This past weekend, I had the honor of serving as a judge at Voice Fest—a uniquely structured elimination-style competition that was part of the Wooster Jam music festival in Wooster, OH. I was focused on completing my scoring sheets, was listening for some different qualities than I ordinarily do, and didn’t take as copious notes as I ordinarily would when covering an event for The A Cappella Blog, and so I don’t have a full write up to share. Furthermore, I don’t want to undermine my fellow judges by necessarily making public the few points on which we disagreed. Therefore, what follows are a handful of thoughts from the show, rather than a comprehensive summary and review.
The Kent Clarks are one of those groups that’s absurdly good for how short a time it has been together (under a year). I didn’t envy them for having to open this show, but they did themselves proud with a set that featured a very good solo on Sara Bareilles’s “King of Anything” and excellent dynamics on “Pumped Up Kicks.” The truest surprise of the set was “Somebody I Used to Know,” covered in the style of Pentatonix, which saw the group strip down to just five vocalists. Really strong rotating lead on this one and some keen harmonies. I really enjoyed the borderline dubstep bass effect as the rhythm guy worked double time to electrify this song. I would have liked to have seen a little more stage presence from the group, and, while they actually did surprisingly well with it, I seriously don’t think any collegiate group in 2012 should be covering a song from The Little Mermaid (“Kiss the Girl”)—it has been done and while it can work in the context of a family weekend-type show, it’s a little too silly for competition.
By virtue of the competition structure, all seven groups performed, three were eliminated, then the remaining four groups sang again, then two more were out, leaving the final two. As a result, Ohio State Buck That! graced the stage three times. One of the things that was immediately evident about this group was their degree of polish. Remarkably, like the Kent Clarks, they haven’t been around very long, but they have already tested the waters of ICCAs, and that experience shone through in their stage presence, showmanship, and, most definitely in their choreography. Their seven songs included their three-song ICCA set—one piece of it in each of their outings. Understandably, these pieces were by far their most polished. “Poison” had incredibly slick vocals and a very cool stomp percussion effect that was used just long enough to make sure the audience took notice (too often, groups will do something cool and experimental like this, but drop it after a measure or two—too quickly for most of the audience to really appreciate what they’re doing) but also sparingly enough not to go overboard. I worry the choreography did go a little too far on “It’s Gonna Be Me.” While I credit them for moving with a purpose and synching things up really well, there’s a critical point where too much movement can distract from the music and that piece teetered on the verge of that. While “Kryptonite” was no less movement intensive, I positively loved the way in which the guys’ movement and vocals culminated, including samples from earlier songs to give it a “grand finale” feel. Sublime closer. My only knock on Buck That! Has to do with song selection. “Stand By Me”/”Beautiful Girls” medleys were hot on the collegiate scene with all-male groups five years ago. “Fix You,” the other relatively contemporary song selection, has been covered by a plethora of collegiate groups over the last few years. The rest of the set was all songs groups could have (and many cases have) been covered for the last decade. I don’t mean to diminish Buck That!’s accomplishment—they’re a great group. But to take the act to the next level, I’d love to hear them take on more contemporary and/or offbeat selections. Nonetheless, they very much deserved the first place honors they took home from this competition.
The Oberlin College Obertones offered up some of the most distinctive songs of the afternoon featuring incredibly rich vocals and some of the top soloists of the show. “Seven Bridges Road” was a tremendous, unconventional opener that helped the group make a big impression from the start for sounding so different from the rest of the groups. I loved the call to use a foreign language song, which segued into Paul Simon’s “Homeless”—not only did they perform the piece phenomenally well, but it’s cool to hear a group pay homage to great a cappella institution like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. One of the truest treats of this set was watching one particular Obertone—a group member who appeared to be of Asian descent—who quite simply emoted his butt off with his facials for every second of this set. Any a cappella group can learn something about looking invested and having stage presence by watching a guy like this operate. Putting that aside, I didn’t love the group’s take on “Africa” first because the song has been covered so extensively that I don’t like hearing any group compete with it today, but secondly because the straight-laced vocals didn’t really jive with the more light-hearted movement on stage. There are points when groups need to make critical deicsions about whether they’re going for comedy or drama, and mixing the two can just leave the crowd ambivalent. I felt this group shone brightest on its second trip the stage. R. Kelly’s “Echo” was deceptively clever for all of the Easter eggs of sound imbedded in the piece, including a crescendo on the “keep on climbing” lyric and an echo of the lyric “echo” on the close. Their rendition of “Hey Ya” was pretty sublime as they rotated through each and every group member, line-by-line, on the solo without ever losing their group sound—very impressive. Unfortunately, the competition structure dictated that, when the group qualified for the final round, they needed a sixth and seventh song. While they still sounded quite good, and the ripping parts of the solos on their Backstreet Boys song were particularly memorable, the guys seemed a little gassed by this point in the show and had the misfortune of performing right after Buck That!’s most electric showing of all, leaving the crowd a bit less receptive than they probably ordinarily would have been. Still a stellar showing for a group that hadn’t really been on my radar prior to this competition.
There are times when I worry I’m a little too critical of song selection because I listen to a lot of a cappella and what’s beaten-to-death for me may still be relatively novel to a general audience. Nonetheless, The Wooster COWBelles’ choices to cover “Hide and Seek,” “The Chain” and “Gravity” were a bit tough for me to swallow because they’re songs that sooooooo many all-female college groups have covered in the last few years. Between YouTube, The Sing-Off, and the growing number of intercollegiate competitions, a cappella is increasingly global, and I think competitive groups need to be conscious of what’s already relatively “played” on the collegiate scene and try to think differently. With all that said, the group showcased some really nice dynamics on The Imogen Heap song. I loved the artistic decision to start “The Chain” with three distinct soloists, which set up the round at the end of the song perfectly. The solo on “Gravity” was more than up to the task—perhaps a bit too loud at points, but dripping with emotion and showing good dramatic and dynamic range. The best idea the group had was “Locomotion” a fun, offbeat selection that will be familiar with most audiences but not cliché. Unfortunately, the decision to go choral and the restrained choreography kept this from being the barnburner I felt it had the potential to be.
Ohio State Key of Gee offered up a really memorable set. Their soloist for “Animal” was one of the best of the afternoon—confident and bold with a nice texture to her voice. Similarly, the lead on “Fix You” was really strong, demonstrating remarkable vocal range and pulling double duty by switching off to do the percussion for the last leg of the song—while the group masked this fact by having him slide off to the side at that point, I think it may have been interesting to have kept him front and center and spotlighted his versatility more. Nice female backing solo to close this one. The main shortcoming of these first two songs was that, despite the killer leads, the background vocals came across a bit sloppy—not blending as well as I would have hoped. In addition, part of the challenge of “Fix You” (aside from the point that so many groups have already covered it) is that you need to be really thoughtful about how you’re going to keep it interesting. I wasn’t hearing much variation in the background on this one, which made it feel relatively static until it the perc keyed in the late stages. The group closed with Kanye West’s “All of the Lights,” including a sample of “Power.” This the kind of song that’s really going to polarize an audience and a judging panel, because it’s inherently less about music, and more about the rap and effects. Though I don’t think the group had quite the rap chops to make this an optimal choice for competition, I thought this was a wonderful example of how throwing yourself into a song and showing a lot of attitude can compensate and allow you pull off a piece on the live stage. Backing up that spirit with a really cool siren sound effect and some massive bass swells, the closer worked for me.
Checking in as the most surprising act of the afternoon Wooster Colllege After These Messages delivered a truly unique set. They opened with a choral take on “Call Your Girlfriend”. I dug the contemporary song selection and loved the decision for two group members to sit down and provide the percussion by slapping their thighs and the stage as the rest of the group sang. Living up to the group name, After These Messages employed three short snippets of commercial jingles. While it was cute, and the songs were pretty well executed, I think this would have been much more effective if they had spread out the jingles and used them between each of their songs, rather than as one big cluster. After their first “commercial” the two that followed each felt like fake outs as we waited for them to sing a real song again. Fortunately, when they were back to serious music, they turned to Florence and the Machines “Dog Days Are Over” such a cool piece that made good use of clap percussion and dynamics. I wish the group had left off “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”—both because the song selection was disappointing after their more creative preceding choices and because the vocals sort of fell apart on this piece. Nonetheless, the group was strong enough to reach the second round. Their take on “Someone Like You” had all the right ideas, including lots of transitions to keep it interesting (adding a backing solo, going choral for the end). Unfortunately, the women weren’t quite up to their arrangement here—the blend and harmonies are so important on a song like this and the pieces didn’t quite fit together.
Wooster College A Round of Monkeys delivered a set best characterized by a consistently full sound, a feel-good attitude, and strong leads, but relatively simple arrangements. While I had mixed feelings about the execution, one of the most winning elements of this group was their clearly defined identity. They opened with “Hey, Hey We’re the Monkeys” and later took a moment to introduce each group member by his or her group-given “monkey name.” While this was a bit too inside-jokey for my tastes, it helped to demonstrate the group personality as people who are legitimately friends and who legitimately have fun with their art, which in turn makes it more fun for the audience to get involved. “Roll To Me” featured a particularly good solo. I dug the dramatic interactions between the soloists on “Home,” though I would have liked to have seen them play that up a little more by having the two of them start out farther apart on stage and get closer throughout to both work the crowd more evenly, and give the song more of a visual dramatic build. I could have done without “And So It Goes,” a played song selection by any measure and one they didn’t deliver quite cleanly enough to justify bringing it to competition. The group made a really strong showing for itself in the second round with a spirited, creative reimagining of “Build Me Up Buttercup.” Ordinarily, I’d frown on the song selection, but this is a perfect example of how a group can reinvent a piece and make it relevant again. “I’m a Cow” was a surprisingly sophisticated take on a comedy piece, featuring some excellent dynamics, though I would have liked to hear the middle vocal parts a little more on it. “This Love” was good, but the most striking element for me was that I didn’t even notice they had VP on it until very late in the song. Unless the song is really soft or the drummer is unusually loud, you really need to mic him in this environment.
Those, in a nutshell, are my thoughts on Voicefest at Wooster Jam. Buck That! Ended up taking home first place and the $2,500 prize to go with it, provided by The JM Smucker Company. I want to throw out an extra thanks to Ben Heavenrich and the Wooster Jam team for welcoming to be a part of the event and facilitating such a fun experience. I’d also like to give an extra nod to my fellow judges, Lisa Wong, Rich Cole, and Steve Daigle who were a pleasure to meet and work with for the day. Here’s hoping Voicefest continues for years to come!