neat way to break the fourth wall. Solid opening song.
The group followed with Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away.” Really nice bass backing on this and a fine lead. The crowd started clapping on pure instinct on the first chorus, without the group making any move to call for it. In a sense, that means the crowd connected with the piece, but in another sense, that tells me the song choice is too familiar—that the crowd was too ready to clap along out of habit, and the song selection probably should have been a little fresher. Nice swirl of sound on the transition to the third verse, and a nice moment as the soloist let his guard down and let loose a little—a part of what the group was missing up to that point was that killer instinct feel, and this was a taste of it. The group went for the clap-along on the last chorus. I thought the overall presentation here would have benefited from a little more movement to make it less static on stage.
The third song was Ella Fitzgerald’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got Swing).” The low end was killer here. Nice, jazzy sound on this one, but the blend came apart at the seams a little. When the vocal percussionist kicked into gear, and he and the bass hit their groove, the piece got a lot more interesting. Fake out finish after a dubstep breakdown, then female lead joined the male soloist and he ripped it open. Very strong finish.
Danielle talked about how the group was pleasant to watch, but noted the need for the background vocalists to give the leads room to breathe. She wanted the last song to be faster the whole time, rather than just at the modulation. Dave praised the dubstep sound on the breakdown, and credited the group for looking to the audience’s left rather than their own on the “look to the left”s. He said the group could work on diversifying the volume more rather than staying mezzo-forte throughout. He thought the basses struggled a little to lock together. Kim said the group was very fun visually, but she wanted a stronger dynamic plan, because it really only went into effect on the last song.
Next up was Note-oriety. They opened on “hallelujah” syllables for ”It’s Raining Men.” Nice theatrics and stage presence from the spoken lead in front of the group. Very good perc to drive this forward and a very clean bit of body percussion with the women patting their thighs on the second verse. The choreography was really sharp here—intricate and well-synched up. The soloists’ sass was right on, though the vocals were a little uneven at points. This was a really fun opener, and I appreciated that women tackled it with so much firepower. My biggest reservations about this first song had very little to do with the execution, and much more to do with the song choice itself—the song was dated and the piece felt (and to be fair, I think actually was) pretty long. I thought Note-oriety really could have benefited from a third song, but this choice contributed to them not having the time to do so.
The group followed up with Maroon 5’s “Stutter.” The group froze to set up the song, and then very sleekly split apart to let the soloist split the difference. Very nice charisma on the lead, but the truest stars of this peice were the percussionist and the choreographer. From the visual perspective, it’s arguable that the movement was a little overdone, but I appreciated that it was anything but static and that movement was all both interesting and forceful. Really nice staggered turn on the beat at the end of the second chorus. I think a little more dynamic range on this one could have upped the ante on the drama of the song—as a testament to that, the big vocals seemed to take their toll on the finish, as more than one of the women seemed to run out of steam in the endgame. Just the same, a strong closer.
Danielle said the group looked lovely and she thought the choreography was great. She praised the leads, too. She told the group not to be afraid to sing out a little more, observing that they seemed a nervous at points. Dave complimented Note-oriety being together. He praised the first two leads, but noted that, while the last soloist had great chops, she needed to think more about breath support. Kim said the group would benefit from a better dynamic plan—she thought the vocals were great, but they were singing full voice throughout, and would have benefited from giving themselves breaks.
THUMMp was up next. The guys were the 2006 Chicago Harmony Sweepstakes champs. They took the stage in red, short-sleeved, button-up shirts, jeans, and boots. Neat effect with stage lights dark at first so they were five silhouettes. It lent the group an extra bit of mystique. The guys opened with Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe.”Sick percussion here and slick blend from the group for most of the song, though there were parts when the backing vocals came across oddly brassy and almost cheesy, which sort of took me out of the moment on the song. Great intensity on the lead and the guys arrived at a really powerful unison on the finish.
The percussion guy took over to chat on the mic as three of his compatriots left stage, and he talked about how groups use humor in their sets, which made for a pretty funny little monologue in its own right. He faked out the crowd with the suggestion they would do rap song before handing it over to the lead for The Police’s “Roxanne.” The soloist kicked off the song unaccompanied, showing a nice vocal range along the way. The group entered soon enough, driven by their bass and perc again. They went for a cool, slick sound over intensity—I’m not sure I agreed with that call. I’m all for reinventing a piece to your own interests, but this wasn’t quite different enough to really grab me, and not intense enough to fully sell me on this as a viable cover of the original. I could see this piece being really effective as a mood piece to transition between segments in a normal show, but in a ten-minute competition set, I thought the guys spent too much time on the talking, and opted for too mellow of a piece once they got to the music. Putting all of that aside, really nice, precise fallout moment before the group came in for a unison. The lead showed some real chops on the high parts. I certainly can’t knock the guys on musicality.
The guys closed their set with “Lie to Me.” Rich, soulful solo on this one. The guys worked in a really fun rhythm breakdown, leading into the point at which they went for the crowd clap-along. This turned out to be a segue to introduce the group members to the audience. Here’s what was tough for me about evaluating this group. On pure vocals, I think they were probably second only to GQ on this night. Nonetheless, all of the banter with the crowd, and things like introducing each singer made the performance feel much more like any old live gig, as opposed to a competition set. To be fair, these guys have plied their trade for a very long time, and perhaps they have competed in contexts where this brand of showmanship served them well. Nonetheless, all of the talking and the middle song selection spoke to me of a very good group performing ten minutes out of what should have been a longer set, as opposed to a cohesive ten-minute selection, carefully planned for the purpose of this competition. Based upon that creative choice, I felt the guys didn’t leave quite the impression they were fully capable of.
Danielle said the bass was amazing. She lauded the tight harmonies and blend and the soloists’ ability to channel musical greats. Kim said she agreed with Danielle’s comments and that she loved the look of the group, and commented on how their look matched their image as a group and lauded the group’s professionalism. Dave recognized the guys’ experience, as well and the group’s ease on stage. He called them “unlikely rock stars.” He liked the reggae feel on “Roxanne” but wanted more funk on “Harder to Breathe.”
The RAMifcations were up next. They opened in triangular formation for a choral intro that spotlighted the sopranos until the bass came in. From there, they spread out to make way for the soloist on AWOLNATION’s “Sail.” Very good lead, but she had a tendency to move the microphone a little too much—sometimes far enough away from her mouth that notes were lost. Cool leaning choreography—enough to keep it interesting without overwhelming the audience. The group executed the instrumental portion of the song nicely, but it ran very, very long—some strategic clipping really could have helped this song move.
The group followed with “Distance” by Christina Perri. Simply beautiful solo here. Nice soft sound from group that showed their ability to diversify their dynamics, though the blend came apart a little on the second verse with the low parts sticking out; later on, the sopranos overwhelmed everyone else. Nice swell of sound from the group on the whole for the last chorus, and the soloist showed great control, getting bigger and bigger without ever losing hold of her part. Nice change of pace on that song.
The RAMifications wrapped up with Kanye West’s “Paranoid.” Really fun choreography with a row of women convulsing in background. The lead’s vocals got lost in the group sound for a bit early on. I very much liked the rap lead—really good cadence for it. I liked the movement on this number—relatively freestyle dancing, which looked fun. The choral repetitions of “why so paranoid” from group were delightfully creepy to finish the song well.
Dave praised the visual elements of the performance. He found their introduction very inviting, particularly for the use of the lighting. He liked the vibrato on the first song. He found the group most comfortable when it went up-tempo. Danielle praised the group’s patience. She liked the edgy, dark feel of the set and praised the final arrangement. Kim loved the look of the group and the way in which individuals had their own looks, but put it all together as an ensemble. She warned the group to be careful with the vibrato because it’s hard to lock a chord in that fashion.
The Sapphires wrapped up the evening. The ladies from UNCG wore black and blue. Nice perc to lead off Janelle Monae’s “Many Moons.” Really good complexity of sound from this group, and killer percussion. I really appreciated the control the group demonstrated over its sound, singing confidently and at a high volume without ever threatening to blow the speakers. The movement was really well-planned, too, including a lot of cool moments like sliding into motion on the “throw it down instead of throwing it up” lyric. The choreography seemed like an organic extension and augmentation of the music, which is exactly what it should have been all about. Fun slow motion pacing into a new formation on the closing groove.
The women froze in provocative poses leading into the slow, soft intro to The Police’s “Roxanne”, executed in the style of Moulin Rouge. The sopranos were positively piercing, which wasn’t exactly pleasant, but set the tone nicely for the harsh, emotional piece to follow. Nice use of hip sways on the staccato notes to visually punctuate the song. This one was all about intensity. Case in point, I was a little lukewarm on the second lead during her soft intro, but once she started to belt and emote, I was 100 percent sold on her as a performer. Sublime moment when the whole-group sound got big—this is clearly where the group is most in its element, and the dynamic variation set up that transition beautifully. Bonus points for the dramatic addition of the percussion—everything about this performance was uncomfortable in a perfect way—pained, jagged, and genuinely emotional. Excellent song.
Kim praised the way in which the ladies commanded the stage. She loved the first soloist and her knowledge of her own voice. She dug the pose at the end of the first song. She called the “Roxanne” arrangement amazing and the choreo brilliantly executed. Dave said he’d never heard “Roxanne” performed like that before and said that the leads really delivered. He noted that some of the transitions were rough, but when they got comfortable it was great. Danielle appreciated the intensity of the performance. She lauded the soprano descant and how effortless it seemed.
While the judges deliberated, the audience had the opportunity to call in votes for the superlative of “Audience Favorite.” Plenty of good performances, but I couldn’t help feeling GQ was truly transcendent and that no one rivaled them for first place. I had The Cocktails in second for their creativity and care in set design and that last solo; I had THUMMp and The Sapphires duking it out for third—THUMMp the more polished, professional act; The Sapphires the ones to lay their hearts and souls on the line for a shot at competition glory. In the end, GQ took home both the well-deserved honor of audience favorite, and the judges touted them as the winners of the night.
Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night
2. The Cocktails
3. TIE: The Sapphires and THUMMp
1. The Cocktails for "You and I"
2. Thummp for “Lie to Me”
3. Capital Blend for "Home"
2. The Sapphires
3. TIE: The Cocktails and Dhamakappella
1. GQ for "Samson"
2. The Sapphires for "Roxanne"
Best Vocal Percussion: THUMMp
ACA Idol Champions: GQ
Audience Favorite: GQ