On Saturday, April 20, Town Hall in New York, NY, played host to the 2013 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Finals. The event featured eight competing groups. Before we get to the review, a quick summary:
ICCA Mid-Atlantic Champions The Cornell University Chordials
ICCA Wild Card Champions The Belmont University Beltones
ICCA Midwest Champions University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana No Comment
ICCA South Champions Florida State University Reverb
ICCA Great Lakes Champions The University of Michigan G-Men
ICCA International Wild Card Champions The University of Birmingham, UK Sons of Ptiches
ICCA West Champions The University of California Los Angeles Scattertones
ICCA Northeast Champions The Northeastern University Nor’easters
Emcees: Lo Barreiro, Hannah Juliano, and the Varsity Vocals Production Team
Town Hall did not allow photographs of this evening’s event, but photos are to be made available via Varsity Vocals’s official photographer at a later date
Varsity Vocals Executive Director Amanda Newman led off the show, welcoming the sold out crowd at Town Hall. From there Centerville High School Forte the first runners up from the ICHSA Finals, opened the night with Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away.” Another stellar performance from this uber-talented group that synergizes dramatic verve and musical precision like few other groups at any level of a cappella. It was particularly cool to hear this group live and with individual mics for every single group member, allowing them to expose the fullest sound of the group to the live crowd in New York.
In a really neat twist this year, each region’s champion was introduced by that region’s ICCA producer, with a couple other noteworthy figures from Varsity Vocals filling in when there was not as obvious a representative. This choice not only gave these hard working folks some well-deserved face time in front of the New York crowd, but also helped communicate what a big deal it was for each of these groups to perform at this particular event. I loved it.
ICCA Mid-Atlantic Producer Holli Matze introduced her region’s champions, The Chordials, tacking the Finals stage for the first time since 2004.
The co-ed group took the stage in black and red. They opened their set with “Plain Gold Ring” by Kimbra. Nice subtle start with the soloist operating at the front of the stage and soft bit of instrumentation and subtle percussion behind her, before the group unfurled from the center of the stage to form clusters to either side of the soloist. Really smart choices for fall out moments allowing the soloist to function on her own. This was a cool, intense opener that moved from sultry to almost angry, in either case dripping with emotion and defined by super clean harmonies, plus a handful of Easter eggs of sound where a single group member would echo the lyrics. Great visual choices throughout this piece for the group to assume new configurations on stage, consistently changing their presentation without any gratuitous movement. Really strong, ripping finish from the soloist.
Excellent transition to the second song as the group members stood in place and lowered their heads while a new soloist stepped forth for “Lies” by The Black Keys. Really powerful unaccompanied solo on the opening here. I loved how confident this group was in its soloists to give them room to operate on their own and introduce the audience to unique their personalities before the group grooves on in. Pounding percussion on this one. Phenomenal swells of sound and excellent visuals to accentuate them as the soloist dropped to his knees and the group pulsed forth, reaching for him. This performance fully sold the desperation of the song. When the lyrics talk about someone wanting to die, every performer on the stage should reflect that pain, and this group was on it. The vocals were gritty and pained. The facial expressions were set to match. Stellar middle song.
The Choridals wrapped up with Alex Clare’s ”Too Close”. As I’ve noted throughout this Varsity Vocals season, tons of groups are covering this song this year. The great ones are finding ways to make this song their own. This group had the fire to pull off “Too Close” for sure, but also made a really shrewd choice to pat their legs to add texture and a sense of urgency to the percussion on the first verse. That’s not to undersell the more conventional rhythm section at work here, either, as the bass and percussionist more than held up their ends of the bargain. Another very good solo here, and sensational bit as the group fell out for just two of the women to sing with him, keying off the penultimate chorus. Strong power finish to this song. Part of what makes this incarnation of The Choridals special is their sheer intensity. They have developed an identity around a cappella with an edge.
ICCA Director Dave Rabizadeh announced the ICCA Wild Card Champions, The Beltones.
The male group members marched onto stage in perfect rhythm before a female member emerged from the center of the pack to key into the solo of Delta Rae’s ”Bottom of the River.” Soon after the rest of the group’s women marched in from the left of the stage. Creative take on the rhythm as the group expanded on the stomps with thigh slaps and complex clapping patterns, led by two men, one at either side of the stage. Every instant of this performance was carefully plotted with the group not just repositioning itself but doing so with unreal gravitas. The facials landed somewhere between pained and almost undead—stellar theatrics.
The low hum from “Bottom of the River” continued on a seamless transition to by ”Barton Hollow” The Civil Wars. I loved the downhome tone this group assumed—the set felt like a story of desperate, dirty people, clawing their way from ugly circumstances with a story to share. Stellar interplay between the two leads and I loved that ominous, almost whistling hum that provided the undercurrent throughout this song. Awesome creative decision to subvert the audience’s expectations coming out of the bridge, not proceeding with the groove, but instead a fortissimo choral attack before the perc keyed back in. Excellent execution all around.
The hum carried on to segue to Alison Krauss’s “Down to River to Pray.” I don’t know that I could pick a better selection of songs for this group’s sensibilities. The hum receded soon for crystal clean harmonies beneath the soloist’s soaring high lead. Two men stepped forward to transition to “Cry Me A River” in the style of Michael Buble. They went unaccompanied before the perc keyed in . While this song was well-handled, I felt a little disappointed that the set slipped into a bit more a show choir feel at this point—while the transition was quite deft, it was, nonetheless, a stark departure from what the group was doing up to that point and I think that groups performing at this level need to think really carefully about presenting a unified identity, and the second leg of this closer lost me a bit. I will give them credit for the common river thread that spread between the two parts of this closer and the first song. Very nice finish the with the two soloists singing to each other before the group came on strong, then stopped and posed and percussionist joined them. Strong set.
ICCA Midwest Producer Leah Gastman introduced the ICCA Midwest Champions, No Comment.
The coed group opened with “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston. Nice visual as the group dropped to its knees, leaving the first soloist standing in the back to work his way to the front of the stage. I said it at semis and I’ll say it again—Iloved the chemistry between the male and female leads on this performance, and loved the arrangement embracing the softer side of the song, particularly on the first chorus making it fell really intimate, capturing the spirit of wanting not just a party but to dance with a partner you care about. The group opened up the song as it went along , still letting the party piece of the song have its day as the tempo picked up in the second verse and the second chorus saw group members pair off to dance with each other for a brief, glorious moment. Part of what was strong about this performance was all the power moments built in aurally and visually, that had the audience positively popping for the group mid-song. It also played to the group’s advantage that this was relatively light-hearted piece in contrast to the heavier sets from groups to precede No Comment.
Smooth transition to he second song with everyone still, then sliding in time with the music to their new positions in a tight cluster behind the second soloist for Sara Bareilles’s ”Breathe Again.” Similar to the first piece, this one started soft and warm, lending the group worlds of room to build. The soloist offered the first hints of her power on the chorus, opening up the vocals a bit. I don’t support overly literal choreography, but this is one of this instances when the movement echoed and complemented the lyrics as the group spread out of its tight cluster on the “open up” lyric. This song was real tour de force for controlled emotion, always well reined in, while still demonstrating remarkable emotional range and fully capturing the romantic desperation that defines this song. Really lovely bit on the finish as the instrumentation fell away, leaving the heartbeat percussion to stand tall and drive the end of the song.
No Comment finished up with Zed’s “Clarity.” Great visual bit as the group leaned into the beat in staggered formations. Another very good solo. In addition to being a very good a cappella group, part of what’s really special about seeing a group like No Comment on stage is you one hundred percent get the impression that it means everything for this group to be singing at Finals. Don’t get me wrong--ICCA Finals are a big deal for everyone involved in them, but there’s nonetheless something pretty special about a group that’s competed for years and never made it out of quarterfinals before drinking in every moment of their well-deserved debut on the Finals stage. Really fun dub-step breakdown leading to an explosion of sound on the finish, highlighted by group members pumping their fists and rocking out on stage. Quite a moment and quite a finish for an excellent set.
ICCA South Producer Lindsay Howerton came out next to introduce the ICCA South Champions, Reverb.
The all-male group wore white collared shirts, powder blue bowties and black slacks, many of them with black sweaters, vests, or jackets. They made their entrance with just four group members on stage, each mic’ed singing in almost barbershop harmony before a fifth member came out and cut them off, telling them to sing with more swagger. At this point, other group members made their entrances from opposite sideso f the stage. Really fun intro on the lead into Montell Jordan’s “This Is How we Do it.” The crowd clearly wanted to cheer these guys, clapping their way into the intro. Just seven group members on stage at that point before the rest of the pack joined them to key into Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” There’s a point at which humor takes away from musicality. Then there’s a point at which a group is having such sincere fun on stage that you can’t help but smile in the audience. The two sides squared off against each other in what bordered on a West Side Story-esque gang war—except it also felt like a party on stage. Four guys up front again for a dance breakdown on the bridge. I saw these guys for the first time last year and commented on their sincerity and spirit making them a really unique act and this opening song only bolstered that perception of them. I think the group said it best themselves, as they adapted the lyrics to, “Reverb does it like nobody does.” Spectacular opener.
Seamless transition to Demi Lovato’s ”Give Your Heart a Break.” Earnest take on this song, making the most bubble gum of pop tunes into a perfectly serious ballad. These guys are so much fun it’s easy to miss how clean the sound is. The percussion was simply superb on this song. Really strong solo. Really nice visuals sells of the sound on this one and the soloist was superb as he opened up. Men who cover women’s songs always run the risk of going too far over to the comedy side, but this is exactly how I like to hear a group reinvent the song and make it work for them.
The group followed up with Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Haunting vocals from the background with a really slick high solo The group kept this one slow and even through the first verse, arguably capturing the spirit of the lyrics better than the original song before four members stopped, backs to the stage and posed with attitude for the transition to Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” At this point, the group was clearly playing with the humor of challenging the gender line, and part of what made this work was the nerdy look of the guys and how they put one hundred percent into every move they made—it was as though they daring anyone to in attendance not to like them. This was among the most fun performances I have ever seen on the Finals stage. Really fun bit as two backup singers sang under the soloist, then peeled off for two other guys to take their places before the bridge when the soloist receded into the background and the group grooved, then split in two for the soloist to strut forth one more time and transition back to the Gnarls Barkley song. I love, love, loved this. Excellent closer to a truly exceptional set.
ICHSA Director, and ICCA Great Lakes Producer Andrea Poole introduced the ICCA Great Lakes Champions The G-Men. The guys took the stage in their traditional blue jerseys. They started the set off stage with a bass buzz and built the sound leading up to a single group member, stepping forward to center stage, only to be joined by the bass master for Imagine Dragons’ ”Radioactive.” Little by little, the full group joined them on stage. Excellent off beat percussion on this one. As the first chorus wore on, the last segment of the group stalked on stage. High drama as the full group keyed in. Such a big sound on this intense opener. This is a song that was covered pretty widely this year, but the dramatic build on this particular performance made it feel pretty special. Great bit as the group went choral for a moment, then fell out for a military beat to enter, then keyed back in. Strong opener.
The second soloist danced across the stage on the intro to Kimbra’s “Settle Down.”. Great charisma from this soloist. Really fun presentation with little choreography but a ton of these guys geeking out, dancing and grooving on stage. I’ve said it plenty of times, but it makes all the difference in the world when a group looks as though it’s having fun on stage and this group seemed to love every minute of what they were doing. After years of dedication to the art of developing their ICCA sets, it was a joy to see these guys do their thing in New York. Really full, complex, sound from these guys for a joy of a set.
The G-Men finished with OneRepublic’s “Everybody Loves Me.” Tremendous stage presence from this soloist, one of those guys who is constantly emoting and you can’t help but sense that every single movement he makes is calculated to build the drama and communicate his personality in the context of the song. Excellent energy on this one. It’s a shame this group performed in such close succession to Reverb, as I think they represented the most similar stories of this Finals, each overwhelmingly fun groups with a ton of personality, so it was difficult to appreciate just how special and unique each one was in juxtaposition with each other. Great leave it all on the floor performance form the soloist as he ripped into his falsetto in the end game. Excellent, spirited closer.
Following intermission, Lo Barreiro and Hannah Juliano introduced the ICHSA Champions, Vocal Rush! The high school superstars sang Nneka’s “Heartbeat”, dedicating it to the Boston community. At the risk of sounding redundant to those who read my review of The ICHSA Finals, forget the fact that this is a high school group—regardless of any qualifiers, this is one of the top a cappella groups in the world today. High impact music, delivered with conviction by any metric you might choose. The vast majority of college groups could learn a thing or two from this ensemble.
ICCA Finals Producer Sara Yood introduced the ICCA International Wild Card Champions, Sons of Pitches.
Sons of Pitches wore white jump suits over black group t-shirts. They started by silently, carefully , awkwardly positioning microphones on stage for a taste of very British humor. Sharp percussion intro, into a sick bass sound which gave way to the staccato accompaniment behind Eminem’s ”Lose Yourself.” Well… that’s not what I expected. Some really tremendous unisons, and, let’s be frank, a far better rap than I think any of unexpected from this group of seven. Really excellent three-part high lead on the second chorus, reinventing the song for that moment before the group keyed back in with full power as the rapper took over again. The group transitioned to a re-imagined take on Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.” With just seven men on stage every single man has to carry his weight and the group was more than up to the task, with the VP and bass anchoring the piece and a rich, almost hymnal harmony mixing things up.
The guys continued their set with an original by group member Joseph Novelli, “You Are the One.” Maybe it’s the jumpsuits, maybe it’s the swagger, but I couldn’t help thinking of these guys as European kindred spirits to 2009 ICCA champs Fermata Nowhere. Really good leads on this one again and the perc was pretty phenomenal. Really fun, brassy horn sounds in the background, great dynamic variation as the group depended on swells of sound, amplified by the quieter moments. Really fun moment with twin beatboxers taking turns on a percussion solo as the soloist whipped the lead back and for with a point of his finger.
The guys closed with a mashup of Alex Clare’s ”Too Close” and ”Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5. Such a full sound for so few people on stage. Another stellar solo. The bass was the engine for this one positively; punching the sound and working out this song. Fun bit of “Moves Like Jagger” riff coming off the first chorus before the group briefly mashed the songs together before transitioning full boar into the Maroon 5 song. Sensational swell of sound moving back into “Too Close.” As I mentioned before, this is a song we’ve all heard a cappella this year, but boy were the guys prepared to sell the heck out of the intensity of it.
Really fun transition to the closer, as the guys wiped their brows and feigned nervous anticipation before keying into the jazzy intro to Oasis’s ”Wonderwall,” in the style of Paul Anka. Super cheesy jazz choreography to sell the vibe of the song. As I’ve written earlier in this review, there’s a ton to be said for developing a cohesive identity, but I think what was most special about this group was their capacity for not only building a unique sense of personality , but simultaneously demonstrating a truly remarkable diversity of sound. Fun and overwhelmingly confident, these guys were showmen in the truest sense of the word who felt could very easily thrive touring throughout the US or, most likely anywhere in the world.
Mark Chen, the ICHSA Southwest and West Producer introduced The ICCA West Champions, The Scattertones--I might note, the lone group to repeat on the ICCA Finals stage from last year.
The group took the stage in their trademark neon pink and black. "Call Me" by Kimbra featured an excellent, sultry solo—I loved the way she was using her sexuality and enjoyed her interplay with the percussionist. Sick bass bottom, very ,very good percussion and excellent swells of sound from the group, owning the dynamic range of the piece with a true fullness of sound. Really cool visual moment with the VP guys circling the soloist at the front of the stage while the men and women in the background circled one another in pairs. Electric opener.
Next up, “Thinking About You” by Frank Ocean. A male soloist stepped forward for the back of two rows, serenading the first soloist before she stepped back into formation with the rest of the group. Such a clean, crisp tenor solo on this one, emotionally rich, and perfectly clean. I appreciated the really inspired effort to redefine this song, more musical and more soft than the original. I loved how clean the vocals were in the background of this one too—long, drawn out syllables, perfectly in measure throughout the group with the high end getting the spotlight but the low and middle ranges more than filling the holes beneath them. The two soloists doubled up for the money spot of this song, belting in perfect harmony with one another. Simply sensational.
High, staccato lead in to Coldplay’s ”Paradise.” Wonderful bit of body waving movement on the faltering syllables of “Paradise” on the chorus. Another star soloist. Transition to a female lead on the next verse. Sensational interplay between these leads on the second chorus. This group has a great sense of how to differentiate each verse and chorus—there’s no wasted moment on stage. Excellent swirl of percussion as the tempo picked up and the group lined the front of the stage for their wall of sound moment, including a really cool bit as they bobbed, essentially doing the wave with their bodies. Really cool visual as one of the men up front put his arm over one of the woman—I’m genuinely unsure if that was choreographed or natural, but the two sincerely seemed to be having a moment of joy together—the kind of moment which if it’s manufactured, it’s perfectly planned; if it was spontaneous, that’s all the cooler to see as the group may have just overwhelmed itself with emotion. Different groups brought different strengths to this competition. The Scattertones captured emotion and clarity of vocals at an unparalleled level.
ICCA Northeast Producer Emily Flanders introduced the Northeast champions The Nor’easters.
The co-ed crew made their entrance in black and gray. They opened on high harmonies before a pair of percussionists keyed in for Florence and the Machine’s "Drumming Song.” This was dangerous a cappella. An edgy, heated solo with a profoundly full sound behind her, impossibly big on the first chorus before the sound dipped low on the second verse for a choral bit, before the soloist took charge again, this time embedded in the middle of the group. Killer infusion of bass toward the end. This was a joy to watch with the group moving in such perfect unison with conviction and purpose. Overwhelming moment as the group marched forward in slow motion, staggered formation.
The group followed up with Melanie Fiona’s “Wrong Side of a Love Song” Soft, subtle intro on this one. The visual presentation was expertly planned on this one, the soloist emoting her butt off and the group subtly repositioning itself to make each stage of this song build piece by piece. Money moment as the group fell out and the soloist took flight.
Next up, Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” Haunting repetition of “my love,” first from the sopranos, then the basses, repeating, fuller and fuller. A group member interjected a positively enchanting high humming melodica-like sound. Pained expression from this soloist. Such a unique quality of sound from this group—so big, so rich, such complexity in the arrangement.nd so haunting. Tremendous swells of sound. While this group is clearly at the height of its powers on big moments, this song showed their truest dynamic variation going very soft.
The group finished with Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child.” Fine solo to open, then a second group member stepped from the center to take the lead heading into the chorus. Both soloists fell silent for a choral take on the next chorus with a really lovely high harmony in the background. Enter a third soloist, then the bass keyed in to full effect. The group mixed in a sample of “Diamonds” before returning to “Don’t You Worry Child” with overwhelmingly emotional vocals. I’ll be honest, I don’t like original version of this song, but The Nor’easters all but reinvented it for me as an anthem of support and of hope. This group started in a violent place and culminated with one of the truest, most sincere emotional performances that I have ever heard rock the ICCA Finals stage.
I think emcee Hannah Juliano represented the audience’s feelings, holding back tears as she came back out to introduce Duwende’s deliberation set. Duwende is among the elite pro groups operating today, and reinforced that status with this performance—their sound slick, sexy and full for the duration of their set, demonstrating remarkable range, power and silky smooth stage presence. Their set included “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “As,” “Ain’t Nobody,” “Kiss,”, “Smooth Criminal,” and their super fun signature French rap “Pomper Super Cool” (which loosely translates to “pushups are super cool”). In the end they sang the night’s competitors back onto the stage with “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” providing a really fun atmosphere for the night’s finish.
As Duwende sang, I put together my picks for the night’s final placement and awards. While I don’t think of myself as one to hyperbolize, I’d have to say that this was probably the greatest ICCA Final I’ve ever attended (and it was my seventh one straight). The Scattertones continued the standard of excellence they brought the stage last year, demonstrating greater polish and emotional virility than just about any other collegiate a cappella group in the world today. Reverb’s positivity and spirit electrified the audience, offering the night’s most entertaining performance—not to mention a musical masterpiece. The Sons of Pitches subverted every expectation long-time a cappella fans have come to expect from British a cappella, electrifying the stage with attitude and a full range of song selections. The Chordials sang with unparalleled intensity and a trio of star soloists. The Beltones embraced their deep fried roots for a set of rugged southern soul. The G-Men positively pulsed with energy, daring the audience not to bob their heads along with their every move. No Comment delivered a warm, sincere, and heartfelt set.
And then we had The Nor’easters. Let’s address the elephant in the room (or auditorium as the case may be). For the past week the terrorist attack at the Boston marathon has dominated media coverage and, indeed, gripped the collective consciousness of our country. It’s a tragedy far bigger than our humble a cappella community. Just the same, the tragedy threatened nothing short of an a cappella casualty when The Nor’easters’ bus from Boston to New York was canceled amidst the city-wide lockdown and manhunt heading into this weekend. Within minutes of announcing their predicament via their Facebook page, family, friends, and fellow a cappella community members rallied to assemble a full slate of travel accommodations to get the group to Town Hall in plenty of time to compete. In my book, that alone qualifies this group as winners in the truest sense of the word—emerging from the most emotionally and logistically difficult circumstances to share their song with one of the most vibrant audiences in the a cappella world.
But let’s put aside human interest story, and focus on the group itself—a group of immensely talented musicians who have competed year after year and after numerous regional runner up finishes, finally made their way to the Finals stage. They lived up to every bit of the hype, and every second of their patently clear preparation, to deliver a set nothing short of championship caliber set. Yes, The Scattertones were painfully close, Reverb was right there in the mix of top finishers, Sons of Pitches served up one of the night’s most surprising and memorable sets, and The Chordials took advantage of every moment on stage. In my estimation, though, 2013 is the year The Nor’easters arrived as the champions of the collegiate a cappella world.
Amanda Newman returned to the stage, and, before announcing the results, shared that Varsity Vocals has struck deal with CORE Media, makers of American Idol, to make a show about The ICCAs, starting next season. Could this night get any bigger? The Nor’easters were subsequently revealed as the world champions. They closed out the night with their encore, “Sweet Nothing” by Calvin Harris.
As always, my hat is off to the whole crew at Varsity Vocals for putting together a special weekend to cap off a remarkable season of scholastic a cappella competition.
1. The Nor’easters
2. The Scattertones
1. The Nor’easters for “Drumming Song”
2. The Scattertones for “Call Me”
3. The Chordials for “Lies”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion
1. The Nor’easters
2. The Scattertones
3. Sons of Pitches
Outstanding Visual Presentation
1. Reverb for the full set
2. The Sons of Pitches for the full set
3. The Scattertones for the full set
1. Reverb for “This Is How We Do It”/”Bad”
2. The Nor’easters for “Don’t You Worry Child”
3. The G-Men for “Radioactive”
1. The Nor’easters
2. The Scattertones
3. The Chordials
Outstanding Soloist: The Scattertones for “Paradise”
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: The Nor’easters for the full set
Outstanding Choreography: Reverb for the full set