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 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
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.
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.
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’
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.