On Saturday, April 13, Wooster Jam at the Wayne County Fairgrounds in Wooster, OH, played host to VoiceFest. The event featured eight competing groups. Before we get to the review, a quick summary:
Ohio State University Buck That!
University of Akron Rhythm & ‘Roos
Ohio Wesleyan University Pitch Black
Baldwin-Wallace University Mr. Sun’s Echo
College of Wooster Round of Monkeys
The Kent State University Kent Clarks
The Oberlin College Obertones
Case Western Reserve University Dhamakapella
Note: I served as one of the judges for this event, and so did not take nearly as comprehensive review-oriented notes as I ordinarily would, so this write-up is a bit abbreviated.
The show took place in the unconventional setting of The Coliseum, a cattle barn best known for hosting the Wayne County Fair Best of Bovine competition. Wooster Jam Director James Levin introduced the show. Ben Heavenrich shared emcee duties with Levin throughout the afternoon. The competition structure was set up as follows: eight groups performed for six to eight minutes. The judges picked four top groups to proceed to round two. The four groups performed for another six to eight minutes, after which the judges picked the top two who went on to perform for up to six minutes in the final round.
Last year’s Voicefest winners, Buck That! opened the show. The all-male group sang Kimbra’s Good Intent” and ”Survivor” by Destiny’s Child. First class professionalism and visual presentation from the guys. Mostly clean sound, though the (very good) VP could overwhelm the overall group sound a bit. The guys were very earnest in their delivery of “Survivor,” rather than falling victim to the temptation to play an originally female song for laughs. This choice served the song well. The performance spotlighted an excellent soloist.
Next up were Rhythm & ‘Roos They started their set with “Madness” by Muse. Really cool distortion effect working in concert with the VP. Strong, classical sounding solo. The group transitioned seamlessly into a medley, highlighted by “Everybody Talks” by Neon Trees and “Trouble” by Taylor Swift. I liked that the medley gave the co-ed group room to highlight different personalities and dynamics within the group, and liked the way they handled most of the transitions. I would have liked to have seen more choreography based in actually moving their whole bodies, as opposed to the more cutesy hand jive stuff. That said, the facials were mostly good, particularly when group members interacted with one another.
Pitch Black sang next, the lone all-female group in the competition. They opened well with a ton of intensity on Delta Rae’s “Bottom of the River”, which sounded really good, highlighted by a strong solo, but the movement on it was a little unpolished. The group turned next to “I Will Survive” which was fun, but not quite powerful enough to really make an impact, and the group clipped the song pretty short, which didn’t really give it room to build organically. The group closed with a slowed down take on ”Titanium” by David Guetta and Sia, which was well-conceived (particularly for thhe recurring trio of leads) but would have benefited from a bit more careful tuning and choreography.
Next up was Mr. Sun’s Echo which treated the audience to a really fun (and funny) medley of movie themes, all lyric-ed to tell us about different characters from Star Wars. The piece showed great personality and humor but the tuning was hit-or-miss and it’s always a challenge for groups to succeed in both wow-ing the judges and pleasing the audience when they choose the comedy route. The group followed with ”In the Still of the Night” which featured really strong soloists, but felt a little too even keel aurally and visually. The group swayed and snapped throughout the song, and might have benefited from gradually introducing different visual elements, for example, starting still, then swaying, then snapping to lend the piece a greater sense of build and direction.
The home group, Round of Monkeys was up next. They opened with “Hey Hey We’re the Monkeys,” which was fun and underscored the group’s good nature and sincerity, in addition to their fine sense of dynamics. They moved on to ”Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon which employed rotating soloists. The transitions between leads often muddied the group’s tuning, but it did allow for a pretty sublime moment as different past leads took on the echo of “I’m ready now” before a new lead exploded into the end game of the song. The group closed with “King of Spain” by Moxy Fruvous, which was a lot of fun and highlighted a really charismatic soloist who interacted with the audience nicely.
The Kent Clarks started their set with The Script’s “Hall of Fame.” Sensational energy and confidence from this group and some really excellent transitions with different leads and the vocal percussionist interacting toward the front of the stage. The set also included The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” and Bruno Mars’s “Runaway Baby”. Lots of really well-planned choreography, particularly considering the large number of group members. Excellent personality from each of the leads.
Next up, The Obertones, who started with a Ladysmith Black Mambazo song and embedded a sample of Paul Simon’s “Homeless” within it. It’s particularly challenging for a group to connect with an audience when they’re not singing in English and it’s a real testament to the emotion, intensity, and purity of sound of this group that they made this piece work so well. They followed up with Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Deceptively complex arrangement for this really fun little ditty that shored up the group’s place as an audience favorite.
Dhamakapella closed out the first round. In their signature style, the group mashed up American pop hits with Indian music, first featuring Linkin Park’s “P5hng Me A*way,” then Beyonce’s ”Halo.” Very cohesive, professional sound and staging from the group. The solos on the opener would have been better served to have used the microphones as their sound got a little lost; the soloists for “Halo” were well-served to take advantage of the mic-ing. Really polished, distinctive set.
Dhamakapella, Buck That!, The Obertones, and The Kent Clarks advanced to round two.
Dhamakapella led off round two with their own spin on a classic Indian song. Truly exceptional moment as two of the women engaged a high-speed conversation of sorts, then started singing over one another for a really cool, unique sound. The group was at its best when it highlighted what was distinctive about their cultural sound and moment of this song clicked perfectly. The performance was really strong, though it felt as though it started to run a little long in between the more powerful segments of the piece.
Buck That! Sang next with their mashup of “Too Close” and “Cry Me a River.” This was a really slick combination of the songs both aurally and visually. Complex arrangement. Cool moment as a trio took the lead. If anything, Buck That! felt as though it was gathering steam between rounds.
The Obertones were up next. They sang Rusted Root’s “Send Me On Way.” They continued resumed their full, clean sound from round one. Thought the song choice felt a little un-ambitious, the execution was nearly flawless. The guys continued with a supremely inventive take on Katy Perry’s “Firework.” This mellow version of the song was really original and highlighted some pretty spectacular variation in the dynamics, tempo and vocal style. Exceptional falsetto bit from a gentleman in the group who appeared to be of Asian descent.
The Kent Clarksperformed next with a set featuring Jessie J’s “Domino” and Rihanna’s ”We Found Love.” Again, the group’s power and sureness were its greatest strengths, but the sound got a little uneven and almost abrasive at times, particularly as the soloists attacked their leads and didn’t quite mesh with one another. There’s a fine line between fierce in a good way and sounding a bit too harsh and I think the group erred a little on the latter side this time around. Just the same the choreography was quite sharp and the arrangements were solid.
By unanimous decision of the judges, The Obertones and Buck That! advanced to round three.
The Obertones led off the final round with a medley of Backstreet Boys song that felt a little dated, but that the guys nonetheless sold with amped up vocals and great facials. Most impressively, the group maintained good tuning despite the shifting soloist duties. It was a good start to the final round, though the group felt a little flatter than they had in their first two sets. They followed up with Jonsi’s ”Sticks and Stones,” a nice contrast to the song before it with another solid lead.
Buck That! closed the competition with Florence and the Machine’s ”Breath of Life.” Great intensity on this one as, contrary to their competition from Oberlin, the group just seemed to get stronger as the competition drew on. Very clear vocals, and a great visual moment as the two halves of the group turned inward to face one another, standing at an angle and sang heatedly at one another. Excellent closer.
Over the years, I’ve written about how difficult the decisions must be for judges as they pick between two or three elite groups in a given show. In this case, the judges were in agreement—we felt Buck That! won the final round, but that the bigger picture of The Obertones’ portfolio f performances throughout the afternoon was, cumulatively, the best of the competition. So, which group should we place first? We double checked the rulebook to confirm that the competition organizers had not clearly established whether each round was to be taken individually in the determination of which groups advanced or which group won. After a good bit of back and forth we started to talk about crowning co-champions and ultimately agreed that was the best representation of what had happened that afternoon. The $2,500 first prize and $500 second place prize were combined and cut in half to award each group a prize of $1,500. The Obertones sang their encore first, Justin Timberlake’s ”My Love.” Boy band fever must have been catching because Buck That! closed the show with their encore, N’Sync’s ”It’s Gonna Be Me.” Fun end to a really enjoyable afternoon. Congrats to all of the performers and thank you to the Wooster Jam organizers for letting me be a part of the event again.