This past weekend’s ACappellaFest kicked off at The University of Chicago with a competition among five college groups.. Before we get to the details, a quick summary of the show:
Venue: University of Chicago, Logan Center for the Performing Arts
Lead Sound Engineer: Mike Jankowksi of A Cappella Productions
Emcees: Bryn Adams, Sarah Dougadisr, Brianne Holland, and Chris Rishel of University of Chicago Voices in Your Head and Men in Drag
Katharine Hoye of Sonos
Danny Ozment of Emerald City Productions
Charlie Friday of Snowday and Euphonism
The Northwestern University X-Factors
The University of Chicago Ransom Notes
The Washington University Stereotypes
The University of Minnesota Enchantments
Washington University After Dark
[St. Louis University Bare Naked Statues were scheduled to compete but had to miss the show due to travel difficulties.]
Vivacity, Duality, Immortality
University of Chicago Men In Drag kicked off the evening singing “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. Simply lovely use of dynamics. Great, intense primary solo, and stellar second solo—all the better when the two teamed up for the big finish.. I loved the way the group transitioned from a smoother sound to more staccato segments of the song. Sick, booming perc. This is the first time I’ve heard Men in Drag live, but their reputation certainly preceded them, and I’m happy to report that they lived up to it. This was a veritable clinic on making a slow song compelling for every last second on stage. The group followed with its increasingly iconic take on “Cherry Pie.” Wonderful attitude and energy from the group on this one. One of the marks of a truly impressive group is the ability to take such a fun, ostensibly comedic song and take it 100 percent seriously—not laughing off the musical elements or taking the comedy for granted, but rather building toward bigger and bigger moments and favoring movement over stationary choreography to lend a real vivacity to the piece.
Speaking of vivacity, that term was key to the off-beat format of the evening’s competition. The way things were structured, each competing group would perform two songs—the first one the group’s take on the term “vivacity,” the second their interpretation of “duality.” After intermission, three groups would progress to the final round, which was all about “immortality.”
The X-Factors opened the competition. The co-ed group sported black and pink and started out with Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” The basses did a wonderful job of anchoring the sound and giving the whole piece a warm feel. My only real qualm on this performance was that I didn’t feel as though the group really brought the vivacity the first round called for. It’s very difficult to be the first group on stage in a competition setting, and I understand that it’s hard to strike the balance between composure and punch in that setting, but this one just seemed to be missing—ironically enough—a certain x-factor. The strongest part was a choral take on the closing leg of the song, during which the perc fell out momentarily then keyed back in for a true power moment. Nice finish.
The X-Factors’ second song was “Feeling Good.” I’ve said this plenty of times in recent years, but this song has been done so well so many times, including in high profile situations (e.g., SoCal VoCals at ICCA Finals 2008) that I just don’t feel it’s viable in competition anymore unless you’re going to bring something innovative to it. That said, I appreciated the character and effort of the solo (particularly when he exploded in the late stages) and the high harmonies were pretty darn slick. While over-choreographing has increasingly become a pet peeve of mine, I couldn’t help thinking the set would have been helped significantly with a bit more movement on stage; similar to the first piece the group seemed visually stagnant again, which made it harder for me to get into the vocal performance. All considered, it was a solid set that would have benefited from a touch more verve.
Next up were The Ransom Notes. This co-ed group wore black with blue highlights. From the get-go, the group took the stage in staggered formation, a nice distinction from the conventional double arc of The X-Factors. They opened with Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” Well, if ever there was a time to bring this to competition, this was certainly it. I worry about how played this song is going to become in the competition season ahead. Excellent charisma from the soloist and you know you’ve nailed the song choice in terms of timing and relevancy when you get the kind of electric pop from the crowd that this song got. Plenty of fun choreography, and a few visual moments played for pure comedy. This is the type of song choice for which that works and I think they actually could have played up the mixed gender dynamics even more. Nice “Party Rock Anthem” sample which ended perfectly on a bass singing “shake that” on the transition back to the first song. Beautiful chord on the finish setting up one last iteration of the signature lyrics of each song. Solid, fun opener.
The Ransom Notes followed with “The Other Side” by Bruno Mars. Two good soloists took the lead; I didn’t feel they synched up so well on the first chorus, but they made a much smoother account for themselves the second time around. Pretty exceptional rap midway through—I always worry about groups bringing raps to competition because it often won’t live up to the singing with which most groups are more comfortable and more skilled. This was a rare case in which the quality of the rapper actually elevated the whole piece. Very good set.
The Stereotypes were up next. They ran, frolicked, and jumped on stage—great energy from the get-go. They wore their signature all black outfit with white belts and different colored ties. They opened with Guy Sebastian’s “Gold.” Scintillating, charismatic solo here. A part of what makes these guys as good as they are is they are 100 percent unabashed about every dance move and swinging for the fences on every note. I don’t know that there’s any collegiate group with a tradition of more heart than The Stereotypes. This group is so much fun to watch. The arrangement seemed a little redundant on this one and I would have appreciated a little more sense of build within the song altogether, but the performance nonetheless did what it needed to do, showing off the group’s energy and a touch of good-natured swagger to open their set.
The guys transitioned to a standing in an arc, starting chorally for “The Wayfaring Stranger.” Cool effect as the guys grew from just a few voices to the whole group. Very nice snap percussion to cut off the end of the first chorus. The first solo was good; the second added some real texture and nuance to the mix. Nice selling on the facials from the group. The guys generated a really cool, almost metallic whistling sound—it was subtle and short-lived enough it was easy for the audience to miss—The Stereotypes probably could have milked it for a little longer or in a slightly more prominent way. Nice fall-out moment as the third soloist sang unaccompanied, followed by a beautiful layering of harmonies. The piece on the whole was just such a remarkable contrast from the first song, which allowed The Stereotypes to show off their range of abilities for the judges. My only real qualm about this second song has more to do with how it fell into competition structure than how the group executed it; the song turned out to be a bit of downer to leave the stage on, which made it a little awkward when the guys good-naturedly waved and ran off stage on the close. Putting that aside, the guys put forth a very good set.
The fourth group out of the chute was The Enchantments, an all-female group that took the stage in black dresses and heels. I sort question any group that wears heels that high onstage, but I’ll come back to that point. They led off their set with “Tell Me something Good” by Rufus and Chaka Khan. Fun “bow-chicka-bow-wow” syllables. Nice stage presence from the soloist. My main issue with this song is that the group basically told the whole story of the song in the first verse, leaving them nowhere to build to, complexify, or diversify. Smaller qualm—and, yes, one I’ve written about before—I don’t like to see groups isolate their drummers, unless they’re really trying to spotlight that performer, or there’s another functional reason for doing so. Otherwise, it just draws attention away from everything else the group is doing well.
The group keyed into Pistol Annie’s “Hell On Heels” with some really engaging stomp and slap-the-thigh body percussion. Nice way to rouse the audience’s attention and set the tone for the song ahead. A Cappella Productions provided each individual singer her or his own microphone for the night, and for me, this song marked the first time that was a detriment to one of the groups as the lead vocals got swallowed by the group sound for most of the song. The group moved on to a sample of Bryan Adams’s “Heaven.” I can only guess the transition was intended to honor the “duality” theme, but I just couldn’t help feeling that the choice to bind these songs was a little “thrown together” and that the first leg of the song had a lot more energy and polish (lead vocal volume issues aside).
As an aside, I do want to credit The Enchantments for developing a distinctive group identity. While I imagine some more conservative audience members might balk at the dresses and heels, I loved that the group was conscious of its sexuality and not afraid to infuse their movement and song selections with that vibe. I still think there’s room for the women to refine their sound and how they’re employing their sultry stage presence, the approach itself is smart and leaves the group with a lot of potential to grow.
The final group to compete in the first round was After Dark. The coed group wore black and white. “Beggin’” by The Four Seasons? Solemn intro into a nice groove—I dug the contrast there. Nice little rap interlude from one of the women. Very good stage presence from the soloist. The choreography wasn’t too intrusive, but this is one of those cases when less bobbing in place and more movement could have made a real difference. While it was good, the song ended up feeling kind of long to me—I might suggest clipping it or sampling something. A part of the issue stemmed from the lyrics themselves, which were repetitive enough that the group would have needed to work doubly hard to make the piece truly engaging.
After Dark followed up with ”Promise This” by Cheryl Cole. Rich bass solo and very nice blend of sound behind him. Really pretty fall out moment with only a high hum before the percussion keyed in, then the ladies took over, chanting in unison before the soloist took back over. These were exactly the sort of dramatic shifts I felt were missing from the group’s first song and that fed really well into the duality theme. Very nice choice for a second song which I felt elevated the group back into contention for the final three.
Speaking of which, over intermission the judges figured out who would move on to the final round. I thought the eliminations were an especially tough to call at this point. From where I sat, The Ransom Notes and The Stereotypes were leading the pack. I envisioned After Dark and The X-Factors as the bubble groups; I’d contend The X-Factors had a little more solid sound, whereas After Dark brought a fuller package to stage, particularly with their closer.
Voices in Your Head sang after intermission. They started off with “We Found Love”, reproducing the staging from their iconic ICCA Finals set from last spring. Such incredible control, swells of sound, and simultaneous sensations of controlled chaos and perfect precision. Off the charts intensity. They transitioned seamlessly to “Titanium,” another signature piece. What can I say? In the discussion of best collegiate groups singing today, there’s no question Voices in Your Head makes the short list.
After Voices in Your Head’s performance, we learned that the groups to make it round two were The Ransom Notes, The X-Factors, and The Stereotypes.
The Ransom Notes made the first stab at immortality, singing “Some Nights” by Fun. Very nice tone on the soloist and I appreciated the complexity of the arrangement and this song choice for the immortality category. With that said, the overall performance came across a little less clean and polished than the group’s earlier offerings; solid, but not quite stellar.
The second finalists were The X-Factors. The started with a howl and quickly transitioned into robotic motions around stage. Is this the same group from round one? Within their first 10 seconds of “She Wolf” by Shakira, they showed exponentially more personality than first time around—good for them! I’m not sure what’s in the water in the Midwest, but man, the ladies can rap and take on the fast parts with ease and remarkable skill. Very fun solo on this one. The group transitioned to Rihanna’s “Disturbia.” More fun choreography and the sound was solid, though the lead seemed to get a little too high for the soloist. The group wrapped up its medley with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” This was a ton of fun, though the transitions between segments of the song—particularly from a visual perspective—seemed a little tacked on and inorganic (as well executed as they were, each taken on its own merits). I don’t question the concept of the piece, which I think has particular merit for any upcoming Halloween engagements, but feel the group would benefit from working in a little more “connective tissue” to make the broader whole feel more cohesive. Just the same, it was a good and highly entertaining performance.
Wrapping up the second round, The Stereotypes took the stage once more to sing their take on “Some Nights.” Man, singing the same song as another group, particularly in a competition with so few groups, feels a lot like showing up at a party in the same dress—and that fits the two ladies wearing it in very different ways. The Stereotypes started their performance chorally and had a remarkably clean blend. Nice complexity of sound when the guys dug in and their energy was a difference maker. I loved the solo on this one. Nice dynamic control, allowing the group to build to climaxes. Despite not having choreography per se, the guys pulsed with energy. Fun break down segment with each group member taking the song an octave higher before the soloist exploded on the next leg of the song. Excellent delivery on the epic theme of this round.
While the judges made their final deliberations, professional group Six Appeal took the stage. Such a rich low end from these guys and remarkably full sound for just six voices. Their song selections included “The Circle of Life,” “Listen to the Music,” “Low Rider,” an excellent original called “Do I,” “Harder to Breahe” featuring a sensational perc solo, an un-mic’ed take on “And So It Goes,” “I Will Survive,” and “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).”
As Six Appeal sang, I thought over my picks for the night. The X-Factors came out of their shells in the second round with some very good choreography and put on the most fun performance of the night (OK, maybe second to “Gangnam Style”) with their medley, but the pieces felt as though they hung a little loosely, not as organically tied as they should have been, and I wasn’t 100 percent sold on the overall musical presentation. The Ransom Notes and Stereotypes had the very same great song selection. While both were quite good, I found The Stereotypes to have a cleaner sound for the most part and a more energetic presentation. Strong showings from all of the groups, but I had to conclude that the night belonged to The Stereotypes with The X-Factors and Ransom Notes right behind them.
Sure enough, The Stereotypes did take home first place. The X-Factors were recognized for the top solo of the night, The Stereotypes for best arrangement and After Dark for best vocal percussion. The next day, The Stereotypes had a master class with Six Appeal, then went on to entertain the crowd at the professional showcase, covering Maroon 5’s “This Love” in between stellar sets from Sonos and The Edge Effect.
Mike Chin’s Picks for the Night
1. The Stereotypes
2. The X-Factors
3. The Ransom Notes
1. The Stereotypes for “Gold”
2. The X-Factors for “Feeling Good”
3. The Ransom Notes for “The Other Side” rap
1. The X-Factors for the medley
2. The Ransom Notes for “Gangnam Style”
3. The Stereotypes for “Gold”
Outstanding Arrangement: The Stereotypes for “The Wayfaring Stranger”
1. The Stereotypes
2. The x-Factors
3. Ransom Notes
Best Vocal Percussion: After Dark
Best Arrangement: The Stereotypes
Best Soloist: The X-Factors