The London A Cappella Festival 2013: In Review

The London A Cappella Festival 2013 took place 26-28 January, and we sent the only man suitable for the job to keep an eye on all the goings-on – our Festival Maestro, John Lau

The UK University A Cappella scene was heavily involved in the 2013 edition of the London A Cappella Festival, the annual event held at the Kings Place, near the London Canal Museum.

Friday

Despite missing two of the very first performances on Friday evening, patience was eventually rewarded big style later in the evening, when a sizeable proportion of our university groups congregated in Kings Place for all manner of reasons, predominantly the Launch Party of the The Voice Collection 2013, a 12-track compilation from not only collegiate groups but also community groups who have featured at some stage of the Voice Festival UK’s history.

There was a pleasant surprise in store as soon as I stepped into King’s Place for the evening as Cambridge’s finest and former VF-UK champions Cadenza were initiating a short set in the foyer to warm us up for the first paid gig of the evening. Considering the fact they are not participating in the 2013 edition of the Voice Festival UK, it was a pleasant surprise to see them here sharing their vocal magic with us. It was a nice touch and we look forward to hearing of your activities in the future.

Following a most captivating and intriguing show from Danish professionals The Postyr Project, the highlights of which were their renditions of Still Water and My Future Self, the audience came out of the gig to a short set from the rosiest ladies in Oxford, In The Pink, who were also promoting the Voice Collection 2013 album, to which they contributed their mash-up of Rumour Has It and Mercy. For an all-too-short while, it was great to see the girls.

Next up in the launch party was a Community group who I was very keen to hear about, the Voice Festival 2012 winners in their category, In The Smoke. I was quite looking forward to hearing what they sounded like, due to their pedigree and the way they were being described by several a cappella aficionados, but in the end though, my perception of the group is indifferent, neither liking nor loathing them – it is nigh-on impossible to form an opinion of the group based on a set of three or four pieces. But this was not a bad introduction to the group, by any means.

The highlights for the Friday evening just kept on coming after In The Smoke, because following them in the next 90 or so minutes were The Oxford Belles, All The King’s Men and The Magnets.

I was somewhat miffed not to see Sophie Giles’ signature piece Jar of Hearts adorning The Voice Collection 2013, but instead their rendition of Roxanne made it on, which really goes to exemplify what this group of girls can do in terms of repertoire. Their short set gave off the impression that the girls have seen a lot of each other on Belles’ business recently, including studio time, and that can only be a good thing: they are regarded in some quarters as favourites to progress from the Oxford Regional of the Voice Festival in 2013, but we’ll see how that one pans out.

As good as these girls were, though, the highlight of the Friday evening was imminent as I entered the hall for All The King’s Men and The Magnets, a group who I was still in raptures over following my first visit to them at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer 2012. Although the set list for this gig was pretty similar to what I heard in August 2012, in that it was still a celebration of British song-writers, I was looking forward to seeing them again, but not before All The King’s Men took to the stage for a short three-piece set. The blurb in the programme for the day sums up the group very effectively: Riding the crest of the wave that is gaining prominence in the UK Campus these days, there is something remarkable about any group of students that can conquer the university a cappella scene in the space of their first three years, and for this we really ought to thank their first Musical Director and founder Henry Southern for the ideas that have been generated on his watch: the hard work that went on behind the scenes before winning the Voice Festival UK in 2012; coming third in the ICCA Finals a month later; pioneering trips to different corners of the world such as Singapore, Hong Kong and their current United States endeavour – it begs the question: what does the future hold next for this group, and for the whole movement of collegiate a cappella in the UK?

In the meantime, their set list opened with a mash-up which was new to my ears, a combination of Maroon 5’s Payphone and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, which exemplified the humour value that these guys provide, as well as their ability to deliver a seamless mash-up. Their middle piece was indicative of what I personally prefer in terms of repertoire from these guys: their quiet down-tempo numbers exemplify how versatile they are – their rendition of Coldplay’s Yellow brought back memories of Hallelujah in the 2012 Voice Festival Final. Their last piece, a cover of Chris Brown’s Forever, was a feel good way to close the short set, and was more than a fitting connection to the act they were warming up for.

Following a fantastic gig by the homegrown men of The Magnets, we were treated to a new addition to the programme of free events, to round off a fantastically free Friday night’s worth of entertainment in London. The extra addition was the brainchild of the newest Swingle Singer and former Oxford Gargoyle, Edward Randell, who had the idea in his mind to only recruit low basses. And so it was that over forty males congregated to form the aptly named Woofer group. Considering the limited opportunities for practice in advance of the Festival, the large group sounded a treat, and brought the curtain down on a great night of aca-antics.

Saturday

The Saturday morning was filled with workshops, discussions and tips on all sorts of matters such as arranging, recording and a panel discussion swapping opinions on whether the whole a cappella movement was a novelty, a niche or even the next number one. Several recognisable faces were put to names, including one Christopher Diaz of Mouth Off and The Sing-Off fame, and all in all it was generally an encouraging and highly intriguing morning with several new ideas as to the direction our favourite art form is to take in the coming months.

The first gig of the day was with two groups I had not heard of, let alone seen perform live before. However, the support act blew my mind and made me fall in love with their interpretation of vocal magic. Supporting a Canadian group called Retrocity who, judging by their name, specialise in vocal rearrangements from the biggest songs of the 1980s, were a group of 6 students from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama named VIVE.

Even with a set of four tunes exemplifying what the group are capable of doing by fusing together genres such as pop, harmony, jazz and even spiritual music, their professionalism really shone through the set. Maybe it helps that they are all studying at such a specialist institution such as the Guildhall, but I couldn’t help but to be most impressed by this young group. I was particularly impressed by their rearrangement of Sam Robson’s Your Imagination which not only was a feel good number but also exemplified the tightness of the harmonies that this group are capable of. The spiritual piece Ezekiel Saw De Wheel in particular reminded me of lounge music: it was extremely laid back and perfect for those times when you just want to kick back and relax. The group will be debuting in the London Regional of the Voice Festival UK in the next couple of weeks, which makes me wonder that if the group is intent on reinventing the a cappella sound, that they are well on the way.

In terms of the afternoon, it was the best possible start which was just about kept up by the Canadians of Retrocity with some of their 12-piece set born out of the 1980s smash hits.

The best bits were reserved for the last night of the Festival. Up until this stage I had not heard what The King’s Singers were capable of musically, but I was on the verge on tears in several moments during their eleven-piece set. The first half of the set delivered by these six men of various ages consisted of pieces from an acclaimed composer of the 16th Century named Orlandus Lassus. The moment when the tears just came out was when The Swingle Singers were asked to join them for a delicate rendition in unison of Billy Joel’s And So It Goes to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Swingle Singers. This was probably the stand-out moment of this Festival for me. All I need to do now is find the time to look through their iTunes collection.

The last act in this Festival was, of course, The Swingle Singers, as the founders of this Festival who were supported by my favourite group from American Reality TV, The Exchange, Christopher Diaz et al, who provided us with a teasingly short three-piece set of what the five man group can do.

So the young vocal specialists certainly contributed from both sides of the pond at the London A Cappella Festival 2013, and there is something similar going on in mid-March in the form of the Voice Festival Big Weekend, with the addition of a competitive element to proceedings, but my recollections of late January are largely positive and I can’t wait to meet them all again sometime somewhere.

Advertisements

Choral Stimulation Make History in St Andrews

In one of the most closely fought Regionals we have ever seen, Aberpella, The Accidentals, The Alleycats, Choral Stimulation, The Hummingbirds and The Other Guys battled it out last night in the sold-out, 1,000 seater Younger Hall in St Andrews, where Choral Stimulation of the University of Glasgow made history by becoming the first group outside of St Andrews to qualify from the St Andrews Regional, and the first group to qualify for this year’s final in London.

Their set, which included a hilarious ‘Ode to Glasgow’ and a mash-up of Feeling Good with selected snippets of Gangnam Style, was masterfully arranged by David Ragg, who deservedly won the award for ‘Outstanding Arrangement’ for the entire set. Other highlights of the evening included several magnificent solo performances, with Victoria Metcalf of the much improved Aberpella picking up the award for ‘Outstanding Soloist’, while The Other Guys were the only St Andrews-based group to pick up an award, winning ‘Outstanding Musicality’.

The standard was absurdly high and the judges deliberated for an extended period of time, such was the quality of each act. In the end, though, the pride of Glasgow are going to the final, and we will be following them there to track their progress. Who will be the next to join them?

Results Round-Up
Outstanding Musicality: The Other Guys
Outstanding Arrangement: David Ragg of Choral Stimulation for the entire set.
Outstanding Soloist: Victoria Melcalf of Aberpella for Read All About It

Winner: CHORAL STIMULATION

A full review of last night’s show will be available shortly.

Voice Festival UK 2013 Preview – Part 5: Birmingham

A couple of weeks before Christmas, we here at the blog were once again provided with a wonderful Christmas present: the announcement of the round allocations for this year’s Voice Festival UK university competition. For the second year running, the competition is bigger than ever, with more groups from more universities competing than ever before in five Regional Rounds: Oxford, St Andrews, London, Birmingham and Exeter.

In this series of blogs, we will be previewing each Regional Round, commenting on each group and their chances of reaching the final, as well as introducing several groups you might not yet have heard of.

In our fifth and final installment, we’re checking out what’s on offer in the Birmingham Regional, taking place for the third time on 9 March 2013.

Potted History

In the two previous years that the Voice Festival has visited Birmingham, two different groups have won the Regional. In 2011, Augmented Seven, a group which disbanded last year, won the inaugural round ahead of three other groups from the University of Birmingham. Last year, with the net cast a little wider, it was all-male group The Sons of Pitches which claimed the victory, ahead of award-winning performances from the likes of Voice Versa and 95 Keys from the University of Leeds.

Newcomer Alert

The Augmentals: One of two new groups this year, The Augmentals hail from Birmingham Conservatoire and are very much an unknown quantity. They were founded in November 2012 and currently consist of 11 members, but aside from that we don’t really know much about them! We look forward to hearing them in the upcoming event. You can find the group on Facebook.

The Treblemakers: The second of the new groups, the Treblemakers become the sixth group from the University of Birmingham to compete in the competition, and the fourth currently. With a name identical to the all-male group in the recent Aca-Film, Pitch Perfect, they will be hoping to have just as much success in competitive a cappella as their namesakes.

Old-Timers

The Songsmiths: The name might not be familiar, but the group certainly will be: Leeds based group The Songsmiths were known last year as 95 Keys, and impressed in their debut performance at this Regional Round, picking up the award for ‘Outstanding Arrangement’. Not many groups manage that upon their debut, and with the entire of Leeds’ student body to choose from, they do have some talented singers in their midst too. Definitely ones to look out for.

The Uptone Girls: Another name you may not be familiar with, but whose members may be recognisable – formerly The Birmingham Songbirds, the all-female group have returned with a much punnier name, and will hope this improve their fortunes on stage too. Having not picked up an award in their two previous competitive efforts, they will be hoping that will change this year. With more experience than the majority of the groups in the competition, they could be in with a shout.

Voice Versa: Back for a second year, the award-winning mixed group (‘Outstanding Musicality’) looked very tight last year, and if they can add a little more spice and originality to their set compared to last year, they too could do well. They showed a spark of invention last year with their Feel Good Medley, as well as a lot of soul during their opening number, so if they play to their strengths they may find themselves through to the final.

The Sons of Pitches: For The Sons of Pitches, life really began after the Voice Festival last year. After they progressed to the final, they began to secure gigs left, right and centre, and their YouTube on-the-spot arrangements were vastly popular, and help them to develop a huge new fanbase. That just shows to show how much of an impact winning a competition like this can have. This year, the all-male group return as clear favourites, and having won awards in both previous years they have competed, as well as ‘Outstanding Stagecraft’ in last year’s final, they have the energy, the know-how and the vocal ability to qualify again. Can any of the other groups defy the odds?

Summary

In a strong turnout in Birmingham, all four groups that competed last year are back, with two newcomers making it one of the most competitive rounds in the competition this year. It’s hard to look past The Sons of Pitches, simply because of their incredible set and success last year – there were some at last year’s final who believed they should have won. However, they must not rest on their laurels, because there are five groups wanting to nick that final spot away from them. The most likely to do so is difficult to pinpoint, though – The Songsmiths had a great debut last year, as did Voice Versa, but The Uptone Girls have more experience and this may work in their favour. Not much is known about newcomers The Treblemakers or The Augmentals, although the latter, coming from a music school, could well provide us with some very tight Musicality, if nothing else. It’s all to play for.

Have Your Say

Voice Festival UK 2013 Preview – Part 4: Exeter

A couple of weeks before Christmas, we here at the blog were once again provided with a wonderful Christmas present: the announcement of the round allocations for this year’s Voice Festival UK university competition. For the second year running, the competition is bigger than ever, with more groups from more universities competing than ever before in five Regional Rounds: Oxford, St Andrews, London, Birmingham and Exeter.

In this series of blogs, we will be previewing each Regional Round, commenting on each group and their chances of reaching the final, as well as introducing several groups you might not yet have heard of.

In our fourth installment, we’ll be heading to the new round of this year’s festival, although most of the names you’ll probably have heard before… it’s in Exeter, taking place on Saturday 2 March.

Potted History

While this is the inaugural Regional round taking place in Exeter, one could argue that it has merely migrated slightly further south from last year’s Bristol Regional, which in turn was the first in the south-west. Last year, groups from Bristol, Exeter and Bath all competed, with HotTUBBS emerging eventual winners and being the only mixed-voice group to make last year’s Voice Festival Final.

Notable Absences

TUBBS: The first notable absentee from the Exeter Regional is the University of Bristol Barbershop Singers. The largest group to have ever competed in the competition, their absence after two years is one which will definitely diminish the variety on offer in Exeter – TUBBS undoubtedly brought something unique and completely different to most other contemporary a cappella groups, and their presence will be missed.

HotTUBBS: Perhaps more surprisingly, HotTUBBS, a sister group to TUBBS, have also withdrawn from the competition, meaning two of last year’s five finalists will not be competing this year. After a very successful debut performance last year, becoming the only non all-male group to reach the final, it will be interesting to see which of this year’s groups will be filling the void left by their departure.

Newcomer Alert

Illuminations: While the Illuminations are new to the Voice Festival UK, they are not new to us here at University A Cappella UK. The mixed group come under the umbrella of the University of Exeter A Cappella Society, and will be counting on the experience they have gained as part of the rapidly growing society to hold them in good stead for this year’s competition. Against only three other groups, who each lack huge amounts of experience, they may well think a debut final is within their reach.

Old-Timers

Semi-Toned: Arguably the most active group coming out of Exeter, the Semi-Toned boys yet again make up the only all-male group in the south-west, and as such have been making quite a name for themselves, hitting almost 750 fans on Facebook. While this is no indication of their musical aptitude, the boys did look solid last year, especially with their mash-up of Travis’ Turn and Coldplay’s Yellow, which won them ‘Outstanding Arrangement’, alongside ‘Outstanding Vocal Percussion’ for Jack Telfer St. Claire. If they can continue in the same vein as last year, they’ll definitely be in with a chance.

The Sweet Nothings: The most experienced, at least competitively, of all the groups in the area, this is the third year of competition for the only all-female group in this Regional. They won ‘Outstanding Performance’ last year but seemed to lack a real sense of direction in their set, and as arguable favourites may have felt disappointed not to qualify. However, this is a new year, and they have been keeping busy, which may well hold them in good stead for the competition.

Aquapella: Aquapella, like Semi-Toned, debuted in the competition last year, but were not quite as successful as the boys, failing to win any awards. However, they will come back stronger after figuring out what it’s all about, and I am excited to see the latest offering from the only group from the University of Bath.

Summary:

I seem to say this every time, but this Regional really is wide open. With no groups having reached the final in previous years, that coveted slot is very much up for grabs. There are some groups that could be seen as being closer to the victory than others though: we have been hearing a great deal from Semi-Toned all year and their wealth of live experience may well mean they’re down as favourites. Add to that the fact they won two awards at last year’s competition, and they could be forgiven for feeling confident. However, The Sweet Nothings, their all-female counterparts, have been just as successful in the past year and have a lot to offer. Aquapella are still a fairly unknown quantity and could bring a couple of surprise with them from Bath, while Illuminations may have been learning from their fellow Exeter groups, and are also in with a chance. Tough one to call.

Have Your Say