by Nick Barstow
The Oxford round of the Voice Festival is always one of the best attended and most hotly contested, thanks to Oxford’s reputation as the spiritual home of the UK a cappella scene. With five out of six Oxford groups regularly performing at the Edinburgh Fringe and embarking on tours across the globe, the groups here are among the most experienced nationwide. The lack of two regular attendees – Out Of The Blue and the Oxford Gargoyles – did nothing to dampen the competition’s energies and if anything heightened the competitive spirit as the field appeared much more open, having between them seen off every competing Oxford group since the Alternotives and Belles last final appearance back in 2009.
Before we get to the review, a quick summary of the show:
THE KING’S CHICKS from King’s College, London
IN THE PINK from the University of Oxford
THE OXFORD BELLES from the University of Oxford
THE ULTRASOUNDS from the University of Oxford
THE OXFORD ALTERNOTIVES from the University of Oxford
In order to fill the running order and ease the pressure on the fast growing London stage of the competition, the first act of the evening were the London based all female group The King’s Chicks – their first performance in Oxford and a real baptism of fire considering both the Oxford Belles and In The Pink’s wealth of experience. The Chicks, however, were unphased and gave a slick and impressive show. This year the group have benefitted from an experienced musical director – Alexandra Platt hails from California and has sung with a group on the west coast, and her American roots proved to be a real positive influence on the group. The girls, under the direction of Ella Ross, have obviously mastered the more intricate ‘serious’ style of choreography favoured in the US but often shunned in the UK in favour of slightly more raucous, humorous style and it really helped to set them apart from their competitors on the night. Perhaps more unexpectedly, the other real strength of the group was its second song – often in an all girl group the slow songs are marred by a tendency to ‘make the most’ of the sopranos by sending them soaring into the stratosphere away from the rest of the block, and the soloists can often be too predictable, either set at saccharine sweet or overpoweringly belted with little in between. The chicks version of The Temper Trap’s Sweet Disposition however managed to avoid all of those setbacks whilst still providing real contrast to the outer two, upbeat pieces. The arrangement (by Platt) was closely written, the range kept small, and the inner parts kept active which gave the piece a really attractive shimmering quality. The soloist Khyati Modgil too was captivating, with a unique and soulful tone that was clearly audible above the block but never overpowering. The group also kept moving through the song, looking engaged and at ease throughout the performance.
If anything, the girls were hindered a little by a lack of inventiveness in the arrangement of the faster songs. Whilst their finale End of Time had some great strong homophonic sections, good choreography and a strong VP, the strong bass line of the original which provides much of the actual harmonic interest was simply left out – although such things can be a challenge for female groups, I didn’t feel that they’d actively tried to work out how to get that harmonic drive into their arrangement. It was strongly delivered, but a little too simple to remain interesting. The inclusion of the bollywood mash was an unexpected and pleasant surprise, and it showcased a real stylistic diversity or voices within the group, but it didn’t give the number the punch I felt it really needed.
The second group of the evening was In The Pink, and with a plethora of previous MDs and Presidents in the audience the group were well supported with whoops and whistles as they sashayed onto stage looking quietly confident. It’s amazing what a new wardrobe can do for a group’s onstage presence and overall attitude, (a best dressed award for next year, VF-UK?) and I think group president Carla Peters idea of matching black playsuits and a pink belt was an excellent one. The playsuit vibe matched the group’s performance impeccably – cheeky but not cheesy, sassy but not raunchy, energetic but not out of control. To move on to the set itself, the song choices on paper were perhaps a little predictable but they were brilliantly executed. The group’s overall arranging style was streamlined last year into a more modern, simple style with more emphasis on the percussion and solo, with tracks like Rumour Has It and Perfect being their best mainstays in ’11-12. That was carried on this year in the group’s more upbeat numbers, but each had some added complexity that really helped lift the group to another level. The group has also obviously had a really strong intake this year, and retained a lot of strong voices from last year also, with excellent solo work and VP across the board. Their highlight is unquestionably the ‘Hero/Survivor’ mash which was their third song, written by ’11-’12 MD Becca Nicholls towards the end of her tenure, and it’s a real winner for the girls. The opening of Survivor divides the famous arpeggiated line between a minimal number of singers which is all it needs, the rest of the block are given on beat chords to an ‘ah’ vowel. It doesn’t sound much, but having so many singers focussed on the one beat means the girls could give it real character as well as sound. Each ‘ah’ had a great breathy, studio-quality punch and the VP was really strong. Of all the groups on the night, In The Pink had the best overall ensemble quality with each member looking and sounding strong and engaged – the choreo wasn’t perhaps as tight as the Chicks’, but it was delivered with a little more energy and abandon which made it that little bit more exciting to watch. The group’s slow number was the weakest of their three, perhaps because a song as iconic and expansive as Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now is difficult to capture with a vocal group – especially if you’re familiar with the orchestrated version of the more recent studio recording. The arrangement was pleasant, and the soloist commendable for not copycatting Mitchell’s original but lending her own rich tone to the piece, but it just lacked the depth and scope of the original, and therefore the emotional power.
The pressure was on The Oxford Belles therefore as the third all female group in a row to make sure they stood out from the crowd. The Belles always put in a good showing at the Voice Festival, and often bring something a bit different to the table. Two years ago they gave us a slow song with no soloist, last year a medley of TV themes, and this year they ran together a set with no breaks, completely continuous. It’s a tactic which the Voice Festival has been keenly encouraging acts to attempt for years, but I’m not convinced what it added to the girl’s set. Effectively three songs (I’m a Woman, This Woman’s Work and Independent Women) stuck together with interludes, the set doubtless required a lot of practice to hold together but I think that the audience were a little bemused at the lack of space in which to applaud – and conversely without the boost of the audience’s adoration after each song I think the Belles lost momentum a little. Having taken part in the Voice Festival in the past, in my experience for the first song the group runs largely on nervous energy and adrenaline and it takes the applause from that to reassure that everything is going to plan, and so you calm down and tackle the rest of the set with a clearer head. The Belles denied themselves that opportunity, and I feel like it showed. That’s not to say however that their set wasn’t impressive. Their first full song is taken from the musical ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’, and the group used the songs theatrical roots to their advantage – the four soloists strutted across the stage with great presence, and when they came together at the end for an extended bit of belting and riffing it was really quite exciting. They didn’t overpower one another but worked together, the chords were firm and strong, the tuning on the song’s awkward minor-to-major modal changes was spot on. The second song kept this strong ensemble feel going – despite being led at first by soloist Celia McLuskie, the build-up towards the end allowed the block to take on bits of the main tune and words too. So often in slow songs the ensemble feel can be lacking, the main soloist too heavily relied on to carry the emotion, but the Belles avoided that. Their final song allowed MD Alicia Gayle to take centre stage and lead from the front, and her impeccable poise, finely tuned attitude and powerful vocal in my mind made her one of the best soloists all night – it was at this point however that I felt the lack of applause (especially after an emotionally draining second song) began to show in the girl’s overall performance, and the block seemed a little under-energised. The diction felt a little sloppy (although to be fair to the girls having listened to the original version I still have no idea what the words are in the chorus) and it just seemed that the group were unable to keep up the level of polish that the rest of their set demonstrated.
And then, for something completely different. The Ultrasounds made their Voice Festival debut with quite a bang last year, with some booming VP, club-night song choices and even the odd bit of break dancing. Barrelling onto stage in their overalls, their onstage presence could hardly have been more polarised from the three female groups, and sadly the difference extended to the quality of arrangements and overall performance. With such a small pool of potential talent (the group accepts only medics) the group is bound to be susceptible to qualitative peaks and troughs, and so the group’s attitude is evidently focussed on the enjoyment of its members and a sense of energy and fun. The group had strong support from a huge number of medics in the crowd, but they just didn’t pull off their set as well as they did in last year’s VF-UK debut. The first song, John Legend’s Ordinary People either had serious arranging issues or serious tuning issues – aside from the main line itself, it wasn’t especially recognisable as the original. It was a shame, as in theory the taking of a slow song and turning it into an upbeat, cheeky chappy style number (which was obviously the intention, with the boys striding merrily across the stage with an almost ‘hi-ho’-esque brand of choreography) is really quite good, but it just didn’t work. Their slow song, a mash-up of Without You and With Or Without You suffered from similar arranging issues, with the backing not lending enough support to the lead vocalists who coped well with the really demanding material. With their final number they returned more to the club-style which they showcased last year, and were all the better for it. The block was stronger, the group seemed more energised and more relaxed. Overall, however, it was a weaker showing for the group than last year by some margin.
The final group to take to the stage were The Oxford Alternotives, and like In The Pink they have made some quite drastic stylistic changes to their style in the past few years. In previous years harnessing a sort of nerdy humour, last year they were one of the Oxford round highlights, managing somehow to be both charmingly quirky and disarmingly suave, with an old school pop set studded with intricate harmonies, blink-and-you-miss-it mash ups, jokes and references (a five-second jazz a cappella parody in Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’ still stands out as one of the best moments of the night). Tonight, as one of only two Oxford groups present to have made the final in the past five years, they must surely have been feeling the pressure to come good and repeat the feat. Opening with Knights of Cydonia was a bold choice and another stylistic departure for the group – but from the minute they opened their mouths it was evidently the right choice. That a cappella trope, the ‘wall of sound’, made its first appearance of the night, and I couldn’t help but feel as if the show had only really just started. The group’s sound was incredibly strong but not shrill or forced, it was wholesome and rich. Combined with some excellent vocal percussion work from Dom Burrell and Max Woodman, it was an exceptional opening number. The one thing it did perhaps lack was personality – it was sonically exciting but almost a little too serious. Perhaps in the context of the group’s own show this would have been less of an issue, but when thrown into contrast with the charm and energy of In The Pink as an opener it felt a little impersonal and unrelatable. However, any issues they might have had with getting the audience on their side were completely forgotten after their second song, Regina Spektor’s Samson. Having heard the song on the group’s latest studio album, I was looking forward to hearing it live in the town hall’s wonderful acoustic – and it really was quite a special experience. The block singing was stunning, the balance perfection. So often in a cappella discussion the word ‘blend’ is bandied about, and usually I tend to think that it’s only one letter different from ‘bland’ for a reason. Sometimes the ‘blend’ that groups strive for can strip them of personality, leaving the sound pleasing enough but lifeless and unengaging. The Alts, however, achieved a blended sound that was warm and expressive – and the shading of tone colour between the men and women was a real delight. With the tenors often sliding into falsetto and occasionally moving above and around the lower alto lines, it was the aural equivalent of dip dye – two separate colours flowing together, retaining their individual sense but creating something new in the middle. Particular credit for block work has to go to Olivia Willis, whose versatility is simply awesome. Although billed on the group’s website as an Alto, she took the high soprano line (which involves sitting on a top F# for approximately half the song) on her own, and throughout the piece it sounded free and effortless – and in the penultimate exposed passage (mimicking the piano in the original) it was nothing short of angelic. An incredible block needs an incredible solo, and Jessie Reeves’s take on the song was beautifully understated, and totally compelling. I feel that slow song soloists can often buckle under pressure and be too aware of the pitfalls of poor tuning or cracking, and the consequence is a tight and inanimate delivery. Jessie suffered none of these problems – her tone was so smooth and effortless, unhindered by the mechanics of vocal production. If there’s one performance you should look up on YouTube from this round, it’s this song. The sound the Alts produced is indescribable. I think it fair to say that their final song was never going to live up to their second in terms of musicality and sheer vocal beauty, and so it was a good decision by the group to finally show their more comic, playful side, and allow soloist Ed Crawford to flirt outrageously with the judges, the crowd, his fellow Alts and life in general whilst suavely singing Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You. The choreo was a little cluttered, and the sound a little sparse at times but having demonstrated the group’s vocal strengths it seemed appropriate to allow those things to slide a little in favour of an energetic, amusing finisher.
At the interval, then, I felt pretty strongly that it should be a win for the Alts, although I could also see the judges being swayed by In The Pink. By far the strongest female a cappella performance I have seen, their set was really impressive and depending on whether the judges favoured musicality and vocal prowess or overall entertainment value and stage presence their decision could go either way. I was hoping for a fairly award heavy evening though, as there was a lot to commend onstage. The vocal percussion was strong all through the night, but Maria Constantine of In The Pink and the Burrell/Woodman pairing of the Alts stood out for me. The solos likewise were also very good, although I felt that Khyati Modgil’s interpretation of a very characterful male original (Sweet Disposition, from the King’s Chicks) deserved something, as did Jessie Reeve’s take on Samson. Outstanding Overall Performance, frequently a mark of entertainment value and stage presence, I was fairly sure would make an appearance for In The Pink. Whilst the Belles did a lot very well, I wasn’t sure if they had done anything significantly better than the other groups – they were strong and professional, but they weren’t thrilling.
Outstanding Musicality: The Oxford Belles
Outstanding Soloist: Georgia Comrie of In The Pink for ‘Both Sides Now’
Outstanding Performance: In The Pink
THE OXFORD ALTERNOTIVES
In general, I was in agreement with the judges. I was pleased they’d recognised In The Pink’s performance, but I did feel the Alts were the worthier winners. The solo result I found a little surprising – in many was Comrie was an obvious choice, and quite possibly the best technical singer of the soloists, but I feel like outstanding solo shouldn’t necessarily mean best singer. Jessie Reeve’s solo felt much less technically produced, the tone was beautiful, unique and full of character. Likewise Khyati Modgil brought something unique and was the only slow song soloist to really physically engage with the song, and I feel that she should have been mentioned. I felt a little sorry for the Chicks that the judges didn’t give them an award to take away, as their showing was much stronger than the previous year and they got so much right which the more experienced groups have struggled with. Best Choreography could easily have been theirs for the taking.
Seeing as pre-coverage of the Oxford round largely dealt with the ‘notable absences’, it was great to see the groups on show taking the bull by the horns and making their mark. The real strength of Out Of The Blue and The Gargoyles is their niche is clearly established and it makes them much easier to talk about. OOTB are the best known university group in the UK, and their critical successes at the Fringe and beyond, well-publicised tours and top quality albums mean they can’t be ignored – likewise the Gargoyles are the only true jazz a cappella group on the scene and their victory in the BBC Choir of the Year Open Category (not to mention almost every Musicality award ever in Oxford) makes them an equally formidable force. The lack of recognition the other Oxford groups can occasionally suffer from is solely due to a narrow field of view of the public and a cappella commentators – the standard of groups on show tonight proved that in performance quality and musicality they are all capable of matching up to their more talked-about counterparts and have just as much individual personality. Had the circumstances been different and the Gargs and OOTB not been away during the competition period, I find it hard to imagine that the Alts wouldn’t still have been victorious.