by John Lau
With 26 University-based groups whittled down to the 5 Finalists, the stage was set at the City of London School for Girls to determine who the best UK University-based a cappella group was and who would get the opportunity to represent the UK in New York City later in April.
The line-up for the 2012 University Competition Final, which took place on March 17th, was as follows:
THE SONS OF PITCHES
University of Birmingham
Winners of Birmingham Regional Round
ALL THE KING’S MEN
King’s College, London
Winners of London Regional Round
University of Bristol
Winners of Bristol Regional Round
OUT OF THE BLUE
University of Oxford
Winners of Oxford Regional Round
THE OTHER GUYS
University of St Andrews
Winners of St Andrews Regional Round
Before the sets though, we were introduced to our host for the evening, the former Swingle Singer and beatbox extraordinaire Jes Sadler, and the four judges laid with the impossible task of determining who the best group would be:
Mr Ben Parry, a former Swingle Singer and now co-Director of London Voices;
Mr Russell Scott, a music industry professional for over 30 years);
Mr Dominic Peckham, Assistant Musical Director for the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and VFUK Workshop Leader;
and Ms Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, another former Swingle Singer and now in constant demand for her capabilities as a music coach, workshop presenter and adjudicator.
The nine men who make up The Sons of Pitches, clad as always in their token red boiler-suits took to the stage first, and as this was the first I had seen or heard of them, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of repertoire, but they sure did provide a highly musical three-piece set interspersed with some smiles and humour, specifically the confetti they threw at themselves towards the end of their set which resulted in one of their number being left on the stage to brush as much away before the next act.
In terms of their set, the music started with their rendition of Kimbra’s Settle Down, which when compared to the original sounded a treat to begin with, courtesy of the opening soloist Mr Hinds, which is no mean feat considering the original is sung by an American female. A sky-scraping solo worth high praise. The vocal percussion is also worthy of mention here, for despite being relatively simple, it really came through in this piece. They mixed things up a bit towards the end of the piece with some rather bouncy “Oh!” sounds which kept the song from stagnating.
With the audience suitably ‘settled down’ after the opening piece, the Sons then launched into Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know. They had not sung this song in the Regional Round of the Festival, so I took this as a brave move to try an untested song for the first time in the midst of the largest UK-wide collegiate a cappella competition. As soon as they began I knew instantly they had taken the majority of the arrangement from Pentatonix’ highly successful YouTube video, and was put off straight away as I knew that would be difficult to top. And unfortunately, despite the impressive and fitting choreography, it was pretty much a like-for-like copy. Granted, they almost did the cover justice, but a cappella should be about adding a personal touch of individuality to an already existing song. The boys failed to do this.
Their final piece was described as the “Club Medley 2”, which was an impressive mash-up of various tracks such as Dynamite from Taio Cruz, You Spin My Head Round from Dead or Alive and Ke$ha’s Tik Tok, to name but three. I had heard good things of this arrangement, and I was not disappointed. This was a piece I would happily pay money for and add to my collection of songs to play while preparing for a night out. Some really sweet modulating just before the merge into You Spin My Head. Again, the rapping was impressive. I did a miss a little bit of tenor throughout most of the arrangement, which was a shame as it lead to the whole song sounding very bari-heavy. The beatbox breakdown was again impressive and very unique. I laughed heavily when the entire group pretended to wait for a bus that never came, but while amusing, it did lead to some dead air for a little too long, which may have harmed their chances. The Rory McIlroy lookalike did show us a selection of acrobatics across what remained of the stage, which the audience appreciated, and then came the sparkling finish, complete with confetti, which had to be brushed off the stage before the next act, with Jes Sadler looking on while filling in time. Eventually it was cleared and Jes suggested that it was great to see Kid Rock getting some work. All in all a solid set from the Birmingham contingent, disappointed by their middle song, but their closer was clearly well-rehearsed, professionally performed yet bursting with energy and enjoyment. A thoroughly enjoyable opening set.
From the red of the Sons to the twelve royal blue shirts of All the King’s Men. Although I wasn’t sure whether they had what it took to win the contest in only their second visit to this stage, I knew I enjoyed what little I had heard of them in my travels at the London A Cappella Festival at the start of the year, and hoped that they would have a wide repertoire than what I heard in passing with their rendition of It’s Raining Men in between concerts.
In respect of the repertoire I was not disappointed, not much anyway, as they provided three different pieces each with different tempos. To start with, they came out with their mash-up of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way and Edge of Glory, which provided the audience a very much appreciated act of choreography involving what I can only describe as varying hand movements in the semi-circle that the boys had formed. Musically, there was a significant improvement from what the Sons had put out before them, with a highly original arrangement filling the stage a lot more effectively. The stunning choreography did not end there though: at the point where Edge of Glory was put in the mix (which was gloriously slurred into, by the way), the Men transformed themselves from a semi-circle to a V-shape, with the soloist and head of the V pushing away the men behind him, which looked quite the sight, and was again appreciated by the audience. I really enjoyed the marked difference in tempo between Born This Way and Edge of Glory – almost a master-stroke in that they combined a fast song with a slow one to provide us with the perfect opener. Some really strong solo work too. A very impressive start from the King’s Men.
The middle piece from All The King’s Men took the tempo down completely as they swapped Lady Gaga with Hallelujah from Leonard Cohen, a Christmas Number 1 from as recently as 2008. Despite it being a song covered many, many times in the past, I preferred the ATKM version better than most I had heard, mainly because of the tubular bells effect that they introduced midway through the piece, which to my mind enhanced the rendition, as well as their reputation. Also unique were the choral descants from the second chorus. Some good volume work throughout – they made sure never to stay on the same level – and in the end a pleasant, if unspectacular middle song.
The final piece is the one I heard in London in January, but what I didn’t know at the time was that it was It’s Raining Men mashed up against Robbie Williams Let Me Entertain You, stylised as “It’s Reigning Men”. That will teach me not to judge a book by the cover that I saw all too briefly in between concerts at the London A Cappella Festival back in January. The choreography flashes were all still there enhancing the quality of the piece overall, and while the first half of the song was hilarious (especially “Tall, ginger, dark and lean,” the former two referring to the rather tall flame-haired member of the group), musically tight and included some highly unique backing sounds (I think “jing-zing-a-zing-a-jing-jing-jing” was my favourite), the second half was not quite up to the same standard, in that it didn’t quite provide me with the goosebumps that I used to feel under the Robbie Williams original when it came out all those moons ago. I must praise the boys for their choreography throughout the entire set, which was frankly phenomenal, and enhanced the output in terms of what audience saw, and I wonder whether there is a choreographic mastermind at work within All The King’s Men. A job well done, but it was a case of ‘wait and see’ as to whether they would become the first winners of this competition from outside Oxbridge.
With thirteen females and eleven males all in black with red adornments of various descriptions, the winners of the inaugural Bristol regional and the largest of any of the competing groups participating in this Final, HotTUBBS entered the stage.
Their set started with a musically successful fusion of 5 Colours In Her Hair, It’s All About You and Obviously, all McFly classics. Formed up in a closely rigid formation with girls at the front, it felt different anticipating some pieces from McFly from such a sizeable group. While it successfully entertained the audience present, it was perhaps less in-your-face on this occasion than when I heard the originals back in the days when McFly were one of the more prominent boy-bands in the UK, possibly because of the lack of choreographic surprises that the group could have put in, to perhaps make the medley more memorable. I did appreciate that they had chosen soloists for the final, a change from the Regional, which was rather refreshing, and the soloists did well. The group were the strongest when they all sang the lyrics in harmony with one another, mainly because the sheer number of them allowed the room to filled with a rich, comforting yawn of sound. A solid, well-rehearsed opener, with a sweet clashed chord to close the number.
Their second piece was perhaps more suited to the group, I imagine, as they came up with a medley of songs from the Russian-born American songwriter, Irving Berlin featuring “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Everything in America is Ragtime”. Considering my limited knowledge of the music of Irving Berlin, I thought this was a highly competent introduction to the music of the early 20th Century, with the tempo not really far away from what the public of the 1910s would have come to expect. This was a highly original and refreshing treat from HotTUBBS and although I didn’t have much by way of background knowledge of what they were capable of, I guess this showed that they can be versatile in terms of their repertoire, which is no bad thing really. Interesting that they chose to have a conductor on stage for this number, something I hadn’t seen in student a cappella before, but it did mean their timing was spot on throughout the number.
Their last piece really was ‘Back to the Future’ as they swapped the music of the early 20th Century with Lady Gaga, and their rendition of Telephone. I was pleased to see more of a choreographic show here from the choir group using their heads and hands, but while I felt that the female voice parts diluted the edgy nature of the lyrics from the original, this was probably a softer listen than the original. I enjoyed the switch to a posh-RP accent, which juxtaposed well with the following rap. This was the nearest the group got to contemporary a cappella, and they actually pulled it off pretty well. So a good showing from the HotTUBBS ensemble and I imagine they enjoyed the experience of being in the Final. Now I wonder whether it would be too much to expect this group to add Edinburgh to the list of places throughout the UK that they have already visited: surely not too far a cry from Cardiff or Manchester?
After the first and only sight of women competing in the Final, it was back to the Boys’ Show with the perennial qualifiers from the UK Capital of Collegiate A Cappella, Oxford and their finest boys from Out Of The Blue, in their fourth Final appearance. The fourteen boys took to the stage with their black and blue colours and no shoes.
Their bid to win the title in 2012 burst to life with a mash-up of The Beatles Got To Get You Into My Life mixed in with Isn’t She Lovely from Stevie Wonder. There was a very soul-like quality about this medley as a result of the two voices who were tasked with providing the vocals, Laurie Cottam’s vocals on the first half and Selali Fiamanya in the second half. I must commend Laurie’s solo in particular which was quite stunning, and his tenor belt was countered quite effectively by the soulful dulcet tones of Selali. In fact, I was so in awe of the solos on this one that it was quite difficult to pay much attention to the backing, and although it was a little repetitive, it almost needed to be in order to let the solos shine through on this number. So an upbeat start from the boys seeking to win the title for the first time since 2009.
The tempo was slowed down for the next piece, as the boys provided their rendition of Elbow’s Lippy Kids with no less than six soloists, a slow piece which I wouldn’t have known as coming from a group such as Out Of The Blue had I just let it wash over me, but if nothing else, I was pleased to see that they could rearrange a piece such as this from the original to have it sound as moving as it did, more moving than the original in fact, and credit ought to go in the end to their chief re-arranger, Nick Barstow. There was more of a choral quality in this piece than there was in the original I felt and the voice of one of the soloists even reminded me of Morten Sorensen from the Real Group of professional a cappella singers from Sweden. I really enjoyed the layered effect throughout the song, and while it wasn’t their best song of the set, it was definitely better than any of the middle songs we had seen so far, and is definitely one of those that gets better each time you listen to it.
The Blue set closed out with a piece from Jessie J, one of the judges that the group came across in Britain’s Got Talent last year, and their were covering her most recent single, Domino. In terms of the tune the original and rendition are a million miles apart as the boombastic qualities evident on the original just did not seem to materialise to any great extent in this rendition, which I found a pity, otherwise they could have been regarded as genuine contenders for the prize on offer at the end of the night. The solo was handled well and there was again some excellent choreography – while the majority of the dance moves remained largely simple, it was the human guitar that really got the crowd going, but I was in the end a little disappointed by this final song. And with that, came and went the unfamiliar elements of tonight’s Final.
The Other Guys were last up, wearing their token suits with pocket squares, and they kicked off with Toploader’s Dancing in the Moonlight. What I like about the The Other Guys is that they don’t take themselves too seriously – one could tell from the very beginning of this song that the boys were going to put on a memorable choreographic performance – even if it wasn’t the sleekest, shiniest choreography ever seen, it was sure to be some of the funniest. The song itself didn’t quite fill the stage as much as previous groups had done, and was definitely not as creative and original as the opening number of All the King’s Men especially, but was nevertheless solid, if a little unspectacular.
Their second song was one from their latest album, Barely Regal, and it was their cover of Bon Iver’s Skinny Love. It’s always tough to cover an album track live, but I think the boys did well here. The arrangement was original and added several new elements, including some nice descants leading up to the climax of the songs, but while the backing did swell significantly towards the end of the piece, I felt the soloist could have put a little more power and emotion behind those last few bars. Again, solid from the guys.
The boys’ final song was entitled “St Andrews Girls”, and incorporated mainly Katy Perry’s California Gurls with elements of Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth, One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful and the Chariots of Fire theme tune. While the pace seemed a little fast at first, the boys proved that their speciality really is parodies, with some hilariously re-written lyrics and great transitions into the other songs in the mash-up. They even rapped, proving once and for all that “white men can rap”, as if we didn’t already know that from the Sons of Pitches earlier in the night. I really enjoyed their layered finish in the Chariots of Fire theme tune, which really added to the original, and there were a few cheers (worryingly from male members of the audience) as the boys began to remove their jackets at the end. A very impressive finish, but I’m not sure the set was strong enough to win it.
While the judges were deliberating in a darkened room, our entertainment for the night came in the form of a set of 4 songs from the “Apollo5” group who I first met at the London A Cappella Festival in January, all too briefly.
Their set could easily have transported me to a mellow place as there was something very ‘Easy Listening’ about their set which included tunes such as Java Jive, Ain’t Nobody, a medley featuring some West End Musicals and Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful, all of which was delivered with a laid back element to enable the judges to come to decisions in their own time. The audience was then informed that this group are now seeking a new Tenor to join their ranks. That would have ruled me out of joining this group, who not only have two gorgeous females in their number but also a commonality in terms of their existence. The group believes that with their collaborators, the Red Balloon Learner Centres, the bullied youth of this country can grow in confidence by finding their voice through singing together, which is something I personally can relate to as well, even if there was no opportunity to participate in a choir situation or even better still an a cappella group while I was in study all those moons ago. And the other reason for me not expressing interest in this vacancy, I’m a bass.
The audience were treated to a small sample of the flashmob that occurred this lunchtime and was organised by Mr Dominic Peckham and Ms Joanna Forbes L’Estrange which featured the colours of the Olympic Rings down by the South Bank of the Thames and a very apt song, Daft Punk’s Around The World.
Of course, this was always going to be a tough call. With four all-male groups, there was a chance that this evening might become a little same-y, but each group had their own individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as demonstrating that each of them were beginning to develop their own sense of identity. I think HotTUBBS had a difficult job to do, considering it was their debut performance at VF-UK and they were up against several perennial high achievers in the world of UK A Cappella. But they performed admirably and credit must be due to them, especially for sticking to their roots in their middle song and showing us what sort of variety the a cappella genre can bring. The Sons of Pitches were strong in their debut final, but their middle song let me down, especially given it was pretty much a straight copy of Pentatonix. They show promise though, and I’m sure they will come back stronger next year. The Other Guys finished strongly, but I think they relied too much on that last song to pull them through, and some of the other groups were more consistently musical and had more professional choreography. That left Out of the Blue and All the King’s Men, two groups which I had trouble splitting. While Out of the Blue clearly had been here before, knew exactly what they were doing and had a very, very tight set, All the King’s Men must be praised for their stage presence and utter confidence in their performance. As for which group was to win it – well let’s just say I’m glad it wasn’t me making the decision.
Outstanding Musicality: All the King’s Men for ‘Hallelujah’
Outstanding Performance: Out of the Blue
Outstanding Arrangement: Richard Phillips of The Other Guys for ‘Skinny Love’
Outstanding Stagecraft: Sons of Pitches for ‘Club Medley 2’
ALL THE KING’S MEN
And so in an historic moment for the Voice Festival UK, the winners were confirmed as All the King’s Men of King’s College London, who in their second straight final had broken the stranglehold of this title being won by a group from either the Universities of Cambridge or Oxford. So to the victors, the immense spoils as well as the trophy and to the rest of us, the after-party at a small pub nearby, where the HotTUBBS group serenaded us with some more karaoke. An excellent night, and bring on next year.