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.

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