Event Review: VF-UK 2013 University Final

Question: What’s the best way to kick off a weekend full of a cappella workshops, socialising and all around musical mayhem? Answer: Get the best collegiate groups from around the country together to battle it out for the title of Voice Festival UK Champion.

That’s exactly what happened on Friday 15th March 2013 at the City of London School for Girls, as the winners of the five Regional Rounds, plus one wildcard entry, took to the stage to show off the best of their a cappella skills. And my, what a final it was…

The line-up for the evening was as follows:

CHORAL STIMULATION
University of Glasgow
Winners of St Andrews Regional Round
4th VF-UK
1st Final

VIVE
Guildhall School for Music and Drama
Winners of ‘Ward Swingle Award for Originality’, London Regional Round
1st VF-UK
1st Final

SONS OF PITCHES
University of Birmingham
Winners of Birmingham Regional Round
3rd VF-UK
2nd Final

SEMI-TONED
University of Exeter
Winners of Exeter Regional Round
2nd VF-UK
1st Final

THE OXFORD ALTERNOTIVES
University of Oxford
Winners of Oxford Regional Round
5th VF-UK
2nd Final

ALL THE KING’S MEN (Reigning Champions)
King’s College, London
Winners of London Regional Round
3rd VF-UK
3rd Final

Master of Ceremonies: Overboard

Despite the late start, the tension was palpable within the audience as professional US group Overboard took us through the ins and outs of the evening, before our first act, Scotland’s own Choral Stimulation took to the stage, aptly clad in tartan here, there and everywhere. Having seen this group at the St Andrews Regional, I knew they had a solid set with some standout moments – I just hoped their nerves, which were quite apparent from the start, didn’t stop them from showing off their talent. They kicked off with their hilarious ‘Ode to Glasgow’ mash-up, which incorporated songs such as the Glasgow Theme Tune from the film Love Actually, Love Is All Around Me and Why Does It Always Rain On Me? among several others, which were blended together masterfully throughout and really gave the audience a sample of their hometown. As you would have expected from a mash-up, there was a great deal of variety to the number, allowing the group to demonstrate their versatility. Highlights included one of the Scottish members of the group lolling around on stage pretending to be a drunkard, to huge uproar from the audience; some lovely bell-tones as the start; and a drumroll from the impressive vocal percussionist towards the end of a song which was a great start to the evening. My only worry was that, as has happened in the past, songs that have a distinct regional feel to them often don’t go down as well as they do in the Regional Rounds as audiences and judges fail to ‘get’ them – indeed, the applause in St Andrews was far more gratuitous than in London.

Their second number was a gorgeous and tender rendition of Michael Jackson’s Will You Be There?. The lead, while not having a typically pure, trained vocal, instead had a husky, gravelly tone to his voice which was juxtaposed gloriously against a backing that was so tender at the start it could barely be heard. The song built nicely into the smooth key change, and the beatboxer again demonstrated some skilful and apt percussion. Although the less in-your-face of their three numbers, this one stuck out to me in particular, more so than it did in St Andrews – perhaps there was a magic touch about this version that was missing from their set three weeks previously. Regardless, this was a beautiful middle song that did Michael Jackson justice.

Their final number was another mash-up, stylised as ‘Feeling Bad’, kicking off with Feelin’ Good and incorporating samples of Gangnam Style, Michael Jackson’s Bad and Show Me Love. Having seen the group perform this in St Andrews, I have to say I think the nerves got the better of them on this one, because it just wasn’t as tight, comedic or indeed musical as it seemed to be in the previous round. Nevertheless, the group allowed the arrangement to speak for itself in certain cases, with thematic rhythms penetrating the entire number and the four girls showing us all why they’re only a foursome with some powerful vocals, as well as some great instrument imitation. Again, some great beatboxing (worthy of an award perhaps, although maybe it wasn’t showcased enough for that) and all-in-all a great set from the group, although in the end I think their lack of Final experience showed them up, as they were unable to shake their nerves throughout the set. A valiant effort from the group to a rapturous applause, but I couldn’t help feeling there were going to be better groups to follow.

The second group to perform were Ward Swingle Award Winners Vive, and we were about to experience something completely different. From the off, it became clear that Vive were not in the same mould as any group we had seen throughout the entirety of the competition. Dressed with a running red theme, the jazz-spiritual group kicked off with an original song, called Your Motivation, with Lithuanian Martynas Vilpisauskas coming in after a wonderful jazzy introduction with a lovely, controlled solo. It is clear that the group are exceptional musically, with some interesting and original consonant sounds a welcome release from the familiar ‘Do’s and ‘Dum’s that make up most other groups’ backing. Martynas exhibited some gorgeous falsetto towards the end of the track, before the group began clapping – which for a group of their high standards I’m not sure was entirely necessary – but such was the blend that I had no idea who was singing which part, despite my strategic seating on the second row from the front. A strong, bouncy opening number.

I was shocked when the group’s founder, James Rose, went into a short speech (!) before the second song as an interlude. Again, demonstrating the unusual nature of the group. Would that still allow their set to fit into the time limit? Rose introduced their second song, another original entitled Troubles We Find, and again the group demonstrated blend, control, dynamism and a keen ear for music as their bass (although more like a bass-baritenor) Lewis Daniel took them through this one. It became apparent that the group had no choreography to speak of, again setting them apart from all other groups, and as such, despite their impeccable musicality, the group provided less of the crucial entertainment factor than most other groups: no amusing on-stage interaction, no great or not-so-great dance moves – and I began to wonder whether this would hamper their chances of winning. However, it goes without saying that their phenomenal musicality and tuning went a long way to making up for the lack of ‘performance’ – and while I personally enjoy the combination of music and performance, there were a lot of audience members who were blown away by their stunning musical proficiency.

Another spoken interlude prefaced the final song, which was the only non-original number of the set, a spiritual piece called Ezekiel Saw De Wheel. Again, a very jazzy feel to the piece, with a fantastic tenor solo from Sam Robson – with his afro also quite something to behold. Some phenomenal runs too from Robson. But I found myself writing down all the same things about this song as about all the others – great musicality, lovely blend, exceptional tuning. Coming from a music school, you expect the group to be exceptionally musically talented, but there was no “Wow!” moment here, no one climactic moment that blew me away: I feel the group sat well within their comfort zone, without venturing exciting new territory, and as such their set felt a little one-dimensional.

Vive were followed by another group with a lower-than-average number of members, Birmingham’s The Sons Of Pitches. They wore their token orange boiler suits and effortlessly eased into the eerie beginning to Eminem’s Lose Yourself, which was a highly manipulated and original version of the song which the boys had really made their own: clearly some fantastic arranging skills within the small group. Some nice echoed ‘Ah’s and the three-part lone lead on the chorus was breathtaking, before dropping back into the rap was also great. The shift into JT’s Cry Me A River swelled into a tempo shift and made for a commanding mash-up, with some playful melodies and harmonies and some impressive and frantic beatboxing from Jack Blume. Normally I’m not a fan of a fade-outs, but in this instance it worked, because they faded straight into the next song without the need for a pitch-pipe, an altogether impressive feat.

Not as impressive, however, as the original song that followed. Group member Joseph Novelli’s original song, You Are The One, really played to all the strengths of the group. With such a small group, it was imperative that each group member held his own, and while this was apparent throughout the set, it was this song which best accentuated that fact, with the bass in particular remaining strong and rooting the song in its entirety, and combined with the again proficient beatboxing to provide a strong driving beat throughout he number. In contrast to Vive’s original pieces, this one showed more variety, with a three-way beatbox breakdown, some hilarious yet also actually quite good choreography and some well-controlled volume changes. The complexity of the song was such that upon first listen, I had no idea it was an original number, such was the professionalism and aplomb with which it was performed.

The boys’ final number was the cheeky Wonderwall. It is testament to the entertainment value of these boys that the biggest laughs in this number were received before the song had even started, with the boys feigning nervousness and the musical director even using the blowing of the pitch pipe to comedic effect, casting furtive glances here and there as if they wanted to be singing in private. This transitioned into the lovely jazzy start to the number, which was again a highly original arrangement, and itself was utterly hilarious, with the group toying and playing with the audience as if it were a comedy sketch show, exemplifying and accentuating their entertainment value over and over again. Again, the bass held his own throughout. It goes without saying that the solo was strong – these boys have magnificent voices, and allowed the solos to shine through in just the right places. My notes concluded with three words twice underlined on the bottom of my notepad page: They were TIGHT.

Next up were the first groups from Exeter to reach the final, the boys of Semi-Toned. They wore black and maroon, the latter of which, in a bizarre twist of fate, matched the curtains on the stage. It was almost like they planned it that way. They kicked off with their mash-up of Cee Lo Green’s Bright Lights Bigger City and Hard-Fi’s Living For The Weekend, with a different soloist tackling each number. The first soloist was far stronger here than he had been back in Exeter, with a much more solid, confident performance, with really lifted the whole number. Eddie Henley took over the second solo and owned the stage – he really has great stage presence and acted and sung as if he was born to be there. In contrast to the two previous groups, Semi-Toned really hit us with the so-called ‘wall of sound’ in this first number, using their larger group to their advantage with some great harmonies, simple yet effective choreography and good volume control. Once again, Jack Telfer St Claire exhibited some great beatboxing and dance moves, and while this number was a slight improvement on their Regional performance, it just didn’t quite have the same originality or indeed entertainment value as the previous group.

Their second number was Smile Please by Stevie Wonder. I rated this as their weakest number in the Regionals, but again the boys stepped it up slightly with a more polished performance than they had provided in Exeter. The bass was gorgeous throughout, and the entire song was very lethargic and laid-back, which on the one hand was advantageous, as the theme of the song was reflected in the performance by the group, in what I’ll assume was a conscious decision, but on the other hand it did lose my attention just slightly towards the end, despite some lovely, if a little uninteresting chords. I couldn’t fault the number musically, as it felt a lot fuller and more fleshed out than the version they had sung in Exeter, but I think the arrangement of this one let them down a little, as they could only bring it to a certain level without having a great deal more going on.

Talking of having a great deal going on, the group closed with Muse’s Knights of Cydonia, their triumphant and anthemic closer. The opening of the number was quite unique – the eerie whistle that is present in the original was mimicked very accurately by one of the group members, before the wall of sound was once again breached with the brash, hard-hitting opening chords. This was followed by some awesome instrument mimicry, including some pretty hilarious electric guitar faces, but unfortunately the rest of the number wasn’t quite as powerful as it had been in the Regionals: a few of the higher harmonies were lost slightly, perhaps due to tired voices, and overall the group appeared to lose a little concentration and the musicality suffered ever so slightly, although this was made up for by the relentless beatboxing throughout the number, and despite the tired voices, the drop into the unison chorus was still the highlight of the piece. Again, I felt myself let down by the final chord, which was something of an anti-climax, given the harmonic variety to the rest of the piece. Overall, I think the boys from Exeter definitely did themselves proud and gave a solid performance in their first final.

Bringing their purple theme to the stage were The Oxford Alternotives, who opened with, as luck would have it, Muse’s Knights of Cydonia. No pressure then. The two arrangements were thankfully very different, with Semi-Toned going for the more brash, in-your-face approach to the number, whereas The Alternotives presented a more restrained yet musically more interesting cover of the song. That did nothing to dampen the wall of sound, but the group chose only to use it sporadically, instead using the musical intricacies of the arrangement to full effect, accentuating them where necessary to highlight this musical flair. Without wishing to compare the two covers too much, this one did seem a little more natural, with the group making the most of their female contingent by having them effortlessly cover the high harmonies, while the arrangement itself was a lot more interesting and rather dramatic, with the group donning their serious faces throughout at the risk of alienating the audience. A tough task to follow one song with the exact same song, but the Alts’ version was different and unique enough that it didn’t hamper their chances significantly.

The group then came along with Regina Spektor’s Samson. I have expressed my views on this number before, having heard it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer and on their latest album – it was on our shortlist for the Best of British 2012, only narrowly missing out on the top 10. This solo from Jessie Reeves was as near perfection as you could possibly get, with the backing swelling and dipping where necessary. I have to mention the insanely good soprano line in this number, which was, as always, unreal, and while it was a highlight, it never got carried away from the gorgeous blend of the piece. Reeves sang with emotion and vigour, and this was easily the best slow song of the night, stunning the audience to silence throughout. I could gush about this song all day, I really could, so I’ll stop while I can. Definitely worth an award, that one.

Their last song, Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You, was carried by the charisma of the soloist. The arrangement was the least musically interesting of the three, but this was put to one side as the cheeky grin of the cheeky male soloist took over, serenading various audience members and dancing with female group members throughout the piece. The nature of the song aided the entertainment factor of this piece, as it has natural rhythmic changes which the group made the most of, while the soloist dominated centre stage with a powerful solo – his suave, flirtatious manner was highly entertaining. This was the real let-your-hair-down number of their set, with the group coming up with some creative and fitting choreography and closing with almost mock-fawning over the soloist, at the expense of the tight musicality demonstrated in the previous two numbers. Overall, the group demonstrated why they were in the Final and had definitely provided one of the stronger sets of the night.

The final group to grace the stage were reigning champions All the King’s Men, notably for the first time competing without any of their founding members in the group, but still in their usual blue shirted attire. From the very off, I felt the group lacked the creative direction that previous MD Henry Southern had provided, and this had impacted on their spark and polish throughout the set. That said, they still delivered one heck of a performance. They began with Steve Winwood and James Vincent McMorrow’s Higher Love, a number I had not heard before but which was fantastically performed. The falsetto solo was a little shaky at the very start, but the delicate opening to the number was gloriously emphasised by the group’s use of silence. They were not afraid of it, and it was hugely effective. You could hear a pin drop, such was the hushed atmosphere in he crowd whenever the group made use of it. I really enjoyed their use of the ‘ng’ combination in the backing too, something generally reserved for warm-ups in rehearsal – another bold choice which paid off. After the opening, the group dropped into the rhythm of the number, and wile the beatboxing left something to be desired, the rest of the number was strong, demonstrating some powerful vocals, a lovely breakdown and build up from the basses, and even step-clapping, which I usually abhor but here actually was quite effective, given the spiritual nature of the song. Definitely a feel good number which got the boys off to a promising start.

The next song was John Mayer’s Slow Dancing In A Burning Room, which was led spectacularly by Cameron Carr’s dulcet bass-baritone, an unusual yet inspired choice of soloist which again really worked within the arrangement. Some lovely bell tones throughout, and a great build-up towards the word ‘bitch’, which really allowed to group ad the soloist to demonstrate their heartfelt emotions while singing the song, something which not many of the other groups had done. I also enjoy how not everyone in the group sings all the time. With a big group such as AtKM, sometimes less is more, especially in the more tender moments. Again, good direction for that. All in all, a solid, emotional performance.

Their final number, and the final number of the evening, was Forever by Chris Brown, with a running Viva La Vida motif and elements of other tracks thrown in, including Rebecca Black’s Friday. This was a fun number, and I loved the way the group teased the audience with the sample of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida without ever bringing it to the forefront of the song. More use of ‘ng’. Simple, effective, humorous choreography. Great harmonies, especially in the unison sections. Classic All the King’s Men, basically, done really well. I think the set just lacked a real sense of originality, which in previous years would have mattered less, but with two other groups providing original songs as well as some highly unique arrangements, I just feel this was a step sideways in terms of this particular group, whereas other groups had taken huge strides forward.

Verdict:

This was undoubtedly one of the most difficult finals to call in Voice Festival history. Each group demonstrated reasons why they ought to have won, each group had a unique style and personality, and each group provided great entertainment. In terms of specifics, my choice for the title was The Sons of Pitches, simply because their set was the most varied, most entertaining, and contained the least weaknesses. Their set and their songs told more of a story than any other group, and they were constantly inventive and interesting, with my concentration not lapsing once throughout their set. I feel All the King’s Men stood a chance, simply because they were about as good as last year, but in an ever growing, evolving and improving genre of music, staying at the same level one year to the next is not good enough competitively. That’s not to say that All the King’s Men did a bad job, on the contrary, I think they still demonstrated that they are one of the best groups in the country. The Oxford Alternotives were also potential winners, especially given the stand-out strength of their middle song, but again I feel they were eclipsed by the boys from Birmingham, who really brought something fresh to the competition. I felt Semi-Toned and Choral Stimulation did excellently in their debut finals, but perhaps nerves and tired voices were their undoing. Then we have the wild-card, Vive. I had no idea how the judges would react to this group. They were undoubtedly head and shoulders above the rest of the groups musically, but their take on the competition was so far removed from what we are used to that I wasn’t sure whether that would play into their hands or not. On a personal level, they were great to listen to, and their blend and musical intricacies were quite astonishing, but I felt they lacked variety. Either way, I was very glad not to be on the judging panel.

Awards:

Outstanding Musicality: Vive
Outstanding Performance: Jessica Reeves of The Oxford Alternotives for ‘Samson’
Outstanding Arrangement: Sam Robson of Vive for ‘Troubles we find’
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Jack Blume of Sons of Pitches
Outstanding Choreography: Joe Hinds and Joe Belham of Sons of Pitches

WINNER:

Vive

So it was Vive who took the title amidst a mixed reaction from the audience, but their musicality, originality and sheer musical dexterity won them the title. The Sons of Pitches claimed their just rewards with two awards, while Jessie Reeves deservedly picked up the award for ‘Outstanding Soloist’.