On Saturday, January 25, Northern Highlands Regional High School played host to the ICHSA Mid-Atlantic Semifinal. Photos from the show are available now on The A Cappella Blog Facebook Page.
Here's a quick summary of who was involved.
The Saint Anselm's Abbey School Abbeatz
The Hun School of Princeton Edgertones
The Ridgewood high School AcaBellas
State High SChool A Cappella
Mahopac High School PACapellas
The Montclair Kimberley Academy Unaccompanied Minors
The Vestal High School Bear Necessities
Montgomery Blair High School InToneNation
The Northern Highlands Regional High School Highlands voices
Hun School of Princeton VoiceMale
The Ridgewood High School Maroon Men
Emcee: Kory Glattman
The Northern Highlands Regional High School Belles
The Boston University BosTones
The Highlands Belles, featuring guest soloist and emcee for the night Kory Glattman led off the evening with a performance of James Brown's "It's A Man's Man's Man's World." Nice execution all around and the solo was truly lovely. Very good, precise perc. An excellent opening for the evening.
Varsity Vocals Producer Jillian Kimberlin made the standard announcements before Kory introduced the first competing group.
The Abbeatz were up first, sporting a neat shirt and tie look with some of the shirts untouched for an interesting semi-formal, semi-casual look that helped sell them as a fun group of guys. They performed Imagine Dragons' "It's Time." Good overall sound and I really liked the perc here. I probably would have gone for less choreography because it looked a little staged and self-conscious, but I appreciate the effort and liked that the movement often led to more interesting formations on stage, which kept the piece from growing visually stagnant. Nice choice to double up on the solo in the second verse to help mix up the sound and keep things interesting.
The guys followed up with "Turning Tables" by Adele. I liked the visual presentation much better here with the guys making slow, steady movements to match the big transitions in the song. Good overall sound again. I did like the song selection as they were able to give the song a distinctive character with the all-male vocals. Fun bit of choreography late in the game with the guys in a V-formation with hands on each other's shoulders, before they peeled the hands back heading to the bridge. Very nice fall out bit in which the soloist operated unaccompanied. I think a little more emotion could have elevated this one from good to great, but it was nonetheless a good middle song.
The Abbeatz closed with "Pompeii" by Bastille. Very nice, clean tenor solo on this one. The guy sounded really in control of his instrument, very mature. It was fun to see the group lighten up on this one. The choreography was a smidge excessive, but more clearly tongue in cheek for this song and you could see the guys smile. That should be a signal to any group that you're doing something right because if you're having fun on stage, it's so much easier for the audience to smile along and actively want to have fun with your performance. Clean finish to this one with the guys sagging with a chopping motion on a very precise cut off. Very nice set from the guys.
The Edgertones were up next. Really fun bit of staging as the girls looked nervous and appalled skirting around each side of the stage, appearing terrified at the prospect of an audience watching them. I really like that choice of, if nothing else, converting actual nervous energy into something comedic on stage. On top of that, it was a perfect segue, of course, to their opening song "Brave." Clever staging, too, as the girls seemed to grow visibly braver as the first verse went along before the front row held hands and actively smiled on the chorus and freestyle boogied at the front of the stage. I would have liked to have heard a little more careful balance here, because there were points, particularly early on when the group sound drowned out the solo a little. Awesome bit of staging with the group parting into two sides with the last remaining afraid member, the percussionist, performing center stage and ultimately breaking into her own dance moves. Very fun opener and the best part is that it was so memorable, which is so important in a field of eleven competing groups.
Next up, the group sang Regina Spektor's "Samson." Really nice, delicate execution here, and I loved the choice to go with an overtly musical selection after the more theatrical opening number. The group started with just the soloist, then just a few accompanists, and slipping into the full group sound, but remaining in a measured place to take the lyrics chorally. The group repeated the effect again and I kind of loved this choice. Nice tempo shifts to sell getting carried away with the emotion of the song. From these first two songs, the group didn't sound perfect, but found totally distinct ways to deliver unique performances that really stuck out from the rest of the field.
Lastly, The Edgertones sang "Survivor" by Destiny's Child. They started with their backs to the crowd, then turned and we were into the bold movement section of the set. Creatively, I think was a near-perfect choice as the two more measured pieces the group started with paved the way for a barn burning finish. I really would have liked a bit more fire on this one. A few of the ladies on stage sold this thing full tilt, but others looked less sure and that makes all the difference in selling a song like this visually. The most arresting part of the song arrived on the finish when the sound grew and the group looked its most confident as well. Nice finish.
The AcaBellas, another all-female group sang next. They opened with Simon and Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter." Nice use of dynamics on this one with the sound growing as the song moved along. I would challenge this group to think about identity as it relates to song choice. They seemed to be going for a sultry identity on that finish, which didn't really match the song. The song itself wasn’t a bad fit for the group, nor was that staging decision, but I don’t know that the two co-existed so well, thus choices needed to be made.
Next up was Lorde's "Royals." Fun foot tap and snap perc to establish a slick tone. This is exactly what I was talking about in terms of song choice matching identity--much better fit on this one. I really dug the confidence of the sound for this one and the swagger that the group projected on stage. Nice solo work. Really fun finish with a unison on, "let me live that fantasy."
The ladies wrapped up their set with Beyonce's "Love on Top." I like that the group stuck with music of female empowerment and confidence for the latter two-thirds of the set. Really good solo I probably would have edged against the step-touch choreography on the chorus, both for not being especially effective and for looking kind of painful in high heels. The danger of this particular song for any group is the key changes. To the group's credit (and particularly the soloist’s), they handled that much better than I've heard many groups at the collegiate level poll off, but they still sacrificed a bit of power on the sound for sheer highness, and I'd have liked a little stronger finish. Just the same, a really good set.
State High A Cappella, the first co-ed group of the evening was up next. They turned in a really exceptional, understated solo for "So Are You To Me" by Eastmountainsouth and I loved the subtlety of the backing vocals, and warmth of their sound. I appreciated the choice to stay stationary behind the lead here, keeping it simple and focusing fully on the music.
The group followed up with "Billionaire" by Travis McCoy featuring Bruno Mars. Nice lead here and surprisingly on-point rap interlude which both sounded great and it looked like the dude was having the time of his life. This one was one of the most fun, care-free performances of the night up to this point.
State High A Cappella closed with "Carry On" by fun. Nice solo here, making the most of a really challenging situation in terms of the vocal range necessary to fully cover Nate Ruess's part. I really like this song choice for a contemporary closer with an epic feel. I would have liked a little more emotion from the vocals, but I did very much appreciate the big swell of sound en route to the final chorus. Nice choice to finish chorally to sell the communal feel inherent to this song. Particularly for a first time competition, this was an excellent showing.
PACapellas was the fifth group out of the chute. They led off with Britney Spears's "Toxic." You can really read this group's experience in their confidence and ease of sound and movement. Great attitude on the female lead and some really cool backing bits, particularly from the sopranos. I liked how committed the guys looked to the choreo, which is make or break in competition. Really good sound all around, though I might have clipped this one a little--the song itself is repetitive and started to feel a little long in the late stages, though the individual riffs in the background did help.
Next up was "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons. I loved the power of this solo, particularly from a relatively diminutive young woman who really knocked this one out of the park. Really good movement again-- a textbook example of how you can have a lot of movement and it will feel natural if it’s organic to the music and executed with power and synchronicity. Great bit of stomp-clap perc on the finish. When you're building up enough kinetic energy in your performance, it's only fitting that you'd explode on your outro like that.
The group finished with Coldplay's "Fix You." First, let me comment on set structure. Conventional wisdom has this ballad in the middle and "Radioactive" on the close. I loved the choice to mix things up, particularly by closing with a song that's both aurally and narratively about rising from the doldrums to a place of comfort. Furthermore, “Toxic” and “Radioactive” tell stories of the world falling apart, while “Fix You” is a recovery song. Good flow. Strong pair of leads on the beginning. Nice dramatic build as the soloists receded into the group as the tempo picked up and the perc keyed in. I would have loved for the sound to have been a little bigger on this segment, but it was nonetheless really compelling. Well choreographed bow, followed by the group running off stage with wonderful energy. It was a real treat to hear this group's professionalism and see how they've grown since last year.
The Unaccompanied Minors closed out the first half. They opened with "Sweet Dream" by Beyonce before transitioning to "Beat It" by Michael Jackson with the new soloist spinning and moonwalking his way across the stage on his way to the mic. Really fun, high energy opener.
Next up was Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek." Here's the thing: I get that this song translates beautifully to a cappella and, further, that there's typically not a ton of institutional memory in high school a cappella. That said, I thought this song had died an over-aca-exposed death in 2008 after every collegiate group on the eastern seaboard (and many who were not) covered it. OK, I’m stepping off my soapbox. This was a very lovely execution of the song with excellent diction, precise turning, and really elegant harmonies. I particularly liked the soprano solo work embedded in the choral sound. The movement was quite good here, too. Subtle, slow, and oriented toward repositioning the group on key moments. Overall, a solidly executed middle piece, if not one of my favorite song selections.
The Unaccompanied Minors followed up with fun.'s "Some Nights." I ranted for long enough about "Hide and Seek” that I'm not going to give them a hard time over this song choice. Very slick transition to Imagine Dragons' "It's Time"--nice way to subvert expectations there. The transitions between the songs to follow were all really sleek, though I didn't love the delayed payoff on the "come on"s of "Some Nights,” since I consider that climax the best part of the song for a cappella groups. Just the same a suitably big closer to an enjoyable set.
The Bear Necessities opened the second half. They led off with "Counting Stars" by One Republic, before transitioning to Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball." Fun set up with the guys clustered on one side of stage, the women on the other, the guys taking the lead on "Counting Stars," with a female lead for Miley. Nice idea with the two groups turning to face off though I think they could have made that dynamic a little more heated to sell the drama. Good overall execution and nice fluidity of movement as the group transitioned to an arc.
The group followed up with "Let Me Leave" by Marc Broussard. Scintillating solo here from a young man with a marvelously smooth timbre to his voice and great capacity for selling the emotion of the song. I would have liked to have heard a bit more precision on the instrumentation for this one for the group to live up to that lead.
The group reconfigured to an inward-facing circle on the finish to their middle song, then dispersed for the soloist to step forward for Adele's "Skyfall." Really nice metallic, swirling sound in the background. Very nice solo in this one, too, and I really liked the choice to mix up the choruses with a second soloist entering on the first one, and a third on the next one who riffed into the bridge. Pretty sublime choral segment leading into the end game at which point I particularly loved the dueling soloists. Nice symmetry as the group shifted and turned back into the cirle they started with to close the song.
InToneNation was up next. They led off with a song called "Lonely Times." The first soloist said hello to the crowd and announced the name of the first song and original artist. Some people really dislike that performance choice at Varsity Vocals because it deviates from the norm, but I actually like it for that very same reason. Talking to the audience the way you would at a concert undermines the gravity of the situation and helps you show your personality. My only qualm here is that if you are going to engage with the audience like that, you need to make every effort to be clear and confident. In this case, I couldn’t make out the name of the artist, and I’m not sure the song title’s right. Fortunately, the group’s nerves seemed to settle nicely once they started singing. Very good solo here, particularly when he cut loose and let his emotion bleed through. The backing vocals and movements were a little repetitive for my tastes—I’d have loved to have heard and seen the group cut loose a little more. Nonetheless, it was a good start to the set.
Next, the group sang Alison Krauss's "Down to River." Really pretty unaccompanied solo on the intro, and really nice, clean doubling on that part, echoing the original vocals, before the rest of the group keyed in. I really liked the choice to keep this one simple and make it all about the group's musical precision and clarity. I also really liked the fully realized low end on this one.
InToneNation wrapped up its set was Outkast's "Hey Ya." I dug this song choice to loosen things up and present a more fun side of the group. To that point, this soloist was right at home on this part and the group seemed to follow suit, getting a little looser in their movement. There was a little bit of choreo in which the ladies slid to the side and crossed legs with each other which was a really neat visual. The "fellas" and "ladies" call and response was a lot of fun, largely built on the charisma of the lead. Very fun closing number.
The reigning regional champs, The Highlands Voices performed next. They started their set with "We Own the Night" by The Wanted. This group is so polished and powerful in both its sound and visual presentation. It's not an exact science, but sometimes the difficulty of photographing a group can be tell-tale about how well they are moving because everyone's in motion and executing the choreo full-tilt. Really awesome solo here. Fantastic endgame, too, as the group sound shrank way down for the three lead s to own the stage with a warm swell of bass beneath them.
The group moved next to Imagine Dragons' "Demons." Very nice soulful solo here. Midway through the first verse, they started alternating lines between "Demons" and One Republic's "Secrets." I wasn't sure about that choice until the mashing point. Actually weaving these songs together was where the magic happened, creating something seamless, emotionally rich and powerful. Killer moment as each songs synced up for their climaxes. I also loved how the full group sold every second of this song visually and aurally. It's easy to be disinterested in the background. Champions care.
The Highlands Voices closed with "Aint It Fun" by Paramore. Really fun theatrical soloists here, playing off one another with outstanding charisma. I love that this group doesn't feel compelled to over-choreography but rather, everyone danced all the time, making the piece feel less like a high school musical, more like a high school dance--aint that fun? OK, I'll stop. The fact of the matter is, with all due respect to all of the other night's competitors, The Highlands Voices are in a class of their own in this ICHSA region. Excellent choice to finish with the group lining the front of the stage, honing in on their sound and daring anyone in the audience not to feel them. Electric finisher to what may be the best set of the group's four consecutive regional championships. I'm wishing these kids luck in their latest bid for an ICHSA Championship.
VoiceMale was the penultimate competiting group. The guys opened with Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble." I liked the choice to work different sides of the stage to play to the full audience. One thing about cross-gender song choices: they can work when the group really owns it and reinvents the song from their gender's perspective, or really hams things up for laughs. The guys seemed to be relying on the situation being inherently funny and it didn't resonate as much as it could have for me.
Next up, Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around Comes Around" Nice swagger from the guys here and I dug the falsetto choral handling of the backing vocals. Solid percussion here, too. Fun perormance and my only real constructive criticism here is that it got to feeling a little repetitive—I might have suggested cutting a verse or playing around to mix up the execution a little more. Very nice handling of the bridge.
The guys closed with "So Sick" by Ne-Yo. I liked the slow intro into the swinging first verse, setting up a smooth transition between songs. I also liked thematic thread between these songs all being about some stage of coping with a break up and particularly ending with this song of recovery and good feelings (melodically, at least, if not so much lyrically). Fun choral breakdown in the end game and I liked the physical reconfigurations on stage, which helped this one from feeling too long.
Closing out the competition, we had The Maroon Men. Nice bit of comedy with the emcee reading a "fun fact" about the group, that each member benches 250 pounds. The claim produced audible laughter from the crowd, then the rest of the audience got the joke when the scrawny boys got on stage. If you can get the audience laughing with you when all you're doing is walking on stage, you're doing something very right for warming up a weary crowd and settling your own nerves.Fun first song choice--Justin Timberlake's "Mirrors." Really nice precision from the guys and good fullness of sound. Very good VP.
Next up, the guys sang "I'll Make a Man out of You" from Mulan. Sweet perc work on the intro and I loved the guys' carefree approach to this one from the solo to the backing players, singing boldly and unafraid to throw in air kicks to hammer home their points. Very, very fun song, though it felt a little more like a closer than a middle song to me--or they might have opened with it to more firmly establish themselves as a comedy group.
The Maroon Men finished with "Carry On My Wayward Son" by Kansas. Excellent charisma and vocals on the lead and the group had really settled into having fun here with smatterings of air guitar and open displays of emotion. It's largely a frivolous point, but one recommendation I'd have for this group is to lose the t-shirts in favor of more formal or more distinct garb. I get that part of their persona is being casual and laid back, but when you’re facing the reality of having a group of young looking guys, you can earn some visible credibility by looking a little more professional and, as unfair as it is, some onlookers do tend to judge a book by its cover in competition settings.
While the judges did their thing, The BosTones entertained the crowd. I think it's really cool for high school kids to get to hear a group like this to see what's hopefully ahead of many of them in their college years (a point driven home by the visual of so many of the night's competitors seated cross-legged at the foot of the stage, drinking in every moment of this performance. It's cool, too, to afford The Bostones such an eager audience to sing for. Their set included "Let the Groove Get In," "A Man's Man's Man's World," "Don't Wake Me Up," "Royals" (with a sample of "Ego"), "Over You," a mashup of "Swim Good" and "Princess of China," and a sterling re-imagining of Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" with a sample of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." Excellent performance, followed by a VP showdown among the percussionists from the night's competing groups (and a few others). The unlikely, but undeniable champ of that exhibition was a diminutive young woman from The Highlands Belles.
As The BosTones sung, I shored up my picks for the nights. I thought The Highlands Voices were pretty untouchable at this show, though I also thought PACapellas showed dramatic improvement and deserved recognition. Things were much tighter for third place, but I ultimately gave The Edgertones the nod for creativity and delivering a really distinctive take on each song they sung, with The Unaccompanied Minors just a smidge behind them, and a swell of groups contending for fifth.
Sure enough, The Highlands Voices did punch their ticket to return to the ICHSA Finals in New York this April. They sang "Devil with a Blue Dress On" on for their encore to round out the night.
Mike Chin's Picks
1. The Highlands Voices
3. The Edgertones
1. The Highlands Voices for the full set
2. State High A Cappella for "So Are You To Me"
3. The Bear Necessities for “Let Me Leave”
1. The Highlands Voices for the "Demons"/"Secrets" mashup
2. The AcaBellas for “Radioactive”
3. The Edgertones for “Samson”
Outstanding Visual Presentation
1. The Highlands Voices for the full set
2. The Edgertones for "Brave"
3. PACapellas for "Radioactive"
Outstanding vocal Percussion
1. The Maroon Men for the full set
2. The Highlands Voices for the full set
Official ICHSA Results
1. The Highlands Voices
3. The Unaccompanied Minors
Outstanding Soloist: The Bear Necessities for "Let Me Leave"
Outstanding Arrangement: The PACapellas for "Radioactive"
Outstanding Choreography: PACapellas
Outstanding vocal Percussion: The Maroon Men