HomeConcert Review: ICCA West Semifinals - March 28, 2009

Amy Malkoff's picture

[Editor's Note: This review was written by an anonymous contributor]

8 groups rocked the stage at the 2009 ICCA West Semifinals on March 28th, a semis that may hint at the outcome in the ICCA New York finals (the last 3 national champions have been groups from the West). This year brought together 6 groups from California and 2 from Oregon. Five of the groups were all-male, sparking rumors about possible bias and trends within the ICCA even before the competition - and incidentally, five men's groups are competing in the finals as well. Regardless, all of the groups gave great performances. Each group also brought strengths to the stage which all of the other groups could learn from, and upped the bar for future competition!

The first group up was CSUN Acasola, one of the two co-ed groups at the semis. Starting off their set with Alanis Morissette’s “Uninvited,” two soloists alternated between singing each syllable in the opening 2 verses, which was very cool. To reflect the initial singing, the group had robotic choreography which later became fluid – but it left me wondering why. Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” was next, and was very cleanly pulled off, with great balance – yet I think they could have used more line phrasing and a slower tempo through the ending. Imogen Heap is a great choice for a cappella, but this song has been performed too many times in this genre to have its original appeal. Thus, no matter the strength of the performance – and it was very strong – they ran the risk that the judges might not be impressed by what they’d heard before. Acasola’s final song, Lara Fabian’s “I Will Love Again,” exhibited once again what I feel was Acasola’s main strength – their commitment and focus. That consistency in energy and performance was what netted them 2nd place and Zane Gregory’s Best Arrangement award. (Actually, Zane arranged their entire set, so major congrats to him!)

Next up was UO On The Rocks, a group previously experienced both at ICCA and on BOCA. Their opening chord of The Doobie Brothers’ “Listen To The Music” gave OTR a strong start that they maintained throughout their set. However, their choice on vowels in the first song was at times, um, mid-90s a cappella. Choreography was very clean but dialed down. CSNY’s “Helplessly Hoping” kept the classic rock groove going, and showed off OTR’s amazing harmonies and interpretation. Their final song, “Kyrie” by 80’s group Mr. Mister started off weakly – the solo’s first line was strained and the middle parts flat, but everything quickly picked up, and ended with an incredible trade-off between a quartet harmony and the rest of the group. A very strong performance overall, well balanced between aural and visual excellence! OTR also deserves credit for their song choices – I think they’re very aware of their strengths (which is not to say that their strengths are limited AT ALL), and they format their shows accordingly. To pick repertoire that is older always runs a group the risk of sounding stagnant, and it is this mentality that keeps groups picking songs right off the radio. Yet, picking older songs can be done, and as OTR definitely showed, it can be done extremely well.

UC Berkeley’s all-women Golden Overtones followed OTR with a set that pulled from more recent material. First came their mashup of Duffy’s “Mercy” and Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab”, which was an intelligent choice considering the frequent comparison of the two artists and their similar styles, The two soloists played off of each other well, although it took a while for the group to lock initially, tuning wise. Bette Midler’s “Stuff Like That There” was once again rocked by the soloists, and the third choice, Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida,” was a new interpretation to me. The girls chose a softer, more intimate expression for the song by their choice of background parts, and perhaps this was necessary – Chris Martin’s melody fits comfortably enough in the female range that it could be difficult to give it the same kind of attitude as in the original version. Good intonation on the last song, but I would have liked more energy and choreo overall. I felt like the Overtones were playing it safe, and had the talent to kick it up a couple of notches – possibly with some more up-tempo arrangements.

Mt. SAC Fermata Nowhere, the second men’s group of the night and the 1st place winners, started off their set with “Magalenha,” a Portugese dance song most recently covered by Sergio Mendes. The choreo was strong, if ambitious – it got choreographer Alex Fajardo the Best Choreography award. In my opinion, the song itself could have used more harmonies, instead of being as unison-heavy as it was. This was the only foreign language song of the night, and that’s always a mixed bag: if the audience doesn’t understand the words, they must rely solely on visuals to understand the meaning and thereby connect with the performers. Fortunately, Fermata began this song energetically and did nothing but build and build throughout! Next was Secondhand Serenade’s “Fall For You.” Although the group paid attention to dynamics and emotion, the intonation could have been better, and the balance in the trio was poor. The last piece was a medley of recent hip-hop songs. Judging from crowd response, Fermata got what they were going for, which was mainly laughs and audience familiarity with the song choices. The soloists did a good job, but the background singers need to polish their choreo to be in shape for the Finals. All in all, Fermata proved once again that they are capable of bringing a massive amount of energy to the stage! Good luck in the Finals!

After the intermission, the audience was welcomed back with UCSB Naked Voices, the other co-ed group of the night aside from Acasola, and that night’s 3rd place winners. They started off with Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” which was smoothly done but needed a lot more energy in the choreo, as well as attitude from the soloist. It’s very hard to pull off a Michael Jackson song, and I think that this choice hurt them. The risk in performing this song was even greater because, as it was the first song, it set the stage for the rest of their set. However, I did appreciate that the soloist used up more than the usual couple square feet on the stage; this added to his performance. Their next song, the Beatles’ “Martha My Dear,” was a well thought-out song/performance. Everything fit here! The arrangement was neat – it won Best Arrangement in the quarterfinals. The choreo was neat – the guy swinging his girl around as she saluted the crowd was awesome! It was all very intelligently done. Their third song (they were the only group to do four complete songs), the New York Voices’ “Silence Of Time,” was full of wonderful harmonies and good intonation, but I could feel the audience getting restless – the energy level was sinking. Fortunately, Naked Voices brought it back up with Celine Dion’s “All By Myself,” sung capably by a guy. I think they were parodying the original, but I couldn’t always tell, as the background seemed to alternate between feeling sad for, and annoyed at the soloist. The key change was too abrupt, but the choreo was good and ultimately provided a strong ending to the set! Overall, the level of choreo execution and emotion varied, and I think that “Rock With You” hurt the rest of the set, but there were moments throughout the set that were excellent.

Next up was UCI Circle of Fifths, in their first appearance at the Semis and their first year in ICCA! Their set began with Billy Preston’s “Nothing From Nothing.” The soloist gave this song a very energetic and wonderful sounding performance. It was hard to hear the background parts, though – this was more an issue of distance from the area mics than anything else. The second song, Boyz II Men’s “Water Runs Dry,” was a great choice for a ballad – and the soloist sang it amazingly. However, this soloist really needed to emote more; in ballads, the audience’s connection with the soloist cannot be overestimated. Otherwise, the tuning was a little out in the bari section, but quickly corrected itself. Circle’s final song was, like Fermata’s, a medley – a Disney medley! Here the group was plagued with a difficulty particular to medleys: when the lead mic changes hands several times within a song, it’s easy to end up with varying solo levels, and consequently a group gets backgrounds that alternate between relatively overbearing and subdued. Such was the case throughout Circle’s medley. Otherwise, it was very intelligently choreographed throughout, and the gospel ending was funny, although the background parts died out at that point. I heard them do this when they won their quarterfinals with much better balance and the audience was dying with laughter! Overall, Circle had a good set which needed improvement in attention to microphones and consistency in emotion, but had strong points which definitely resonated with the audience.

Point Loma Pointless took the stage with the sort of opening I never get tired of hearing: a chord that was a wall of sound. These are very strong singers! Aside from that, Kansas’ “Carry On My Wayward Son” was not a song I’d have chosen, because I’ve heard it done a cappella so many times. The choreo was unrelated to the song, even though the energy put forth was great, and I noticed inconsistent emotion among the background singers. Their next song was “Kiss The Girl” from The Little Mermaid, which I disagreed with right away – this one’s also been done many times a cappella, and in my opinion putting these songs in your set risks boring the judges. That said, the two soloists did a very good job at keeping it entertaining; the soloist imitating the tadpoles’ “YAA YAAAAAAAAA”s was ridiculously hilarious. Pointless’ final song, Shiny Toy Guns’ “Don’t Cry Out” showed great energy, emotion and overall commitment to the two solos, and tight choreo. During the bridge, the tuning went out and the high notes were too prominent as well. I was also confused by the soloists, whose moods varied between funny, sad and dramatic. This usually happens when a group is trying to express emotions in a more complex way than the audience can interpret them, or when one emotion is attempted but not committed to, so the audience receives the “almost” effort. Ultimately Pointless gave a very strong performance musically, with choreo that was also very developed but at times disconnected from the music, and solos that reflected great individual commitment.

The last group of the night, Oregon State Outspoken, took the stage with Justin Timberlake’s “Lovestoned” and mashed it up with MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This,” for which Keni Lee won Best VP. The mashup idea was good, but most of the song was just the bassline and some VP – it was too empty. Unfortunately, some insanely popular songs just don’t translate into full a cappella harmony, and “Lovestoned,” for the most part, is one of those songs. Anthony Hamilton’s “Charlene” was a good choice for their ballad (Kalei Samson won Best Solo for this one!), and showed off Outspoken’s ability with a more difficult arrangement, especially in the dynamic growth from the beginning to the end of the song. For their last song, they chose Nelly’s “Where The Party At,” which was well received initially, and featured high-energy choreo the whole time. Ultimately, however, I think it was a poor choice because of Nelly’s style of singing – almost monotonous in the overkill of one or two notes. Furthermore, the rap involved was a dangerous move – incorporating rap is blatantly NOT singing. It’s possible to argue that a cappella is not all about singing all the time, and that rap does have its place, but I don’t think the majority of the a cappella judges are there yet. All in all, Outspoken is a talented group that took some big risks in an ICCA context, by picking two dance songs. ICCA, however, defines itself in part by what sorts of risks are being taken, and nobody wants to go to a concert that is great to listen to but no fun to watch. In that sense, Nelly and JT at ICCA were certainly important!

Collectively, the 8 groups at the West Semifinals ran the gamut of what is currently college a cappella. Each group brought something unique to the stage and provided an unspoken forum in which performances were analyzed by spectator and performer alike. This forum is continuing in this review, at RARB, among all the groups and probably within you as well, since you took the time to check out another person’s take on the competition! Again, good luck to Fermata Nowhere in New York – and finally, a quick statistic: except for the UC Berkeley Golden Overtones, all of the groups that competed are 10 years old or younger! The same pattern is true of the Finals in New York: aside from the Men of Yale and Ithacapella, all the groups were formed within this decade. I’m excited to see that new groups are still springing up all the time, with their own unique takes on a cappella. I can’t wait for the finals!