On Sunday 26th February, Oxford Town Hall played host to the third Voice Festival UK 2012 University Competition Regional Round, with six groups from the University of Oxford competing for a solitary place in the final in London.
Before we get to the review, a quick summary of the show:
OUT OF THE BLUE from the University of Oxford
THE OXFORD GARGOYLES from the University of Oxford
THE OXFORD BELLES from the University of Oxford
THE OXFORD ALTERNOTIVES from the University of Oxford
IN THE PINK from the University of Oxford
THE ULTRASOUNDS from the University of Oxford
The first group to grace the stage were The Oxford Alternotives. I had never heard this groups perform live before, so I was intrigued to see how they would incorporate their ‘alternative’ nature in their VF set, which can be quite restrictive. They were wearing mainly black, and kicked off with Jamiroquai’s Canned Heat. A subdued start led into the bouncy verse, and for some reason I was surprised to see a female take the lead on this song, although considering the skyscraping tenor range of the original artist perhaps I should have expected it. Some nice choreography with some good levels, which progressed in the second verse into a semi-circle with each member of the group doing some freestyle moves, some of which were rather comical, and it was a nice way of expressing the individual characters within the group. The song itself was above average without really being exceptional, and they blended into Boogie Wonderland, which incorporated a male soloist, who did well. Then came the step-clapping – I really don’t like step-clapping in a cappella, so it really frustrates me when groups do it when they could be doing something so much more impressive – especially as it went on for 40 seconds, far too long in my opinion. It was an average opener for the group, which started promisingly but didn’t quite deliver as much as I was expecting towards the end.
Their second song was a slowed down cover of Destiny’s Child’s Say My Name, and I was immediately hit by a wall of sound in the very sultry opening, with the silky voiced ladies taking the lead in the early stages. As the beatbox kicked in, the sound dropped slightly to make way for the solo, and I enjoyed the simple yet effective ‘dum’ sounds from the basses throughout most of the song, but until the group changed it up a little with I’m A Survivor it was dragging just a tad, partly due to the slow tempo of the song. The arrangement did lose its way a little towards the end, and I was glad to see them reach a climax towards the end of the song, as I feared it might not arrive, and the intricate finish was a touch of class on an arrangement which did leave me wanting a little bit more.
The group’s final song was Spandau Ballet’s Gold. Some really nice wave-like choreography at the start, and the group really filled the stage with their sound. I really liked the tone of the soloist’s voice, and there some great cheesy 90s moves in the first chorus which I highly approved of. I also particularly liked the boys miming drums on top of the girls in many of the instrumental sections, which really added to the depth of the song. In fact, the comic value of the choreography really stood out in this number, and I laughed out loud when the boys posed and shouted “Hooh” after “You’re indestructible”, and the girls followed suit the following time, much to the pleasure of the audience. The energy levels for this song were noticeably higher than the previous two, and I was thoroughly impressed by this final performance, which was definitely at a higher standard than the previous two songs. An excellent end to to a good performance, but I wasn’t sure if it was quite strong enough to stand out above the rest of tonight’s performances.
Second up were the only new group in this round, the all-male, all-medic group The Ultrasounds. I was intrigued to see how they would fare against much more experienced opposition, and was delighted to see them dressed in their scrubs – a signature look if ever I saw one. They kicked off with two club anthems, Dynamite by Taio Cruz and Barbara Streisand by Duck Sauce. The boys clearly enjoyed themselves here. Some really great high harmonies, and the soloists were solid enough. Some humorous choreography here too. Unlike a lot of the other groups, they were strongest when they had a clear soloist – the song lost a little bit of its punch during the unison chorus. Their merge into Barbara Steisand worked well, despite being more of a “stop one song and then start the next one”, and they finished really abruptly and effectively, to much applause. An impressive start from the new boys.
Their second song was Yazoo’s Only You. Nice layered effect throughout. Soloist solid, not outstanding though, and was complimented nicely by the second soloist. The boys acted the song well – the original soloist confessing his love for the second harmony soloist, while moving ever closer to him, with the second one looking ever more worried every step the first one took, and trying to edge further away from him, constantly rejecting his advances – the audience tittered away throughout. Finally, the second soloist succumbed after a lot of arm-stroking, and the group finished on a lovely soothing chord which reminded us that they weren’t just about the performance – the musicality was solid throughout.
The boys’ third song was You And Whose Army? by Radiohead. One word to describe this one – haunting. Lots of minor chords, a few clashes here and there, and it led to a really unsettling effect – which I think is what they were going for. I wasn’t massively keen on the soloist’s voice, but his tone actually fitted the song and the mood of the performance really well. The boys crescendoed to great effect towards the end (which, suitably, was when they added the most movement to the piece) and filled the stage with some more haunting melodies, this time in falsetto. I was really impressed with the arrangement here and the way the boys took it on – a very interesting and effective choice.
The boys finished with two pop classics: Could It Be Magic by Take That and Irene Cara’s Fame. You could always tell the boys would move on to Fame, as the backing was there from the very start, despite starting with the Take That song. Another strong tenor soloist here, if a little shouty at the top of his range, and the arrangement itself wasn’t all that complex, but again the boys’ energy let them get away with that. An awesome backflip just before the Fame chorus came in. The boys proceeded to have a bit of a sing-off, with one side singing Take That and the other singing Irene Cara, with the two soloists leading each side. It again did get a little bit shouty as the boys tried to out-sing each other, and the arrangement did eventually get a little messy as there was so much going on. A really good set if I’m honest here, especially from a brand new group, however that last song did seem a little rushed – clearly they were pushed to get four songs in the allotted time. Then again, there was no real weak link in their set, so I’m not sure what they would have dropped. Very impressive stuff.
Next up were In The Pink with their classic, sleek combination of black dresses tied around the waist with a pink sash. They kicked off with a mash-up of Adele’s Rumour Has It and Duffy’s Mercy. Their stamp-clapping start reminded me instantly of The Accidentals’ performance of Rollin’ In The Deep at last’s year’s final, and I knew straight-away that this song would need a powerful soloist. Thankfully, I was not disappointed – the solo was controlled and well reigned in, and stood out against the fairly simplistic backing. When they shifted to Mercy, they switched soloists, and again it was well controlled with some nice runs. I wasn’t a huge fan of the clapping and stamping, which lasted through the entire song, but the ending was clean and effective, and there was very little else to complain about in this opening number.
Next up was Damien Rice’s The Blower’s Daughter. I was intrigued by this choice, and am a big fan of Damien Rice, and knew if this song was arranged well it could be very effective. A beautiful, crisp, clean solo which I loved. Some lovely bell tones introduced in the second verse, followed by some pretty impressive tremolos which I thought worked really well in keeping the arrangement interesting and engaging. Huge blocked chord swell into – a key change! Awesome. And the solo gets even more effortlessly higher! Really enjoyed this, although I maybe would have liked a little more volume directly after the key change, as I feel they held back at a time when they should have just gone for it. But a very impressive second song.
The girls closed with One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful. Not the most musically intricate original, so I was curious to see what they would add to the song. The stand out aspect of this performance was the choreography, which was fun and amusing, and although the soloist showed some impressive range, I wasn’t that impressed with the arrangement itself. I also felt it was a little rushed. A solid finish to a solid set, but I wasn’t sure it was impressive enough to get them through.
The next group were the jazz specialists, The Oxford Gargoyles. Having impressed me at the Edinburgh Fringe, I was excited to see what they would offer this year. They opened, wearing smart black dresses and suits respectively, with You’ve Got A Friend In Me by Randy Newman, and launched instantly into a very laid back swing beat which fitted the song perfectly. The dulcet tones of the two male leads complemented each other really nicely, and I kind of wished it had lasted a little longer – but the two-lead theme continued with a couple of sopranos and thereafter the group switched soloists with consummate ease throughout the song. It was refreshing to hear something completely different at the start of their set, and while the song didn’t blow me away, it did keep me thoroughly entertained and my foot was tapping along throughout. A solid start.
Their second song was Fields of Gold by Sting, and there were some nice dynamics in the first verse with the female lead, and I enjoyed the unexpected key change when the male took over the solo. Clearly showing off their strong soloists in this set. The song really got going when the two leads combined into another duet, and the two voices, while very different, blended well together and were backed up by rising backing volume, which soared to another inspiring key change, before a glorious ritardando and some wonderful blocked harmonies, and the final thirty seconds of the song really gave me goosebumps. The song opened averagely, but improved massively as it went on, and ended up being on of the best songs I had heard all night.
The group closed with Toploader’s Dancin’ In The Moonlight, which began with a very jazzy, slow feel, but burst into life around thirty seconds in when Euan Campbell burst through the back of the group and took over with a silky solo. I really enjoyed the lead vocals, as it was very different to the original, and added an original spin on an otherwise plain arrangement. However, the group again changed it up when they introduced Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, and although the very soprano did get a little pitchy at times, it was an inspired addition to the original song. They then merged into a highly original jazz take on I Believe In A Thing Called Love by The Darkness, and then went Back To The Start and began to mash-up all four songs, including Cheryl Cole’s Fight For This Love, and the group did a good job of filling the stage with different songs without it sounding too messy. Clearly the group have a great deal of musicality and skill with rearranging modern songs and giving them a classier feel, and in my opinion they were the strongest and most original group had I seen so far.
The Oxford Belles were up next, wearing their classic black cardigans and skirts with blue tops combination, and set themselves up rather oddly on stage – it was only when they launched into their TV Medley that it became clear that they had formed a makeshift television out of people. It began with the theme from the Channel 4 news, before swiftly switching to the Simpsons’ Theme, which allowed them to show off a great sense of blend and a variety of music styles as well. This then blurred into the Go Compare song, which I find to be highly irritating, which thankfully slurred seamlessly into the Eastenders Theme, followed by the Lloyds TSB advert theme, then The Apprentice – they really mashed several different themes into this, not just three or four. I commend the girls for their originality and a high sense of musicality, and this was completely different to anything I had seen so far in the entire competition, but I did feel as though the lack of a real purpose to the song may have been the weakness here – there was nothing they really built towards until the very end – but that’s being over critical. A humorous, inspired and unique opener from the girls.
The Belles’ second song was a rendition of Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri. I first heard this song in Germany late last year and instantly thought it would be a perfect song to cover a cappella, and boy did these girls sing it well. The song built perfectly from the quiet opening through verses one and two to the bridge, and they really let themselves go towards the end, with a fantastic solo – restrained in all the right places, but superbly belted at the big moments – and some really powerful and moving blocked chords. I had goosebumps throughout the entire song, ESPECIALLY when all the girls turned around before the final chorus, and the solo was even more impressive given the deep range required at the very beginning of the song. There was no movement at all, but it would have been superfluous as the song and the soloist carried itself. Best song of the night.
The Belles closed with Michael Jackson’s Beat It. I keep saying it and I’ll keep on saying it, Michael Jackson is so difficult to cover well, because the originals are not only so good, but universally recognised, and as such it’s very difficult to live up to. So I was sort of dreading this performance, especially after such a good set so far. REALLY sweet moonwalking at the top of the song. Another really strong soloist here, and some neat choreo. Their imitation of instruments wasn’t bad, but nothing special. They merged into Smooth Criminal about halfway through, which worked well, but I wasn’t massively fond of the way they merged into the song. The energy level stayed pretty much the same throughout the song – cranked up to the max. I would have maybe liked to see the girls either build a little more from the start, or break it down more in the middle. I also feel the arrangement wasn’t that interesting, and relied too much on the energy of the song to carry it through. More positives than negatives though, and the crowd went wild after what was a thoroughly impressive set from the girls. They looked real contenders on this kind of form.
Closing the show were three-time finalists Out of the Blue. As always, I was expecting a lot from the boys in blue. Well, they weren’t actually in blue – that phrase has a catchy ring to it, so it’s a shame, really – but rather had suits with their classic Out of the Blue ties. Suave. Anyway, they opened with two tracks from two legendary artists – Got To Get You Into My Life by The Beatles and Isn’t She Lovely by Stevie Wonder. Really strong soloist on the Beatles section, and for a moment I felt like I was back in the 60s – it had that sort of feel to it. Impressive choreography too, almost flawless, which added to the high entertainment value of this number. That soloist was really rocking the money notes, although he did seem a little out of his range during the choruses, which was a blemish on an otherwise flawless lead vocal. The Isn’t She Lovely did seem a little bit random, and the arrangement was not quite up to the same standard of mash-up I have seen the boys do previously, but otherwise it was a typically impressive start from the group.
Their second song was Elbow’s Lippy Kids. I’d not heard the song before, and am not a huge fan of Elbow, so I was intrigued to see what they’d make of it. As usual, outstanding musicality from the boys, with some flawless harmonies, but for me, this song only proved that very thing – that Out of the Blue are very, very tight musically. Aside from that, I found the performance quite boring. I don’t think that was down to the arrangement (which, on the contrary, was superb) or the way it was sung; rather because the original itself was designed to be restrained and minimalistic. Maybe that’s what the boys were going for – a song to show off their obvious musical strengths, and I’m not denying the boys sung sung it tremendously beautifully; I just found it also quite dull and I felt it dragged a little. By the boys’ standards, not their best, because I think they excel in the more upbeat numbers, but the sophisticated sound throughout this song was better than most other groups of the evening.
I was hoping that their final song would be their best. It was Jessie J’s Domino. Excellent soloist again, and some wonderful and apt choreography – especially the domino effect and the human guitar, which was a crowd pleaser if ever I saw one. The arrangement itself, however, seemed rather ordinary, until one of the boys started singing “Ooh Baby Baby” – first one, then two, then the whole group joined in, much to the crowd’s delight, before dropping seamlessly back into the original song and the excellent final chorus, which was ended superbly and effectively when the entire group dropped out to leave the soloist singing the final line with just the right amount of vibrato. All in all a very good set from the boys, but I’m always left wanting a little bit more whenever I see them. Tough reputation to live up to? Perhaps.
I felt it was a pretty close call between the Oxford Belles and Out of the Blue. While The Ultrasounds were mightily impressive in their debut outing, I just think Out of the Blue had a touch more musicality to their performance. I do think the Oxford Belles really raised their game this evening and I could have seen them snatching a place in the final, especially due to their middle song, which was the best song of the night, in my opinion. The Gargoyles were the dark horses, as they are highly original and different to the rest of the groups, and therefore always stand out, while the Alternotives were perhaps unable to fully express their ‘alternative’ nature in such a short space of time. In The Pink were solid, but hadn’t quite done enough to stand out ahead of the rest.
Outstanding Musicality: The Oxford Gargoyles
Outstanding Performance: The Ultrasounds
Outstanding Arrangement by a Friend of the Group: Samuel Parsons for ‘The Blower’s Daughter’, performed by In The Pink
Outstanding Soloist: Sophie Giles of The Oxford Belles for ‘Jar of Hearts’
–Highly Recommended Soloist: Laurie Cottam of Out of the Blue for ‘Got To Get You Into My Life/Isn’t She Lovely?’
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Alexander Deng of The Ultrasounds
Outstanding Choreography: The Oxford Alternotives
OUT OF THE BLUE
And so Out of the Blue made it four out of four finals, overcoming some very stiff competition along the way. Some very encouraging performances from all the groups, solidifying Oxford as the home of UK University A Cappella.