Event Review: VF-UK 2012 St Andrews Regional Round

by John Lau

The Saturday evening of March 10th before the Universities Final of the Voice Festival UK saw opportunities for a cappella fans on both sides of the border to enjoy some excellent a cappella sets from the oldest University in Scotland. With the highly popular night out in Younger Hall starting about half an hour late due to the backlog of a cappella fans still wanting to squeeze into the hall to watch the entertainment, it was a testament to the growing popularity of a cappella at the place where it all began for Prince William and Kate Middleton.

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

The Competitors

THE OTHER GUYS from the University of St Andrews
THE ACCIDENTALS from the University of St Andrews
THE ALLEYCATS from the University of St Andrews
THE HUMMINGBIRDS from the University of St Andrews
ABERPELLA from the University of Aberdeen
CHORAL STIMULATION from the University of Glasgow

The Hosts

Blind Mirth

With their black & pink sweatshirts and pink denim shorts, The Accidentals opened the show, hoping that their performance would be satisfactory enough to grant them a pass to the London Final for the third year in a row. The initial impression as they took to the stage was that they had had quite a turnaround in terms of personnel, as I could only recall a maximum of three singers from the last time I saw them, at the VF-UK Final in 2011.

They opened with a mash-up of Tinchy Stryder’s Number 1 and Shorty Fire Burning by N-Dubz ft. Sean Kingston, which was a decent, auspicious start to their set.

The opening piece was followed up with some samples that formed what was described as a ‘Disco Medley’ including samples from tracks such as Music Sounds Better With You from Stardust amongst others, which, aside from allowing me to reminisce of summers past, continued their solid start, in that there were very few opportunities to pick faults in their performance.

Their third piece was perhaps the most challenging of their set, I reckoned, as they changed tack totally from disco music to a soul/gospel-like affair from Christina Aguilera in the form of The Voice Within. It was noted that in the second rendition of the chorus that the original soloist was joined by another, which at the time was unexpected, but ended up as something of a masterstroke, as the second soloist provided a perfect balance to complement the original soloist, assisting with what I originally regarded as a tenderly fragile piece of music which I believed only Aguilera herself could pull off. So this was a well-structured piece for which I can only praise arranger Ellie Mason for providing to the masses. The judges picked up on this and duly rewarded the soloists later on.

The Accidentals closed off the first set of the evening with some more RnB in the form of Beyonce’s Love On Top, which felt like a good listen for the first time. In comparison to what I heard from the Accidentals when I saw them first in the 2011 Final, this was a more tender set from them, less punchy (I’m still in raptures from the choreography in their rendition of Nelly’s Ride With Me with Misses Muir and Cottam in the 2011 Final), and as a result, I had my doubts as to whether this set was going to be enough for them to seal a third consecutive qualification for the London Final in a few days time, but only time would tell. One act down, five to go.

Next on the stage were the pioneers of collegiate a cappella at the University of St Andrews, The Alleycats, who were seeking to qualify for the London Final for the third time. Personally speaking, their choice of attire could have transported me to Oxford, the home of the former winners The Oxford Gargoyles, who may or may not have inspired the decision taken by the Alleycats to wear black dresses in the case of the women and black suits, shirts and bow ties on the young men of the group – the distinction being spanking new white trainers. But even still, they looked very smart.

Their 3-piece set commenced with a slightly more upbeat rendition of Ray Lamontagne’s You Are The Best Thing than the original. I was already impressed by the original piece from 2008, but with a smooth pair of soloists in Garrett Turner and Ayanna Coleman, this rendition was taken to another level in terms of listenability as a result of an uplifting crescendo in the chorus, which was harmonised to perfection by the remaining Alleycats.

Their second piece was a rendition of David Guetta’s Titanium rearranged like every part of the set from the original track by Brendan MacDonald, with Heather Robertson on the vocals and “Auxiliary DJ” Cameron with the box of beats. This afforded me the opportunity to appreciate the husky quality of the vocals from Heather Robertson, which provided a positive distinction from the original vocals from Sia.

The last piece from the Alleycats was another RnB-based medley featuring Britney Spears’s Till The World Ends, Usher’s DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love and Tonight from Pitbull, with not one but 2 beatboxers in the forms of Cameron Dobbie & Garrett Turner, which was made pretty memorable by the choreographic work behind the scenes done by Philip De Winter Shaw.

As the pioneers of collegiate a cappella in St Andrews, I am pretty convinced that this group received the biggest applause of the evening in advance of their set, and with their repertoire in particular, they are very easy to listen to, but whether this particular set would be sufficient to qualify them for the London Final, would remain to be seen, but by now, half of the St Andrews contingent had played their cards.

Next up on the stage was the first of 2 groups who were not based at St Andrews. With 9 male students and 5 female students, the 14-strong Choral Stimulation ensemble had the largest contingent of any group participating this evening, coming in from Glasgow University. The group was turned out in matching attire, with the women wearing silver sequined tops and black leggings and the men of the group wearing gold braces and black clothes of their own choice. Considering that I had never seen anything of this group neither on video nor live, I was expecting quite a treat as well as a varied repertoire and I don’t think they disappointed in the end.

The Glaswegian group started off with a medley inspired from Queen’s Greatest Hits, including parts of inspired hits such as Fat Bottomed Girls, Radio Gaga, Bicycle, Somebody To Love, We Are The Champions and part of Bohemian Rhapsody. The highlights in this medley were the soft tone of the soloist in Champions, which made quite a positive change from the men who normally sing this particular song to acclaim their favourite sports team winning silverware and a lovely crescendo built up in their rendition of Somebody To Love.

Their next piece mellowed things somewhat from rock’n’roll to a folk-like piece in the form of Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend, which took me back to 1997, when the Brand New Heavies produced a very good listen by way of a cover version. Although it was covered by James Taylor back in the 1970s at roundabout the same time as the original piece came out from Carole King, I had never heard of this piece being taken on by a male soloist, so I was pleasantly surprised at the result of hearing the vocal solo being taken on by Ben Langridge. These dulcet tones almost made me think it was Siedah Garrett who was singing the vocals.

The Glaswegian set was closed off by the group’s rendition of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida mashed up against the theme tune to Pokemon, and in a masterstroke, the group decided to hand the job of the lyrics to the individual who looked most like Chris Martin. He sounded almost as good as Chris Martin as well. This was a feelgood end to the Choral Stimulation set and I hope to see them sometime in the future. They were given a particularly rousing round of applause from the audience present on their way out, maybe in recognition of the fact that they were from outside St Andrews.

The fourth group on the stage was one I had never seen live, the second all-female group from St Andrews, The Hummingbirds, who joined the stage with their blue or green hooded tracksuit jackets. The girls started their set with their cover of Waterfalls from TLC, a tune which I didn’t think all those years ago could be improved upon, but this particular rendition sounded more upbeat than the original that I heard in the mid 1990s. The group insisted on performing the original version, which carried the rap bridge between 2 of the later verses (rather than the cleaner version which I had been brought up on via the radio all those moons ago), which I was pleased to hear – and who knows, maybe the Boxettes may have inspired the rapper in Miss Premchard? But not a bad introduction to what these Hummingbirds do live on stage.

Their next piece was the group’s cover of Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know, which was a passable rendition of a recent piece, which featured 3 soloists in Misses Pike, Gunn and McGeough, and seemed to go down pretty well with the assembled audience.

Their closing piece was their homage to the unwanted stereotype of a female student in St Andrews. Interspersed with some chuckle moments which sounded much better than anything that our stand-up comedy group hosting us for the night came up with, were Blue’s One Love, If I Let You Go from Westlife and What Makes You Beautiful from One Direction, in a medley entitled on the set list as “Single in St Andrews – a Boyband Medley”, and the arrangement made me chuckle a fair bit, which was definitely the intended purpose of this medley.

Next on the stage, and with the least pressure I would have thought, were the debutants from the University of Aberdeen, Aberpella, who joined the stage uniformly resplendent in black, the 7 women of the group wearing different types of black dresses and the 3 males of the group wearing white shirts and black braces with their black trousers.

Their opening piece could well have been a tribal call from the African continent, for it sounded very earthy which is now the perception I carry of this group, but the Aberdonian students started their set with a combination of the well-accepted Rusted Root’s Send Me On My Way, Something’s Got A Hold On Me from Etta James and the exotically named Waka Waka from Shakira, three totally different pieces in terms of the style of music but with time, I feel that they managed to infuse these 3 pieces pretty successfully. On this piece I was particularly impressed by the vocal range of two of their soloists, Mr Chadwick and Miss Anderson in their respective solo parts.

Their second piece, which pleased the organisers to the extent that they had to tweet about it was the Fleetwood Mac classic named Dreams, last covered by The Corrs which was the first version I heard of this piece. While I find the original a good chill-out listen, I was interested to see how it would be rearranged from the original and how different it would sound as a result. The end result was pretty impressive for two reasons: I first of all felt that the soloist Elizabeth MacLean made the vocals her own with her own vocal performance and I also found a nice touch towards the end with an echo effect implemented by the rest of the group. At this stage, I would have no hesitation in acclaiming the arranger Jun Yang for the work he put in to rearrange this particular piece.

The Aberpella set was closed with their rendition of My Funny Valentine from Ella Fitzgerald, which was intertwined with what I could have sworn was the theme tune to the TV advert from the Thomson Package Holiday firm, which made it sound different, I thought, but in general terms, this was a good set put on by Aberpella in their VFUK debut and I imagine they will have taken some positives and learnt some lessons from what they heard of the other sets.

The final act on stage was The Other Guys, who were seeking to qualify for the London Final for the first time in 3 years. At the same time, there could have been more than an element of pressure placed on the 10 sets of shoulders, as they perhaps had more to lose of a reputation than the other competing groups present this evening, as a result of going into this event as the favourites to progress to London in 6 days time and also the spotlight that had been placed on them following the fame achieved for their trademark tune “Royal Romance”. The Other Guys were turned out in their own suits of various hues, but easily distinguishable with a burgundy-coloured handkerchief in each of their outer suit-jacket pockets.

The final set of the evening started with their rendition of Toploader’s Dancing in the Moonlight where the soloist’s part was taken by Matthew Pattie, an auspicious start from the Other Guys and one that bode well for the rest of the set.

The next piece however, took down the tempo somewhat dramatically with something from their album “Barely Regal” – their version of Bon Iver’s Skinny Love, which pitted Ted Haxby on the melancholic-sounding solo which I will admit has grown on me since I first heard of it on my first album review. It may sound good when played out as an MP3 file, but I felt that watching this piece being performed live adds a different dimension. Musically, as well as Ted’s solo, I was also impressed with upbeat quality on the harmony in the background which counterbalanced the melancholy sound of the lyrics.

The final piece of the night was the St Andrews version of Katy Perry’s California Gurlz, which was well-received by the audience and sung by Andrew Pattie with all the replacement lyrics thrown in such as doing something on the Old Course and Burberry-donning girls of North East Fife. In a final pitch to the judges, they also exemplified their keenness to get to London by starting a race to get to the home of the Olympic Games 2012 set against the backdrop of a past Olympic theme tune, Chariots of Fire, but if their show of fitness in slow-motion is anything to go by, I am glad that they are not representing Team GB, as we in the UK are after as many gold medals as we can get at these London Olympics. With the choreography aspect thrown into the song and the set, the end product was thoroughly entertaining. Well done Miss Renton for the power of work that you put in to make the difference.

And so with the last group having played their cards, it was now down to the 3 judges to figure out who would get another piece of gold (in the form of a certificate), to confirm who would be going to London in less than a week’s time to contest the University Final.

After a passable interval of “Mock The Week” played out on the stage with the comedic ensemble known as Blind Mirth, the workshop result from earlier in the day was played out with Joanna Forbes L’Estrange leading those who participated in the afternoon workshop. After introducing the 4 large sections of this mega-group (Vocal Percussionists, Basses, the Scatters and the Female backing vocalists), we were treated to their rendition of Jessie J’s “Domino”. I have recently heard that Jessie J is now a judge in a music-based TV programme, I wonder whether there is any chance of her becoming a judge in the Voice Festival UK 2013? Before the workshop result was played out though “Happy Birthday” was sung to one of the organisers who was spending her birthday running around the Younger Hall ensuring all the preparations were in order for this evening. Happy Birthday Cherith Graham and it was great to make your acquaintance on this occasion.

Awards:

Outstanding Performance: The Other Guys
Outstanding Soloists: Grace Hardy and Vicki Robertson of The Accidentals for ‘The Voice Within’
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Cammy Dobbie of The Alleycats
Outstanding Choreography: Philip de Winter Shaw of The Alleycats

WINNER:

THE OTHER GUYS

There was some confusion over the identity of the winner of this regional heat, caused by the questionable decision to have two of the MCs announce who the winner on the night was, but in the end The Other Guys completed the line up for the Final that was to be held in less than a week’s time in the City of London School for Girls, and not The Alleycats as one of our hosts had announced.

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