Event Review: SingStrong Aca-Idol

On Friday, March 1, South Lakes High School in Reston, VA, played host to the SingStrong DC Aca-Idol competition. The event featured nine competing groups. Before we get to the review, a quick summary:

The Competitors:
Baltimore Vocal Jazz Ensemble
UltraViolet
George Mason University Tomorrow’s Harmony
The Gettysburg College Four Scores
The Virginia Commonwealth University RAMifications
Keyvibe
The Virginia Commonweath University Notochords
The Metropolitones
James Madison University Note-oriety

The Judges:
Rob Dietz (from The Funx)
Amy Engelhardt (formerly from The Bobs)
Ali Hauger (from GQ)

Cameras were not allowed at this show, so we do not have photos to share from it.

SingStrong Executive Producer Jonathan Minkoff served as the emcee for the evening, and allowed the judges to introduce themselves to the audience—one of the fun quirks of this competition remains that the judges provide running commentary after each set.

The Baltimore Vocal Jazz Ensemble opened the show with a mix of “Ease on Down the Road” and “Route 66.” They started with very traditional choral vocals before grooving into a swinging sound driven by the basses. It was a bit strange to see a conductor up front for this show but fun to see him get involved in the showmanship for this number, gesticulating and turning to make faces at the crowd at key junctures of the piece. Really nice fun, full sound from the group.

Next up, the group sang “The Way You Look Tonight.” Excellent harmonies that nailed the high and low end, though the mid-range vocals seemed a little lost. The song got a little more personality as the parts split—the low end taking the lyrics in the second verse as the high end harmonized around them. Incredibly rich bass finish.

The group clapped its way into the finish with Yes’s “I’ve Seen All Good People.” Three soloists up front for this one, who performed quite well. The conductor stepped aside and handled vocal percussion on this one—who knew, the guy had a killer bass drum! I realize this is a very different style from the contemporary a cappella I usually write about and that having even subtle turns and touchs-step movement from the leads was a departure from the typical, more stationary stage presentation for a group of this ilk. That said, I couldn’t help thinking the performance could have popped all the more with the leads in motion, really working the stage. As a general rule, groups need to be mindful that their last song is going to leave a lasting impression on how the judges and audience perceive them, and this performance didn’t exactly get people hopping out of their chairs. Fun little sample of “Give Peace a Chance” in the late stages for a fine finish to the set.

On to the judges. Rob said he loved the group’s personality, and liked that they alternated between focusing on each other and focusing on the audience. He suggested the tuning could be a little tighter, and suggested the group could have ended on a more fun note to match the opener. Ali echoed Rob’s sentiments about the energy, and that the group started at its strongest. Amy, too appreciated the group’s energy and lauded the director’s cameos in the visual presentation for the first song. She thought the men could be a bit more confident in their sound and that the group would benefit from listening down to the bass note. She praised the solo on the last song.

Next up was DC-based all-female groupUltraViolet. They opened with Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You.” Excellent, smooth soloist, who unfortunately had her sound completely swallowed for most of the first verse; her mic level came up just in time for the first chorus, just as the percussion entered, making for a truly electric moment. The woman stood in an arc behind the soloist—I’d have liked to have seen a little more energy from their presentation—no choreography necessary, but the touchstep moves seemed a little tacked on rather than purposeful. Overall, a nice opener.

Next up, the girls got their country twang on for a mix of Little Big Town’s “Little White Church” and “White Trash Wedding” by The Dixie Chicks. Really nice attitude here. Cute idea to infuse some line dancing moves into the visual presentation, though I don’t know they were executed with enough confidence to fully click. Good use of lap-pat body percussion on the segues to the choruses, which I wish were a little more pronounced to build the electricity more at those key times. After the second chorus a new soloist stepped forward. Fun, dramatic moment. I could have done without the vocal fiddle interlude—that’s the sort of bit that’s a lot of fun in a casual gig setting but doesn’t translate so well to a competition setting. Great charisma from the second soloist injecting a ton of personality in the performance and finishing the piece on a high note.

Ultraviolet closed with one of my favorite traditional Irish songs, “The Parting Glass.” Choral take on the piece. I’ll certainly laud the group’s range and willingness to take on really different styles. While this song was very pretty, I’m not sure I agree with the choice to go full-blown choral to finish the set—this song was a little less dynamic than the numbers to proceed it. While it’s a bit of a competition set cliché, I might have gone fast-slow-fast and put this one in the middle if the group was committed to using it, and letting the country mashup take them home.

Amy praised the variety of the set. She loved the trio that popped out for the middle song, and their tuning. She suggested the energy of the count off could have helped the group get off to a more powerful start on its first two songs. Rob agreed with most of what Amy had to say and liked the range of dynamics, but said he wanted more of everything, including the group’s commitment to its moves. Ali called “Parting Glass” refreshing and praised the tuning. She loved the second soloist for the middle song. She said that she wasn’t hearing enough of some of the parts and suggested the group members listen to each other more on stage for tuning.

Tomorrow’s Harmony took the stage next—six men, a mix of current students and alums from George Mason University. They opened with ”Pyramids” by Frank Ocean. Killer bass on the opening. The soloist stepped out front with great charisma at the start, though he seemed to be more going through the motions of the song as it went along. Really nice high harmonies for an all-male group en route to the second verse. Strong percussion. Nice little detail about the group’s attire—I really liked the look—black suits, black shirts, different colored bow ties—all of them untied. Interesting spin on a relatively traditional look. I dug it. Good stage presence from the group—minimal movement, but a solid groove.

The guys followed up with Eric Hutchinson’s “Talk is Cheap.” Really pretty lead with a silky smooth solo. Nice flow into the vocal perc and the groove of the first verse. Again, a really enjoyable presentation from the guys. You could tell they really caught the audience, particularly coming out of the second chorus as the men bobbed from side to side on stage and about half the audience couldn’t help itself from bobbing right alongside them in their seats. Really nice harmonies on the finish.

The group closed on ”If I Knew “ by Bruno Mars. Really nice interplay between two leads on this one, singing parts of the song in unison, alternating other parts, though I couldn’t help feeling one of the guys’ vocals really outshone the others and a more fluid balance might have played a little better. Slick transition to Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road.” Not every group can make that song work in 2013, but the soulful feel it seemed to fit right into this group’s wheelhouse. Sensational secondary solo on this leg of the song as one of the soloists from the first part returned to the fore. Fantastic wall of sound moment as the group lined up across the front of the stage and let the riffs fly fast and loose for a sensational emotional finish. Excellent, offbeat closer.

Back to the judges. Ali called the finish to “End of the Road” “pretty swoony,” and suggested that the guys were “gangsta.” She lauded the bass, and said she wanted more of him. Amy loved the high notes on the first song, but wanted the soloist to own it a little more on the second half of the song. She suggested the group run sectionals without the soloist to make sure that they locked in together. Rob said the guys looked smooth, but wanted them to act as smooth as they looked, seeking fewer apologies on their faces, then made some mic technique suggestions for the bass.

The Four Scores sang next. I liked the group’s colors—the women with black dresses and blue accents, the men in all black with orange undershirts—nice complimentary bit. The co-ed group started with the soloist alone at center stage for Delta Rae’s “Bottom of the River”. She sang the first lyrics unaccompanied before the group stomped its way in from the sides of the stage—tremendous dramatic effect, though, from a functional perspective, the sound could have been all the more impactful were the women not trying to execute the bit in heels. Groups have to make choices about what they want to do aesthetically and aurally, and where those pieces may be at odds. Nice sound as the full group vocals keyed in. Very nice work on the solo. I thought the group could have brought the drama harder and sooner by adding the percussion earlier in the song—as it stood, only the final leg of the song got percussion and it felt like a bit of an afterthought—I thought the drums could have pushed the tempo and added some verve to the piece earlier.

The group clustered into three, tight rows for its next song, “Blue Ridge Mountains” by Fleet Foxes. Neat effect with just one of the women singing in the front row, then three others joining her. The percussion came in and the group exploded into motion—very fun transition. Good charisma from the soloist. Nice bit of visual dynamism with the group members tilting their heads into different angles. I really like it when groups eschew choreography in favor of just dancing, but that look isn’t for every group. Free style dancing on stage needs to look fun—in this instant, too many of the group members looked really self-conscious and it took away from the visual presentation. Good percussion. Nice doubling on the solo in the late stages to help add a new dimension to the sound—nicely done.

The group closed with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed Sealed Delivered.” Interesting concept on this one with groups of women, then groups of men taking the lyrics, then selected group members moving to the front of the stage to take the lead un-mic’ed. The group made some really odd decisions about dropping selected lyrics throughout the verses. I’m all for some creative cutting, but in this case I found it more jarring and distracting than compelling. Moreover, for a song that is so much about attitude and showmanship, I thought it was a missed opportunity not to have clearer cut soloists on the song to really work the audience. All the same, it was a fun idea for the closer.

The judges had their say. Rob talked about the group delivering attitude and soul on their finisher. Generally speaking, he wanted to see the group engage the audience more, particularly suggesting “Bottom of the River” should have grown more as it went to invite the audience to be a part of the song. Amy liked the variety of presentation—that not everyone was singing at all times. She praised the group for using major 7th chords. Ali adored the group, but said she agreed with Rob that some of the songs got stagnant. She praised the first soloist and the way her sound developed—she wanted more of that for the other songs.

The RAMifications closed out the first half of the show. They opened with The Beatles’ “Because”. Though I’ve heard a surprisingly large number of groups compete with this song over the last five years, it still stands out as an unconventional song choice—a part of what worked about it here was the ability of a soft, eccentric song like this to build the drama. Very subtle growth of sound as this one moved along. Good choice to reposition during the instrumental finish to accommodate the transition to the second song and add something visually interesting during a part of the song that could have lost the audience. Nicely execute piece.

Next up, ”Settle Down” by Kimbra. Very nice sublte clap percussion from four group members—just right to keep it understated while still getting the sound across clearly. Very nice percussion here. Very nice, sultry solo. Nice sell job by the group—little choreography, lots of attitude. Excellent contrast to the first song. Nice dynamic shift to take the sound small on the bridge, and excellent riffing from the soloist as the sound began to swell beneath her, particularly a sick hum of bass. Killer drama as the claps keyed back in. I thought moments like that could have gotten a nudge bigger to really attack the music. Just the same, compelling stuff.

Nice popping movement and staccatto sound as the group worked its way into Earth Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland.” I would have liked a little more firepower from the soloist on this one to make the song feel like more of a party; a little less choreography a little more free-boogie movement to sell it as a party jam rather than an attempt at one. Nice high harmonies on the finish of this song.

But what did the judges think? Ali loved the energy of the last song and said the group looked like it was having fun—she craved more of that in the first two songs. She said the set made her happy. Rob said the group would have done better with individual mics to hear the group better. Amy said it could be a double-edged sword to use individual mics if you’re not used to it. Rob said the group had some of the best tuning of the night, and praised the facials on the last song. He suggested the group talk more about the character of the first two songs, but said the group was on the right track.

Keyvibe opened the second half. Great look for the group—no uniform, but each of the performers sporting his or her own spin on urban chic. Truly excellent charisma and vocals on the opening of Timbaland’s “If We Ever Meet Again.” I loved the sultry attitude of this group—a flood of confidence in how they carried themselves, and no one on stage hesitated to let a rip on the mics. I wish I could have heard the perc a little more clearly. Nice call to rotate the soloists on this one to give several members the spotlight—a nice introduction to the group. Really fun breakdown section as the group rocked out and went for the clap along—which strangely didn’t get a lot of traction with the audience. Props to the group for grinning and bearing it and not letting it affect their sound.

They followed up with Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” The blend wasn’t as clean on this one. Points for the visual presentation again as everyone sold the heck out of every piece of the song. The leads were mostly good but the backing track never quite seemed to fall into place—messy and out of balance. Good power moments when the full group popped, and the female lead was particularly strong here. Nice stripping down of the sound for the soft finish, probably the strongest part of the song.

Ali praised the group for everyone being invested in the song the whole time, but talked about the group’s balance being a little strange, in part based on mic technique. Amy said the group was “300 percent confidence” and praised them for owning their sound, but also had issues with the balance and lack of a clear bass sound, and suggested the need for the group to be creative about arranging around it. Rob agreed about the group’s confidence and visual presentation but said the tuning wasn’t there yet—that everyone in the group was singing like soloist at all times, and that the sensitivity wasn’t clicking for the group yet.

Next up, The Notochords. The co-ed group led off with “Undo It” by Carrie Underwood. Great attitude from the soloist on this one though I worried she got a little too big a little too soon—not giving herself enough room to grow her sound organically. Great stage presence from the group. Ton of energy and movment. Very, very good percussion here. Fake out ending into a heart-stopping sample of “Mama Who Bore Me.” Excellent opening number.

The group followed up with The Fray’s “You Found Me.” Nice bit of staging having the group assume perfectly stationary poses and groove into motion as the perc keyed in on the song. Great job selling the song again. The soloist was really good and very much invested in the meaning of what he sang. Great visual moment as the group had receded to the back leaving the soloist to stand alone and then made a the big, dramatic, unified walk to back him up on the crescendo. Nice use of dynamics, and better yet, excellent use of the choreography to accentuate the sound. Captivating performance.

The Notochords ended their set with Fun.’s “Some Nights.” Really nice intro with one group member marching in place, before the marching spread throughout the group and cut off perfectly before the group plowed into the choral opening of the song, which separated really nicely. Killer drama. Interesting call to lift the soloist up on the shoulders of another group member early on—I don’t think that was really necessary and, unfortunately, the movement shorted out her mic so her vocals got lost for the first half of the verse. Really cool dramatic visual clustering in a corner and marching out in staggered formation with backlighting to paint the group in silhouettes. This song is all about being epic and the group nailed that vibe.Really cooling handilng of the “come on”s with four group members standing in formation, building to a falsetto moment of glory for one of the guys. So much fun. So much attitude. So much win. Excellent set construction. Excellent sound. Stellar set.

Rob said this group showed up to compete, praising that the group had thought about the message of each song collectively. He said it looked and mostly sounded really cohesive. He said the tuning could be a little better, but said they could use more of their bodies on the big moves. He said the arrangements were good but could benefit from more sustained material rather than rhythm. Ali called the group in synch and visually pleasing. She said the soloists should open their eyes more. Amy said she could hear the group thinking as one, and signing about something. She praised the fact that the choreography added meaning to what the group was singing. She suggested a key change in “Some Nights” could have elevated the song.

The Metropolitones took the stage next, an all-female group with just six members from NYC. Sick perc driven intro to Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway.”Nice stage presence from the soloist, but her vocal range and precision of enunciation seemed just a little off for the song. She was at her best on the chorus and the biggest moments of the song. Really good bass on this one. Excellent bits of doubling on the solo in the second verse—really nice way of diversifying the sound and avoiding losing the audience’s interest. It was so much fun to watch the ladies in the background dance—this is one of those groups that knows how to sell free style movement and make it all the more effective than choreography. I didn’t love the two-part electric guitar solo—I felt like a sample or clipping the song was the answer there. Fun breakdown section. All in all, a really compelling opener.

The group stayed posed in a cluster before wilting to the sides for their second song, “Glitter in the Air” by Pink. It’s good to see a small group of bold singers who still find their footing complementing one another and producing a full, balanced sound. Nice solo and good precision of sound.

The group closed with Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind (Part II).” I liked that they switched soloists and went to a choral sound for the chorus—this is a great anthem for an NYC group. Good attitude and conviction, though there were certain legs of the song where the visuals didn’t quite match the narrative—for example, a saccharine smile from the soloist singing about the how “the streets are mean.” Really cool unisons woven throughout—the ladies were very much in tune with one another for a strong closer

To the judges. Amy thanked the group for pulling off the bass sound without any sort of effects. She thought there were some balance issues on the middle song with the group sound swallowing the soloist. She thought the energy was amazing. She wanted to hear the group sing in a different key for the second song to differentiate it more from the song before it. Ali thought the group’s energy was great, but because the chords were so staccato it was hard to get the tuning together, and that more elongated lines would have helped the group sound. Rob said he very much enjoyed the set. He said the beginning of the third song was some of the best sound of the night, for the big brassy vocals, but that the arrangements in general didn’t play to that strength. He wanted them to harness their energy more effectively.

Note-oriety closed out the competition. Mean perc lead in to Ingrid Michaelson’s “In the Sea.” nice dramatic intro with the group bending at the waist and the soloist standing in the back before two other vocalists joined her then the rest of the group stood and got in motion. Nice dramatic movement here. Lots of really interesting movement here, all sold with conviction and all really well-timed with the music. Nice solo. Stellar opener

The group’s second number benefited from another strong soloist and a ton of sass from the group. Excellent visual presentation again--I loved that this group established such a dynamic, sultry, confident identity for itself, chose music that suited it, and sold the set full-tilt. This group was 100 percent about sex appeal. Excellent middle song.

Note-oriety wrapped up with Little Mix’s “DNA”. Really cool heartbeat percussion to echo the “my heart won’t beat again” lyrics. Excellent solo. Monster sound from the group—it’s refreshing to hear an all-female group with this much capacity for firepower and the bravado to bring it all to fruition—all the while, never losing its musicality. Great doubling up on the solo on the second verse, with a flood of piss and vinegar from the pair. The group made the clear decision to sell this song angry and went for it. Great fall out moment on the bridge as the group showed great restraint on its sound there before exploding into a high harmony to take it to the last chorus. Killer moment as all three of the set’s soloists challenged the front of the stage. That song had bite! Exceptional set.

The judges spoke for the last time. Amy said that the group was cohesive—you could hear it, but not see the effort behind it and the group nailed it. She liked the duet with the group members singing to each other and connecting. She liked that when there was space in the solos, the leads maintained their presence, not letting the thought of the song die. Rob praised the group’s movement, confidence, preparation, and cohesiveness. He said it was one of the most visually cohesive sets he had ever seen and said the soloists were great. Ali said she liked listening and watching the group so much that he didn’t write any notes. Amy weighed back in to say because the group is so comfortable and confident, they might consider adding some more old school material to their repertoire.

I love the audience participation element of this competition. This year, the audience members not only got on their phones to vote for their favorite, but the crowd’s pick would count for one vote toward which group won the night.

To me, the two groups in contention for top honors were Note-oreity and The Notochords. Each group came from the collegiate tradition but mastered both their sound and their visual presentation. The Notochords served up a bit more diversity of sound and range; Note-oreity had clearer sense of cohesion for the length of the set, culminating in their power number. Overall, based on their sass, power, and lack of missteps, I had to give the night to Note-oreity.

Sure enough, the audience and judges alike seemed to agree as Note-oreity won the Audience Favorite superlative, and took home first place honors.

ACB Picks:

Overall Placement
1. Note-oreity
2. The Notochords
3. The Metripolitones
4. The RAMifications
5. Tomorrow’s Harmony

Outstanding Soloists:
1. Note-oreity for “DNA”
2. The Notochords for “Some Nights”
3. UltraViolet for “Not Over You”

Outstanding Vocal Percussion
1. The Metripolitones
2. Note-oreity
3. The Notochords

Outstanding Visual Presentation
1. Note-oriety for the full set
2. The Notochords for the full set
3. The Metripolitones for the full set
4. Keyvibe for the full set
5. RAMifications for “Settle Down”

Official Results
Winner: Note-oreity

Audience Favorite: Note-oreity

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Mike Chin

Mike Chin co-founded The A Cappella Blog in 2007. He continues to share leadership responsibility for the site, overseeing columns, reviews and features as the content manager. He currently lives in Baltimore, MD.