Event Review: VF-UK 2012 Birmingham Regional Round

On 25th February, deep in The Underground at the Guild in Birmingham, four a cappella groups had their chance to shine in the second Regional Round of the 2012 Voice Festival UK University Competition.

Before we get to the review, a quick summary of the show:

The Competitors:

THE BIRMINGHAM SONGBIRDS from the University of Birmingham
SONS OF PITCHES from the University of Birmingham
95 KEYS from the University of Leeds
VOICE VERSA from the University of Birmingham

The Host:

MATT SAULL

With this being only the second time that Birmingham had hosted a regional round of the VFUK competition, and with all groups competing only having existed for a maximum of two years, this would suggest to some that the standard of the competition may have suffered in comparison to the other established rounds of the contest. I can assure you, this was certainly not the case. The standard of all the groups was extremely high and they all very well received by the highly vocal audience – indeed they were asked numerous times to hold back in their applause between songs of the different sets.

The first of the four groups to perform were the all male group The Sons of Pitches, and oh boy what a set! The group entered to rapturous applause wearing their distinctive red boiler suits and no sooner had they taken their places than their set began without the need for a pitch pipe with Kimbra’s Settle Down, which was one of the best songs of the night. This intricate arrangement was extremely well executed, with a nice build at the top, and a stunning tenor solo that pierced through the otherwise dampened acoustics of the venue. There was at one point a little too much thigh-slapping and hand-clapping, overpowering the backing ever-so-slightly, and it was an interesting choice by the boys to start the entire evening off with a slower song, but the intimacy and intricacy of the arrangement really worked and set a great standard for the night.

Their second performance was entitled ‘Grenoon 5′. We assumed it was some kind of mash-up of Bruno Mars’ Grenade and a Maroon 5 song or two, and indeed they kicked off swiftly with This Love, which instantly impacted with the strong baritone soloist, who belted out some kick-ass “woah”s with great panache and energy, although there were a few rare times he strayed into the realm of shouting, although this did fit with the rockiness of the song. The backing was fairly simple, although there was a nice gradual build in the second chorus which showed off the musicality of the group. They blended into Grenade nicely at the end of the second chorus, and the arrangement was good, although there did seem to be a little too much baritone and not quite enough bass and tenor in the blend. The soloist on the second part was good, and dealt very well with the big moments. A good middle song, although not really a mash-up – more like one song after the other.

Their standout performance, however, was the expertly choreographed Club Medley 2. The boys cleverly mashed up the biggest club tunes of the last year, including Taio Cruz’ Dynamite, Flo Rida’s Right Round and LMFAO Party Rock Anthem and wowed the audience with their energy and tight harmonies. There were superb places of high energy juxtaposed with slower, more tuneful moments, topped off with a dash of humour and some unbelievable rapping, and they even had a short and effective beatbox breakdown, and it was the perfect way to close was had been a set that really allowed the night to come alive and left the audience asking how any group was going to top the sons’ performance.

But then out came Voice Versa, the second group from the University of Birmingham. I was looking forward to seeing these debutants, and as they stepped onto the stage in turquoise, blue and black and two of the girls seated themselves on the huge black speakers on the side of the stage, I wondered what they were going to add to the competition. They kicked off with Dusty Springfield’s Son Of A Preacher Man, a really bold choice, and the first thing that really stood out was the fantastic soulfulness of the two female soloists. The arrangement was nothing special, and it felt a little empty at times, but they finished very powerfully and it was an aggressive start from the group.

This group really impressed with their tonality and blend in their beautiful rendition of Phil Collins’ True Colours. The soloist gave a haunting recital and was brilliantly supported by the rest of the group. I really enjoyed the soloist’s ability to hold back towards the start of the set – often soloists get carried away and try to blast everything out as loud as possible, but the restraint on this solo was very effective. I really enjoyed this one – probably the most musically adept song I had seen so far.

The group finished with their ‘Feel Good Medley’. This kicked off with a sole voice singing Feelin’ Good, originally by Cy Grant. Powerful solo, and effective. The backing kicked in in the obvious place, and a female soloist took over, her crisp, pure voice standing out effectively against the simple backing. This exploded into I Got You (I Feel Good) by James Brown, which is a tough song to do justice to, especially due to James Brown having an incredible voice. The male soloist did his best, but could only do so much with the solo dropped an octave. They added Feel Good Inc. by Gorillaz which was a strange choice, and I feel they only used it because it tied into the theme of the other songs. Wasn’t a fan of that part. I did enjoy when they brought the three songs back together at the end, with some rapping, humour and a lot of brapping, and they came full circle with Feelin’ Good at the end, finishing up on a sweet chord. Although the group didn’t have as much energy and the high standard of performance and choreography, they did provide some solid musicality, and for debutants, this was a very good set.

The third group to grace the underground stage were the debutants 95 Keys, dressed in all black. They kicked off with a song I thought hadn’t heard before, Out of Touch by Hall & Oates, but as soon as the opening melody kicked, I knew I recognised it. The group definitely seemed to fill the stage with music a lot more effectively than the previous group, with some really female-rich chords, which contrasted nicely with the male soloist, who was good. The arrangement was much more interesting than anything Voice Versa had done, and I was very very impressed with this first offering from the Leeds group.

Their second song was just as good, if not better. Sufjan Stevens’s Chicago instantly got me hooked with some wonderful breathy tones which had a yesteryear quality to them, and although the male solo was nothing amazing, the laid-back, relaxed nature of it complimented the mood of the song perfectly. The song added a layer when the second, female soloist joined in. There were a few pitching issues, but the interesting and intricate nature of the arrangement more than made up for it. Again, some impressive stuff from the Leeds lot, making me proud to be a Yorkshireman!

The group closed with something more mainstream, The Darkness’ I Believe In A Thing Called Love. I was intrigued as to who would be singing the solo, and as expected it was one of the boys. Unfortunately, the falsetto wasn’t quite as strong as it could have been, and in the second verse and bridge, he switched sporadically from chest to falsetto, which led to a rather odd performance. When they blended into Toni Basil’s Mickey, what was an attempt at a multi-faceted arrangement kind of just turned into random noise on stage. They switched back at the end, and again, while the soloist had an impressive range, the sound coming from the stage was somewhat overpowering and I was sadly let down by this final song, which could well have cost the group a place in the final. However, the audience gave the new group an extremely positive reception, applauding them as if they were one of their own. Overall, a well thought out and brilliantly executed act.

Last up were the only all girl group, The Birmingham Songbirds, who competed for the first time last year, and they entered wearing cute matching red and black dresses. They kicked off with Cee Lo Green’s Forget You, a song which is becoming a popular a cappella choice, and as such I felt they needed to do something special with it in order to stand out. Their choreography involved the entire group taking the shape of a car (complete with number plate), which was pretty cool, and the girls showed their funny side when a couple of them feigned exasperation during the ever whinier ‘Why?’s, and musicality the arrangement was solid, if a little plain, although the dual lead added nice depth to the song.

The girls brought back the 60s with their second song with a Beach Boys medley, which included I Get Around, Good Vibrations and one of my favourite songs of all time, God Only Knows. The real highlight of this song was the layered effect towards the end of the God Only Knows section – despite it being a feature of the original song, the girls really did it justice and I was beginning to get into the groove of the song, until it was sadly cut a little short with the introduction of a new one. All in all, a solid enough medley.

The final song was a Spice Girls Medley. Their tight and hilarious choreography and lively rendition appeared to re-awaken the inner girl power of most of the audience members… myself included! Despite not being the most musically strong of the night, this expertly crafted song was a fitting end to a sensational evening of a cappella. A couple of the soloists lacked real passion during their big moments, and unfortunately the song lacked any real consistency: on occasion I was marvelling at the glorious chord progressions and the big, enveloping sound that the girls were creating, and the next they had moved on to a new, not quite so strong song. However, a funny, lively finish from the girls, although interesting how they didn’t really pick a fully slow song – I think that could have hampered their chances, as it would have shown a bit more versatility to do so.

Verdict:

Without last year’s winners Augmented Seven, it was always going to be a very open and competitive round in Birmingham this year, and I think every single group stepped up to the plate. The Sons of Pitches were energetic and lively but weren’t the best musically, while Voice Versa impressed with their musicality, although their arrangements were very simple and didn’t really add much to the originals. The Birmingham Songbirds were also impressive but their consistency and lack of slow song did hamper their performance in my eyes. Leeds group 95 Keys must be praised for their performance, and were my favourites until their final song, which lost it for me. Toss up between Sons of Pitches and 95 Keys.

Awards:

Outstanding Musicality: Voice Versa for ‘True Colours’
Outstanding Performance: Sons of Pitches
Outstanding Arrangement: Harry Fox of 95 Keys for ‘Chicago’
Outstanding Choreography: Ben Hastings of Sons of Pitches for ‘Club Medley 2’

Winner:

SONS OF PITCHES

So, contrary to our readers’ predictions, the Sons of Pitches wrapped up the win and qualified for their first VF-UK final, with two new groups picking up well deserved awards in the process.

Alleycats In The Studio; New Album Forthcoming

When we arrived back home from Moscow, we were pleasantly surprised by the news that The Alleycats are working on their eighth studio album this very second.

For the group, the oldest at the University of St Andrews, this will be their fourth album as a mixed-voice group, having recorded four in their previous incarnation as an all-male group.

With previous albums such as Cat Touch This and Press Paws, playing heavily on the feline nature of the group, consisting of a range of songs from Journey to Muse to Eternal, we are sure their latest offering will contain all of the Alleycat flair we have come to expect over the years.

To follow the group on Facebook, click here.

ATKM’s Participation in ICCA Finals Confirmed

As suspected, the winners of the Voice Festival UK, All The King’s Men, from King’s College London, will be participating in the international finals of the ICCAs in New York in April, against groups from all over the USA.

They become the fourth UK group to take place in the finals, with the most successful group so far being Out of the Blue, who came second back in 2006, and in 2009 after winning the inaugural VF-UK competition.

They are sure to face some stiff competition, and with the ICCA Semi-Finals taking place all over the US right now, it won’t be long until they know exactly who they’ll be competing against.

We wish the boys the best of luck in the US, and as always, you’ll hear about their performance here first!

AcaFolk Interview: Mike Scalise

In the first of this brand new blog category, focusing on the people behind the a cappella scenes both in the UK and the US, we spoke to co-founder of The A Cappella Blog, Mike Scalise, about his a cappella beginnings, his favourite memories and his opinion on a cappella in the UK.

UACUK: Hi Mike

MS: Hi Mark, thanks for inviting me to be a part of this new category.

UACUK: No problem! Clearly you’ve been involved in a cappella for a long time now. Tell us how it all began.

MS: I’ve been involved in a cappella, in earnest, since 2005. I was a junior in college, dating a girl that was in our school’s only a cappella group. I would attend her shows and listen from a layman’s perspective, siphoning out parts of the performance that I believed were either exceptional or poorly-executed. Around the same time, a good friend of mine, Mike Chin, was also dating a girl from a collegiate a cappella group, and it wasn’t long before we started to discuss the shows we attended. We began traveling to a cappella shows, and during one of our trips to see his girlfriend’s group perform at an ICCA event in Rhode Island, Mike pitched the idea of starting an a cappella blog whose purpose would be to make this great form accessible to all people – a cappella group members, non-musical folk, boyfriends/girlfriends of people in a cappella groups, etc. In 2006, during a fourteen-hour train ride to Chicago, Mike and I brainstormed ideas for the blog, ranging from site content to its vision statement, and, in January 2007, we launched The A Cappella Blog.

UACUK: In your time on the blog, you’ve been to loads of a cappella events, showcases and competitions. Tell us about your favourite a cappella memory.

MS: Actually my favourite memory was from before the blog had event been thought of. Approximately ten years ago, when I was a freshman in college, I was passing through my alma mater’s auditorium. I heard what I thought to be a typical band that the school brought in to entertain students on a Saturday night. Much to my surprise, Ball in the House was anything but typical. I wasn’t listening to drums or a bass guitar, but rather all sounds produced by human voices. I was actually shocked. This was my first exposure to a cappella, and, from that point on, my interest only grew.

UACUK: Who is the most inspirational a cappella person you have met or performed with so far?

MS: Although there are several luminaries in the a cappella realm, I have to say Deke Sharon is the most inspirational to me. I am thoroughly impressed with his depth of knowledge in a cappella, but as the production manager of The A Cappella Blog, I am even more inspired by what he has brought to the musical form – founding the Contemporary A Cappella Society (CASA), co-founding the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) tournament and Best of College A Cappella (BOCA) compilation CDs. Not to mention he worked as a vocal producer on The Sing Off which really helped popularize a cappella by making it available to the masses. Very admirable.

UACUK: What do you think makes a cappella so popular in the US? Why do you think it has taken so long to spread across the rest of the world?

MS: The US is made up of several diverse cultures and backgrounds, and, as a result, many of its citizens are willing to embrace the unique and varied musical form that is a cappella. I think this is a contributing factor as to why it has taken a bit longer to spread across the rest of the world. Fortunately, as a cappella rises in popularity, this gap gets smaller each day.

UACUK: What are your experiences of a cappella in the UK?

MS: Unfortunately, I have not yet experienced a cappella in the UK, though an international trip that incorporates an a cappella event, like the London A Cappella Festival, is very high on my list of intended travels.

UACUK: Which groups in the UK have you heard of, if any?

MS: This past November, at SoJam, I had the pleasure of hearing The Boxettes. All I have to say is WOW! Their vocal percussion was out of this world and the ladies’ energy was unparalleled. Prior to SoJam, I heard Out of the Blue and The Gargoyles, both from Oxford University, both at ICCA finals. I’ve always enjoyed how they add an international flavor to the competition, oftentimes selecting songs that I haven’t heard during the year in any of the quarter- or semi-finals, and always performing them well. One such performance was Out of the Blue’s set in the 2009 ICCAs – not only thrilling to watch, but also landed the group 2nd place in the competition.

UACUK: Yes – clearly there is scope for UK groups to really make an impact on competitions such as the ICCAs. But do you think a cappella in the UK will ever become as big as it is in the US?

MS: It’s really hard to say. I think it depends on how willing society is to embrace the introduction of this form, but I do believe it’s heading in the right direction.

UACUK: Now a topic that has been quite intensely debated here over the past few weeks – all-female a cappella. It seems to be struggling a little, both competitively and album-wise, with Julia Hoffmann (on Mouth Off a few weeks ago) mentioning the lack of really good all-female arrangements submitted to the CASA awards, and no all-female groups in the final of the Voice Festival UK. What do think all-female groups need to do to raise the standard?

MS: I think all-female groups need to solicit feedback from an unbiased audience and carefully study scoring criteria prior to competing in events and submitting to contests. These measures will help the groups to not only identify weaknesses but also hone the skills most important in achieving their goals.

UACUK: What do you think the future holds for a cappella?

MS: A cappella has an element of purity associated with it, and I think that’s appealing to society – the raw talent of people. In five years, I expect a cappella to have grown even more in popularity, to the extent that many of our favorite artists will be releasing albums in full a cappella. The ball has begun rolling to some degree, with Ben Folds’s University A Cappella, which is a compilation of the United States’ best a cappella groups performing his songs.

A point I want to make is that I don’t think there are a finite number of pieces to the pie. A cappella won’t overtake traditional music, but rather supplement it. Artists can, and in my opinion, will continue to write and perform music as they always have, but offer their fans new and unique versions of their songs, enabling them to reach a broader audience. This has other implications as well. I predict that there will be even more mainstream television shows focused around a cappella by 2015.

I’m very excited to see what the future has to offer for a cappella music. There are many directions it could go in, but as long as it remains in the minds of the masses, I believe it will continue to attract new fans, and ultimately create a market for the music, movie, and entertainment industries.

UACUK: Do you think a show like The Sing Off would work anywhere outside of the US, specifically the UK?

MS: Yes. At its core, The Sing Off is a show about talent and entertainment, and therefore is appealing to many audiences, regardless of their geographic location, ethnicity, and musical background.

UACUK: And finally, a few favourites. Favourite Band?

MS: Coldplay

UACUK: Favourite Song?

MS: Love and Addiction by Counting Crows

UACUK: Favourite A Cappella Cover?

MS: I Believe In A Thing Called Love, originally by The Darkness of course, but covered by University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers.

UACUK: Favourite Foreign Country?

MS: Canada

UACUK: Favourite Food?

MS: General Tso’s Chicken

UACUK: And finally, if you could change one thing about a cappella in your country, what would it be?

MS: I would like to see a wider presence of high school a cappella groups across the U.S. I think it would help bring together students who would otherwise not interact, and, at the same time, increase the popularity of the musical form.

UACUK: Thanks so much for your time.

MS: Pleasure

Tours Galore in Oxbridge

With the dust having (just about) settled from the VF-UK competition for another year, groups are jetting off once again around the world to perform to awaiting fans across the northern hemisphere.

The Fitz Sirens, from Cambridge, are setting off tomorrow on a busking tour of Poland. Their presence in the Voice Festival this year was sorely missed, but having performed recently at the House of Lords, the girls are certainly more than making up for it by securing some prestigious gigs elsewhere. We wish the girls the best of luck in Poland, and continuing success in the next few months.

Over at Oxford, two groups are about to fly across the pond and try their hand in America. The Oxford Alternotives are jetting off to the East Coast until March 29th, where they will be touring the New York and Boston area, where they are bound to run into some top-class a cappella groups from the US. We wish the group all the best on their tour!

Out of the Blue are also about to head off to the US, heading for the West Coast and California! The group have promised to keep their fans updated every day via their Facebook page, and we can’t wait to hear all about it. We wish the group all the best, and urge them to wear enough suncream.

All The King’s Men Reign In VF-UK Final

In tonight’s sensational Final of the Voice Festival UK, London-based all-male group All The King’s Men fought off some stiff competition to become the first group outside of Oxbridge to become the Voice Festival UK Champions.

The boys, who qualified from the London Regional Round, the very first Regional, also won the award for Outstanding Musicality for their arrangement of Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, and were our reader’s favourites to win the competition, ahead of Out of the Blue, The Other Guys, HotTUBBS and The Sons of Pitches.

Although nothing has been confirmed by VF-UK or Varsity Vocals, the boys are now expected to be invited to compete in the ICCA Finals in New York later in the year, like their three previous predecessors.

Congratulations to the boys, and commiserations to all the other groups. Better luck next year!

Calling All Alumni of VF-UK University A Cappella Groups!

The Voice Festival UK wants you! Having been a part of the Festival as it has grown over the last few years, your thoughts and ideas are really important to the Festival. The VF-UK team want your input as they continue to develop the Festival and make it an even more exciting celebration of a cappella singing and collaboration.

VF-UK warmly invites all alumni of any University group who has participated in any Voice Festival event, competitive or non-competitive, to join them for a drinks reception at the Festival bar from 5.00-6.15pm on Saturday 10th March, before the Voice Festival UK – University Competition FINAL, to get in the celebratory spirit and chat about the future of UK a cappella.

To put your name on the guest list, and receive a free welcome drink upon arrival at the Festival Bar, please e-mail voice@thevoicefestival.co.uk with your name, ticket number and your former group name, so that they can send you more details. Limited spaces available so don’t miss out!