by John Lau
Saturday 23 February 2013 was the night when the Road to the Voice Festival UK Final started in Scotland, with the first of five regional competitions throughout the UK taking place at the Younger Hall in St Andrews. Six groups from three different universities competed for the sole place on offer at the Final in London on 15 March.
Before we get to the review, a quick summary of the show:
THE HUMMINGBIRDS from the University of St Andrews
ABERPELLA from the University of Aberdeen
CHORAL STIMULATION from the University of Glasgow
THE ALLEYCATS from the University of St Andrews
THE OTHER GUYS from the University of St Andrews
THE ACCIDENTALS from the University of St Andrews
Master of Ceremonies:
THE ST ANDREWS REVUE
The first group to grace the stage (literally) were The Hummingbirds, who entered the stage in little black dresses and some fetching pairs of turquoise feather shaped earrings, a sight in itself. Their set kicked off with a mellow & soulful rendition of Poor Wayfaring Stranger, a spiritual-folky kind of song covered by many, most recently the Swingle Singers at LACF. As soulful as this piece was, I felt it was dragged out a little – indeed, the girls remind me of the early Belles from Pitch Perfect: making some gorgeous music but music that bops along in a cutesy kind of fashion without any real oomph to it.
This lack of pizzazz continued into their second song, as four of the girls donned blonde wigs in order to prepare for their rendition of Taylor Swift’s recent offering, Never Getting Back Together. The jump in terms of tempo between their opener and this rendition was admirable, but I always felt that there was an edge missing in this rendition I heard on the night compared to what we have all seen on the music video for this piece. Nevertheless, this was a hilarious number, backed up by some humorous spoken ad-libs, and it was the first piece of the night to really get the audience going.
The last piece in the Hummingbirds bid to qualify for their first national Final was a mash-up between 2 memorable pieces from 2012: Don’t You Worry Child from Swedish House Mafia and Adele’s Skyfall, two tracks with very different tempos, and I was intrigued to hear how they would juxtapose the electronic hook of Don’t You Worry with the soulful solo of Skyfall. In the end though, I was pleased to hear this pretty adequate combination of two quality tracks where the vocal performances in each part were competent. And with this end-piece the Hummingbirds exited the stage in the hope that they had done enough to qualify. I couldn’t help but to feel though that there was a sense of looseness about the set which may prove to be their undoing on the night. Could the group be blamed once again for a lack of competitive edge?
The next group on the stage was the first half of the non-St Andrews contingent, Aberpella from the University of Aberdeen, the mixed group who were, for the most part, wearing black suits and black shoes. Their first piece was a rendition of Alex Clare’s Too Close To Loving You, which sounded somewhat moody at the time, but having since listened to more of Clare’s work, the Aberdonian students’ rendition of this piece has proven highly effective, even if it was the most forgettable of their three pieces.
The next piece was a more brighter and positive effort, a mash-up of feel-good pieces When The Going Gets Tough and Build Me Up Buttercup, which was made memorable in terms of spectacle by some fancy footwork from the soloist, Nathan Chadwick, who implored the audience to get going when the going got tough. The soloists and their hysterical dance moves were indeed the real highlight of this piece – while the backing was solid, it wasn’t hugely original, which will have been picked up on by the judges, but from the perspective of an audience member it was a playful and witty middle song, and so credit to the group for winning over the crowd with this number.
The Aberdonians appeared to leave their best till last, when they came out with their rendition of Read All About It from Emeli Sande, interspersed with the chorus of The Cranberries Zombie. I do not generally have much time for the vocal output of Emeli Sande, so my expectations of this mash-up were relatively low. However, the vocal performance of Victoria Metcalf was one that made me, and everyone else in the audience, sit up and take notice. It was truly exceptional – controlled in all the right places, it rose and fell as necessary an really told the story of the song. It was a masterful solo, and I was therefore convinced that this vocal performance would struggle to be matched or exceeded by anyone else in this competition. A very strong finish to the set from the Aberdeen representatives.
Next on the stage were the 11-strong group Choral Stimulation from the University of Glasgow, this year with an unusual abundance of males in the group – almost double that of the girls, in fact. The group looked like some kind of unofficial ambassadors to the city, because they all had some form of tartan on them. This perception was reinforced when their first piece was an ‘Ode To Glasgow’ medley with no less than 14 tracks which all had a connection to the City of Glasgow, from Squealing Pigs by Admiral Fallow to the TV Theme tune for Taggart and even Why Does It Always Rain On Me? from Travis to name but three. This was an act of immense imagination and was pulled off with great aplomb, and I imagine that their arranging maestro David Ragg will have been up all night for quite some time trying to work out the complex ties between each song, not to mention figuring out which solos to dish out to whom.
The next piece was a somewhat less memorable one, as the group stepped into a rendition of Michael Jackson’s Will You Be There? The backing vocals from the rest of the group provided an apt contrast to the soloist’s voice, which sounded remarkably like Joe Cocker, and his gravelly voice was a refreshing change of pace from the more familiar vocal purity that is found in many of the modern day soloists.
The last piece of the Glaswegian set was another mash-up, officially titled ‘Feeling Bad’ – a mixture of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good, Michael Jackson’s Bad, Show Me Love from Robyn S and even Psy’s Gangnam Style hit from 2012. Although it carried parts of another Michael Jackson hit, I thought it was a good touch for the Arranger to allocate the vocal parts of Bad to the women of the group, who seized this opportunity to show off their phenomenal vocal skills – one could argue that they were a little underused throughout the set, but it was worth it to see them shine through on this number. This was another fantastic mash-up to close, and the amount of work done behind the scenes by arranger David Ragg really shone through in this set. This was, in my opinion, by far the most memorable set of the night, and that could only be a good thing.
Next on the stage were the pioneers of St Andrean a cappella, the six young women and seven men who form The Alleycats, looking their usual best with black suits or dresses and white trainers. Their set started with what I will describe as a ‘Love Medley’ formed of parts of tunes such as What Is Love from Haddaway, Let Me Love You from Ne-Yo and Justin Bieber’s As Long As You Love Me, a young man who we seemingly cannot escape from these days. The piece was sung professionally and, as always, competently choreographed and performed by the energetic group.
Ayanna Coleman then stepped onto the spotlight in the middle piece, a rendition of Robyn’s Dancing On My Own. As I was listening to this, I couldn’t help but to feel that there was an high quality emotional element to this soloist’s performance, which countered the relative mellowness of this piece. Coleman has an angelic voice, and this shone through against the bare-bones backing, which was highly effective in conveying the mood of this piece.
The final piece was very much the highlight of their set, a rendition of Florence and the Machine’s Shake It Out. Not only was this a highly intricate arrangement, but in having a trio of soloists, we were taken through the feisty tones of Jill Wyman, the delicate, soulful tonality to Steph Bown’s gorgeous voice, as well as the powerful tenor of Tommy Rowe. There was a real build to this piece, which culminated in a huge climax of money notes, belted harmonies and an overall gorgeous sound. Credit must go to MD Brendan Macdonald for the arrangement of this one, and knowing how to best utilise the voices at his disposal. Definitely an award-winning track. Despite this magnificent final number, though, I was convinced that as competent a set as this was, there was something missing to equal the success of the previous years’ group
Next on the stage were the twelve Other Guys in suits of all hues and colours all set to entertain us with their set which was heavily reminiscent of their recent visit to the recording studio. The first piece was their very own I Only Bought You Flowers Because I Love You So, a song which had previously been released as a Valentine’s Day single, with moderate success. It sounded a little different than the original, with Ted Haxby and Matthew Pattie splitting the solo and the tempo significantly faster, which meant we lost a few of the words, but I have to say that it is brave and admirable to sing an original song at the Voice Festival – something that has not been done before by any group, and it was a most impressive start from the well-established group.
From something new to something borrowed, their next piece was a King’s Singers arrangement of When She Loved Me from Toy Story 2. While there were a couple of tuning issues, perhaps self-created due to the difficulty of some areas of the arrangement, I’m not sure I have ever seen an audience stunned to silence as they were when Laurie Slavin began singing: his beautiful counter-tenor was definitely the last thing you’d expect to come out of a bearded man who looks more like a bass! This rendition had the audience captivated, and unsurprisingly so.
This mood was destroyed somewhat too early as the boys prepared to close their set with a mash-up of Justin Bieber’s Beauty and a Beat and Taylor Swift’s I Knew You Were Trouble. The most remarkable part of this number was the boys’ decision to strip off into vest and all manner of (very short) shorts, unfortunately at the expense of the vocal performance, which dipped significantly here. The dance routine was typically humorous, and Andrew Pattie’s lead was complemented by Mark Gregory on the Taylor Swift number, with the two songs blending together nicely after a hard-to-hear rap from Ted Haxby. The set epitomised what The Other Guys are all about in terms of taking things seriously (in other words, they don’t), but this is the principal reason as to why they are so popular: choreography like the show on display and the propensity the group has in filming and recording for charity more often than not.
The last group on the stage were The Accidentals who are still, officially speaking, the best all-female collegiate group in the UK following their appearance at the Voice Festival Final in 2011. With the ten girls in their group donning their white Accidental tops, black sheer leggings and black shoes, they kicked off with a piece new to my ears, Bottom Of The River, an original from Delta Rae, an American folk-rock kind of group, which was powerfully delivered in terms of lead vocals by Anna McDonald, who, as always, demonstrated her huge set of lungs with an emphatic vocal performance.
The middle piece reminded us all of their urban style of music and how they can deliver such pieces so well, with a mash-up between Flo Rida’s Good Feeling and Taio Cruz’s Dynamite, among others. As you can imagine from the pieces chosen for this mash-up, the girls wasted no time in dropping successfully back into their hip-hop roots, with some lovely high harmonies that, while impressive, further emphasised the absence of the lower register in the girls’ range – the altos were slightly overpowered throughout much of the set, particularly in this number.
Their third piece was Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac, which against demonstrated the girls’ ability to incorporate some gorgeous, delicate harmonies in numbers where they are less focused on the brash, boisterous RnB that they are so fond of. Grace Hardy in particular showed off her heavenly soprano at the very top of the range, which never fails to be perfectly tuned.
Their last piece brought them back to hip hop with a mash-up of No Diggity from Blackstreet and Niggas in Paris by Jay-Z and Kanye West, stylised as ‘Accidentals in Paris’, complete with lyric changes. The highlight was a particularly memorable rapping performance delivered by Tessa Stokes, which was almost up there with the like of The Boxettes, despite the hurried pace meaning a few of the lyrics were rendered unintelligible. This was a classic demonstration of what the girls do best, and was received rapturously by the ever-captivated audience.
During the interval, as I wandered about the hall, the opinions were divided as to who had been the best group of the evening. I must admit, I was almost in agreement, and definitely didn’t envy the job of the judges at the end of the night. However, there were strengths and weaknesses to all of the performances: The Hummingbirds make gorgeous music, but never seem to bring a ‘Wow!’ moment to proceedings – they were guilty of this again this year. Aberpella were definitely hugely improved from last year, but whether or not this was good enough to see them through to the final was another matter. They clearly have a gem of a soloist in Victoria Metcalf, though. Choral Stimulation were probably the most consistent group of the evening, with some great arrangements fulfilling their potential on stage. The Alleycats were as solid as ever, but lacked a number like last year’s Titanium that really blew everyone away. The Other Guys had the whole package – some great blending and rhythmic nous in the first two songs, coupled with their typical barrel-of-laughs final number, while The Accidentals demonstrated why they are still the best all-female group in the country with their typical feistiness, and delivered a gutsy performance that rivalled that of anyone. From a personal point of view, it was between The Other Guys and The Accidentals. But it was too close for me to call – any of the groups had a good case for being declared the winner.
Outstanding Musicality: The Other Guys
Outstanding Soloist: Miss Victoria Metcalf of Aberpella for Read All About It
Outstanding Arrangement: David Ragg of Choral Stimulation
So, Glaswegian group Choral Stimulation were classified as the Winners of this regional heat, and in doing so become the first non-St Andrean group to qualify for the National Final, and it was hard to argue with a result like this, for everything was memorably good, whether it was the tartan on show, the fantastic first piece ‘Ode To Glasgow’, the high standard of vocal percussion which may have been a little underused, or indeed their final piece, used as their encore, ‘Feeling Bad’. The group were delighted, and will compete again in the Final next weekend.