On Friday, February 21, South Lakes High School in Reston, VA played host to the SingSgrong Aca-Idol competition. No pics from this show because photos were not allowed, but if you like what you read here, please still be sure to like The A Cappella Blog on Facebook. Before the review, a quick summary of the show.
The Virginia Commonwealth Univeristy RAMifications
Pitches Be Crazy
The Gettysburg College Four Scores
Tonic and Gin
Fusion Vocal Band
The Virginia Commonwealth University Notochords
University of Mary Washgington Symfonics
York College of Pennsylvania Rhapsody
Kim Hudson from MAXX Factor
Blake Lewis of American Idol season six fame
Rob Dietz from so many things, inluding The Sing-Off, The Funx, and Human Feedback
SingStrong is back, and early this year! This Aca-Idol competition has some cool quirks, including the fact that the judges get on the mic and offer live feedback to the groups after each performance and the audience gets a vote in determining the night's winners.
The first competing group was The RAMifications. The co-ed group started with just one member on stage for Delta Rae's "Bottom of the River." The rest of the group skulked onto stage, stomping gently in time, providing the echo to the solo as they went. Very nice visual, particularly with the lighting and smoke on stage. Very smooth backing vocals from the group and they looked very sure in their movement, which was effective without being overdone. Really good solo work, starting soft and subtle and swelling to a power vocal.
The song bled right into Alex Clare's "Too Close." Really nice low end on this one and a good solo. Very nice perc. It's very nitpicky, but the group planned a neat visual effect on the "which was is right" lyric by sliding to their rights--I wish they'd added the extra bit of detail by moving to their lefts, so the audience would see them going right (stage right). Hey, I said it was nitpicky--that's the kind of detail and level of polish, though, that can help a good group ascend to the next level.
Slick cut off en route to Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek" I really dug the fluid nature of this set. I didn't entirely love the song choices, of course, because it was kind of a tour of over-exposed a cappella of the past five years--three songs that I'd guess each chart in the top ten most covered songs in a cappella during that period. But The RAMifications still did some cool things with the songs, and particularly the transitions. "Hide and Seek" was visually very compelling with subtle, well-timed turns to fit the music--enough to stay engaging without ever overwhelming the audience or distracting from the music. Good use of dynamics, but the blend was a little uneven. That's probably the hardest part of this song and taking it on chorally, as most groups do. The syncopation was on point, the tuning and blend a little askew for the duration. I really liked the call to slide perc into the penultimate chorus to push the tempo and mix this one up a little. It also seemed to fit really nicely with this group's identity as more of a grooving, edgy group than a choral ensemble. The perc ended up feeding into a revisiting of "Bottom of the River" which was really compelling--I loved the symmetry. Little hint of "Too Close" mixed in with "Bottom of the River" and eventually "Hide and Seek" came back on the finish. I'm all for making the set one big, cohesive whole and this finish was all about that effect--nicely rendered. Cool visual of everyone raising their hands in clusters on the last round of "hold my hands."
Kim said, "Wow." She said the group finished huge and liked the choice to go to the front of the stage on the finish. She thought the dynamic shifts caused some tuning problems. She loved the choreo. Rob said the group showed up to compete, thought about entertaining the crowd, and came across as focused. He questioned how "Bottom of the River" fell in the narrative, confused about the emotional core of the performance. Blake said he was really impressed with the way the set started, though he agreed with the tuning issues on the transition, particularly citing that "Hide and Seek" started flat. He thought the perc was a little too much on "Too Close." Rob said the ending was great.
Pitches Be Crazy was up next. They took the stage with four shrouded figures in the background before a rapping soloist emerged from the side of the stage for Joe's "Stutter." Sick bass when it keyed in and very nice percussion. The arrived at an electric moment as the group lost its robes and moved to the stage. I would have loved a little more movement or conscious presentation from the soloists at that point, because things looked a little stagnant after that moment. While I liked the idea of the women taking the lead on the chorus, their sound didn't gel with the vibe of this music quite as well, which kind weakened the overall show for me. Really nice power on the rap at the bridge, though I wish they'd either slowed things down a little or the rapper had enunciated a bit more clearly because it came across a growl with few discernible lyrics. This group clearly has a wealth of talent, but this is one of those points at which careful song selection and assignment of parts in line with the talents of your group is pivotal to putting your best foot forward.
The group went for a clap along on the opening "Black Water" by The Doobie Brothers. The group went for a slow groove from there, which I felt was a miscalculation--they had the crowd with them then. The tempo pushed forward from there but the group didn't feel fully in synch after that. The tempo and style shifts, while challenging and mostly well-executed, read a little incoherent to me. They went with a gospel feel in the end game, before they went old school choral on the final bars.
Pitches Be Crazy closed with Orishas’ "Represent Cuba." Really god use of the female lead on this one, and good backing rap here, adding a Latin flavor to the piece along with the percussionist. Nice bit of a salsa movement to match the tune. The repetition of "represent represent" on the rap got kind of irritating--it's an example of a case in which a cappella groups need not transcribe an original song--they look for opportunities to make the music their own and improve upon it. Excellent female rap sample later on--this is what this song should have been all about for this group.
Blake thanked PBC for entertaining us and said he liked their hip hop swag. He thought the blend was off early on and the bass and beat box got off on stutter. The tempo inconsistencies through him off on "Back Water" and he said they probably could have done it without the beatbox. He thought there were too many runs. Kim said the group had a dynamic stage presence. She agreed with the pitch problems, but lauded the group's entertainment factor. Rob liked the group's energy, identity, and look. He said the basics needed work. He suggested they work on the rhythm section, then the upper voices. He liked that the group blended genres, but thought it was a little too much. He liked the hip hop and Latin influences, but he felt "Black Water" went a little left field. He recommended base their identity more on hip hop.
Next, The Four Scores. The co-ed group swayed its way into the opening of "As If We Existed" by Sollaliquists of Sound. The solo was really lost in the group sound on the first verse. Good rap solo coming in later on--not only for the quality of the vocal (which was great) but for the unlikely visual of a white kid in suspenders breaking it down like that. Good perc and bass, though they really dominated the sound there. In the choice to give handheld mics to selected group members and use area mics to capture everything else, you need to be careful around the risk of a handful of individuals overwhelming everyone else. Cool ivsual with the group huddling around the rap soloist on the finish.
They followed with Death Cab for Cutie's "I Will Follow You Into the Dark." I liked the soft, easy opening, but the tuning sounded a little flat to me and the soloist, while clearly talented, didn't sound like right fit for this song--and particularly on a song for which the lead was going to be so prominent. Some pretty runs on the ends of the choruses. The feeling I get is that this is much more a party group than a soft, sweet musical one, thus this song felt like a less than ideal choice for a competition setting for them.
The group closed with "Brainwashed" by the Dirty Gems. Fun opening bit with the women standing in place while men circled them. Good solo. Fun bit of salsa choreo there, but it felt a little thrown in and I tend to feel it's awkward when soloists execute choreo like that with the group. The soloist is the one with the eyes on her--I just want stage presence from her, and let the backup dancers do their thing to complement her. Similar really conscious slide move after that. The vocal on this solo was the best the group had to offer and the over ll sound was the fullest, but the performance wasn't quite as electric as I would have hoped for. Nice bit of a clap break down with quick claps from the group as two new leads broke out the side and sang at each other, before being joined by a third. The group had right idea there.
Kim said The Four Scores did a great job. She said one of the hardest things to do is to stand there and sing and be entertaining and she said the harmony was great, particularly on "I Will Follow You Into the Dark." Blake said the group was great. He said it's tough with just a beatboxer and soloist on mic, and he liked the four-part harmony. He praised the fast beatboxing. He liked the creative song choices, but said he didn't feel engaged as an audience member because of the lack of facial expressions. He said the arrangement of The Death Cab song was beautiful. Rob disagreed with Blake, saying the group stayed engaged. He liked the group's tuning and blend--solid fundamentals. He said the group might benefit from all individual microphones because they lost the nuance of their arrangements with the area mics.
Tonic and Gin was up next, an eight-person mixed voice group. They led off with "Not Over You" by Gavin DeGraw. Really nice solo here and a great group vocal beneath him. I loved the bass sound on this one. Really good perc as well and nice fullness of sound. Great dynamic shift, going choral for just a second late in the second verse--subtle enough to not take away from the song, powerful enough it gave the group an electric moment. I loved the handling of the final chorus, breaking things down and letting the high harmonies breathe. Really good stage presence from everyone--this was just, top to bottom, a professional performance befitting a post-collegiate group that's been operating together for ten years. Excellent opener.
The group followed up with Usher's "Without You." Really goo, understated opening before the percussion keyed in and I liked that the group kept this one slow in the early going, letting the notes breathe. This is a great example of making a song your own to spotlight what your group does well--this isn't a party group in my estimation, and they made this song a legit ballad. Lovely choral bit kicking off the second verse. I really liked the way the group choreographed, focusing on repositioning for emphasis rather than movement for the sake of movement. The solo fell a little flat at points, but was still far more good than bad.
Tonic and Gin wrapped up with Michael Buble's "I Just Haven't Met You Yet." Again, a fantastic song choice for the personality of this group--a song with a pop sensibility and slick steady sound--never rushing, but never boring. Great stuff. Really fun dynamic with the men and women interacting in pairs in the background--mostly the guys hitting on the ladies and getting shut down until they switched partners and worked it out toward the end. I was a little lukewarm on the trumpet solo. Nice doubling on the lead vocal. The group book ended the song with fun samples of the "love love love"s in the style of "All You Need Is Love." For me, this song sealed the deal for a really top-notch set.
Kim said she was so glad she met them. She said Tonic and Gin was great all the way through, and were really entertaining. Blake said he felt the same way. He was blown away with them and called them the most entertaining group of the night. He didn't like the arrangement of "Without You" as much of the rest of the set. Rob said the set was really cute. He loved the last song and its entertainment factor. For the middle song he wanted a clearer sense of the emotion of that song, and what the group was trying to sell. He thought the first lead was great. Rob said he heard a lot of open bass syllables--he wanted more closed stuff so it's less about the bass acting as a distinctive voice, calling less attention to itself.
B Major closed the first half. They opened with "Some Nights" by fun. Nice, clean sound on the opening, though the blend felt a litle off as it went along. Really nice tenor solo here. Nice groove from the group. The staging looked a little stiff. Nice grooving percussion here. The syllable choices sounded a little repetitive and basic here, I'd have loved a little more complexity, particularly given how played this song choice is you need to think about ways of elevating it for your group. A top notch soloist is something, but I was hoping for a little more. Wonderful hum of bass on the iconic "come on" part of this song. The soloist nailed those hig parts on the finish. Played song choice aside, I liked that the group attacked the stage with such a big vocal to make their first impression.
B Major moved on to "The Parting Glass" in the style of Ed Sheeran. Really nice, warm sound on the opening, and a really nice sincerity of solo there, standing way at the front of the stage with the group in the distance in soft green lighting--that visual really captured the feel of this song as an Irish drinking song of farewell. The perc keyed in on the second verse, reimagining the song at that point, pushing the tempo and keying in with the backing vocals. The group swelled with a steady crescendo to sell the epic feel of their version of this song. Nice soft bit on the final chorus before the perc keyed-in in epic fashion. Nicely done. I wish the group had allotted time for a third song to more fairly evaluate them next to the other acts at this show. Nonetheless, I appreciate the choice to only bring your A game to competition. A very moving closer for an emotion-packed set.
Blake thought the performance was awesome from start to finish, but he wanted a third song. Kim thought that vocally they were the tightest group up to that point, though they lost the lead for a bit on "Some Nights." She loved the vocals and thought that the way some phrase endings were cut was a little jarring. Rob said he loved the group's dynamic range. He wanted a little more soul from the background--at their best they sounded like a track but there were moments where it felt stilted. He also wanted the group to darken its vowels a little on the opening of "Some Nights."
Fusion Vocal Band hit the stage next. Sick perc to lead off Donna Summer's "Love To Love You Baby" which quickly transitioned to Jennifer Lopez's "Dance Again." Very nice bass and a strong female lead here. Really good sound all around, and nice depth of sound--especially for just seven voices on stage.The group transitioned seamlessly into Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." Really fun interactions on stage as the group members danced with one another and reconfigured their stage positions, leaving the new lead front and center for "Do You Love Me" by The Contours. Such a fun groove from this group and they all looked like they were having fun. Very natural, very slick--just a top-to-bottom stellar opening. The next transition feeds into "Just Dance" by Lady Gaga. Nice slowed down groove there before the group mashed it all together on the finish. This sort of medley and mashup arrangement and the execution thereof really underscores the difference between professionals who know what they're doing and the bevy of groups who have less successfully taken a swing at mixing songs together in the aftermath of Pitch Perfect. This performance was cohesive and accomplished.
From there, the group moved on to Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble." Nice sparse intro before the group grooved into place en route to the first chorus. The perc was killer again at this point. The soloist was good throughout, but was fantastic when she opened up the vocals on the chorus. The group did a nice job of playing with the tempo to keep this one interesting but it ultimately still felt like it dragged a little bit--I might have clipped it shorter.
Fusion ended with Rihanna's "SOS (Rescue Me)." I felt like the group was going for sexy there, but it didn't quite suit their personalities--that's a case where you have to know your wheelhouse. Really fun explosion of the group from the center, but that moment, aside, they looked and sounded best when they were standing in place and grooving. The solo work was excellent for this song as well, again, particularly when the vocals went big. Another solid outing.
Blake thought the rhythm section was fantastic. He thought the dance medley was a really fun arrangement. Kim loved the lead vocals all the way through. She thought the group members all had a bright ping to their voices so the blend was good, but the challenge is that very bright pingy voices, when they're too loud, can get too pingy. The tone and blend were beautiful. Rob said they were really great and had an easy presence. He said they owned the dance medley, and said the group was inviting. He commented everybody's singing at all times, and there are times when you can pare that back and focus more on the rhythm section and let the song evolve.
The Notochords were up next. They opened with a soft, fanciful take on OneRepublic's "Counting Stars." I liked the choice for a distinctive sound there before the perc mixed in as they launched into the verse for a more conventional take on the song. Nice solo work here, perfectly at ease on the range of tricky vocals, all the way up into the high parts. Really nice percussion here to boot. The group was fun to watch during the less choreographed parts, grooving individually and clearly feeling the music; they looked a little awkward when they had staged movement together. A sample of "Wade in the Water" came in. As an aside, it's funny because earlier that day I had listened to an NPR story that discussed the gospel influences in this song and, sure enough, The Notochords made an interesting choice to really play with that dynamic. I'm not sure I felt that particular creative choice, but I really like the core of the idea and hope that the group will keep playing with that. Fun bit with the group seeming to flat line, before a single voice brought them back to life and we had female and male double solo. That's a nice homage to the group's origins on the VCU medical campus, and I think it's great whenever groups can throw in subtle nods to their specific group identity or history.
The group carried on with Ingrid Michaelson's "Ghost." Nice backing vocals here, but the lead felt a little stilted to me. Some nice staging with members holding hands and leaning away from one another, threatening to break. Really cool bit with the group members' backs to the soloist walking away from her on the bridge. The VP was solid here again and went a long way toward selling the drama of the song.
The group reconfigured into three clusters on the finish to set up its closer, Fall Out Boy's "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light 'Em Up)" Bad ass bit with two group members clapping on the intro as the group keyed in with power vocals. Interesting choice to go with a female lead on this one. I really loved the subtle transition into Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" as they sprinkled lyrics in the background to foreshadow it before going full-tilt. Cool pairing of two pretty epic songs and the group made the most of its lighting effects using silhouettes and slow motion movements to present this one in truly electric fashion. While I had enjoyed the first two-thirds of this set, it was as a though a totally different group took the stage for the closer--excellent stuff!
Kim said she liked the group. She said she was nervous at first given the size of the group, but they kept under control. She said the last song was great and their vocal technique was great, though she thought the singing and staging could be a little too careful prior to that point. She loved when they let things loose. Blake agreed the group didn't bring it until the end. He liked all of the leads and their tones and that everyone blended for that tone. Jonathan asked Rob if the group should start or end with it's best song. Rob said ideally every song will be great, though he agreed with the choice to end with that song because it left the best impression. He said he liked the mashup of "Wade of the Water" and "Counting Stars"--he thought it was really smart because the gospel part lends itself to that. He thought the energy was good but they could have given more--he wanted them to free the beast.
Symfonics performed next. Nice look for the coed group with the women in pink and red dresses, the gentlemen in white shirts, black slacks, and red bow ties. Really nice, sensual solo work here for Lana Del Ray's "Million Dollar Man"--wonderful stage presence and the group looked nice in the background. It sounded as though the group was missing a mid-range vocal and the bass was overwhelming the high parts a little. Good crescendo toward the end, though I wish there had been more variation leading up to that. Just the same it was a nice, distinctive song choice.
Nicely executed perc solo with plenty of bass as an interlude to the "Sweater Weather" by The Neighbourhood. Nice sass on this solo and nice, swirling effect on the perc. The choreo looked a bit stiff and unevenly executed with some people walking through the motions, some dancing. One of the hard choices for a cappella groups to make revolves around finding a choreo mid-point that everyone can execute, without having the more talented dancers outshine the rest of the group and stick out--or you find particular opportunities to showcase the movement of those group members. Nice variance of tempo as this one went on to sell the drama and keep this song interesting.
Blake lauded the beatboxer and said he really dug the arrangement of the "Sweater Weather." He wanted the beatbox to tighten to keep the buzzing under control and bass in tune on the opener. Rob agreed that the VP was very good.He liked the choice to structure the set around the beatboxer. The tuning and blend could be hit and miss, and he liked that they played to their strengths and suggested they keep doing that. He thought they had nice, sultry leads. Kim thought the set was great--she liked the consistent wall of sound, though she would have liked to have heard a little more of a dynamic in the solo--more peak--it was so sweet but she wanted it a little more raunchy even if just for a second. She thought the beatbox was a huge surprise, but she was hoping they wouldn't go back to quite the same staging and the same kind of finish, so they could distinguish the songs more.
The Lobby was up next. Fun lead in with a group member on his phone and cutting off right before the group started on "Nobody's Perfect" by Jessie J. Really slick sound all around here. Great low end, very good percussion and a really nice solo. Some lovely harmonies beneath her, particularly between the verses. Great R&B sound here. I liked the choice to stand and let the group's stage presence paint the picture--they were engaging without choreo. Reconfiguration on the finish as the group sound died way down as they formed a tight arc around the soloist. This group was so good when the sound got big, though I thought a little more dynamic variation would have punched that even more.
The group followed with Parachute's "Kiss Me Slowly" Really silky solo here--man, I dug that. Again a nice choice not to over think the movement, concentrating on the really impressive backing vocals. With a group this small, every person has his or her own part and there were no weak links in this group. Nice swell of sound on the last chorus before the fall out for the soloist to finish unaccompanied.
Perc and clap lead into "Happy" by Pharrell Williams. Great party song finish, letting this set grow, evolve and switch moods. Transition to a female lead who more than held her own--awesome stage presence from this young woman. The group maintained the backing vocals ably on each of the transitions between leads This was just such a fun, deceptively difficult closer.
Rob congratulated The Lobby on a fantastic first performance. He said the best way he could put it was that they sound like a fantastic group at the start of their journey. Things didn't quite settle in the first song, but as they gel we have the stars of tomorrow. He said he wanted the bass to chill out a little and be more smooth. Kim said this is an amazing group and ther's no way that's their first performance. She said their talent and command of stage screamed experience. She thought every one of them had a solo voice and they were amazing. Blake said the group made him happy. He thought the leads were great and he wanted to hear more. He wanted to hear the inner voicings come out more on the second song and praised their command over the crowd.
Rhapsody was the final competing group.The co-ed group opened in rows with a condcuctor at the fore to lead a choral opening to fun.'s "Some Nights." I credit them for at least doing something different with this song, not to mention for having really clean tuning and blend at this point. The soloist broke from the pack to key into the groove of the first verse.She came across as powerful but also a little out of control there and I'm not sure if she was going for power or sensuality. Transition to antoehr soloist then they clustered for an awkward looking group bob toward the front of the stage. Two more transitions to follow . The group maintainied it's sound well on the soloist transitions and the low end was really good there.
The group reocnfigured to a V-formation on the intro to "It's Raining Men" by The Weather Girls. Interesting choice to go choral on this one. Some really fun staging as the group back pedaled in circles into a new formation. The blend really came off the rails on the chorus. Really fun bit as the guys each posed for the different descriptions of the kind of men it was raining. I liked that the group didn't take itself too seriously and had fun with the song there. Another fun visual as the group collapsed so a soloist could step forward and lead the group into a staggered up and down clapping motion. Lots of fun.
Rhapsody closed with a Michael Jackson medley that started with "Man in the Mirror" in the background, with single lines of other Jackson favorites layered over it including "ABC" and "I'll Be There." Really cool bit as "I'll Be There" and "Man in the Mirror" started alternating lines. I don't know that that should have worked, but to heck with it, that was a pretty electric little moment there. The opening Jackson snippets felt a little thrown into me but I guess they were foreshadowing the more straight up medley style that was on its way. They sung a bit of "Smooth Criminal," which fed into "Thriller." This one was a lot of fun to watch and I liked the choice to interpserse songs into each other rather than just moving from song to song or going for a pure mashup, though the uneven attention different songs received made it a little difficult for me to fully follow what the group was going for. "Beat It" came next, then "Billie Jean." The piece got more and more mash-y until five soloists were operating at once. There are times when such a configuratino can work, and times when the sound gets muddled and, unfortunately, by the end of this medley I felt there was simply too much happening at once, which transformed a group of really able singers into a cacophony of noise. I think the key for this group moving forward on ambitious pieces like this is going to be to simplify, simplify, simplify. On the bright side I really liked the moon walk that happened in the background on the finish.
Blake said the group was so much fun and he liked the individuality on stage which is particualrly difficult for a group that's twenty people deep. Kim agreed, but said the challenge is to make the arrangement not seem like a choral arrangement and there were times when the group struggled with that, through they broke free of that on the last song. She liked their aprpoach to turning six songs into one. Rob echoed the group was fun and called them "a party on stage." He said he liked the gosepl take on "It's Raining Men." He thought more moments of individuality would help them connect even more with the audience.
As the audience cast its votes I made my picks for the night. All in all, I felt there were three semi-pro groups that broke ahead of the pack. I thought Fusion Vocal Band had a really professional presentation and a simply sensational rhythm section. The Lobby demonstrated awesome stage presence and lead vocals and, in the end, I felt it was a real toss up between them and Tonic and Gin, which presented the most cohesive, polished set--excellent by most every measure.
In the end, B Major took home the Audience Favorite accolade voted on by cell phone and the judges declared The Lobby the champions of this year's Aca-Idol.
Mike Chin's Picks for the Night
1. Tonic and Gin
2. The Lobby
3. Fusion Vocal Band
1. The Lobby for "Kiss Me Slowly"
2. Tonic and Gin for "Not Over You"
3. B Major for "Some Nights"
Outstanding Visual Presentation
1. The Notochords for "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light 'Em Up)"/"Radioactive"
2. The RAMifications for the gfull set
3. Rhapsody for the full set
1. Fusion Vocal Band for the dance medley
2. The Notochords for "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light 'Em Up)"/"Radioactive"
3. Tonic and Gin for the full set
Outstanding Vocal Percussion
1. Fusion Vocal Band
2. The Lobby
3. Tonic and Gin
Audience Favorite: B Major
Winner: The Lobby