The weekend I spent at VoCAL Nation is not one I’ll soon forget. The awesome showcase featuring some of the Contemporary A Cappella League’s (CAL) greatest groups, the in-depth workshops given by legends and knowledgeable newcomers alike, and the performances around the Strathmore really made the weekend enjoyable. The culminating event, the professional showcase, left me with my jaw on the floor. Vox Pop, The Glue, Afro Blue Vocal Band, and Cluster gave the performance of a lifetime. I have to give props to Sled Dog Studios for working so closely with each group to give perfectly timed effects and great balance on every song.
Vox Pop gave an explosive start on their opener, doing just enough with the background to keep it interesting but not sound too “noisy.” I could tell the group was having a lot of fun together on stage, and they did a great job of letting the audience in on the fun. The percussionist was stellar throughout their performance, though a little overpowering in the mix. “Portions for Foxes” was a good choice for Vox Pop and they did a great job of making a relatively boring song come to life. The sopranos needed a little more confidence up top but other than that, the background had a great blend. The song dragged a bit toward the end and could have been rearranged to cut some of the riffing over the end. Their closer was an engaging and entertaining take on a song I’ve heard one too many times in an a cappella setting, “Something to Believe In.” The effects on the leads were perfectly done and really helped set the tone of the song, and I’m a huge fan of having multiple soloists to showcase the whole group. Overall, the group had a lot of swagger on stage and gave a great opener to the showcase. Their outfits were a bit mismatched, with varying shades and tones of purple as well as a mix of casual and formal attire, and a more uniform look would have really brought the performance to the next level.
Although I still have no idea what any of the words meant in The Glue’s first song, “Sandburgenbauen,” I clearly enjoyed it so much that I googled my way into discovering what the song was so that I could listen again and again. From the one-note bass line to the hauntingly perfect lock on the chords, I was hooked. When the Swiss rapping started, I was Glued… see what I did there? They kept time and pitch extremely well, assisted by their simple group movement and effective blocking. I had no idea what they could possibly do to top their opener, but then they managed to make the switch over to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” effortlessly. The Glue took on the classic with lots of energy and an engaging soloist, complete with hoedown dancing and a mariachi feel. The closer had the audience on their feet dancing along and you could just feel the audience’s captivity. Although the song had a slower feel, the background kept it moving and interesting. I was especially impressed with the perfect placement of their vowels and the percussion that perfectly mimicked a steel drum. Again, I had no idea what was being said, but it was easy to “feel” the meaning through the performance. As The Glue left the stage, I knew it meant Afro Blue was coming soon, but I was still sad to see them (donning matching navy blue outfits, high socks, and 2 liter bottles suspended on their backs) go.
I was beyond excited to hear Afro Blue after following their journey on “The Sing-Off,” and they were everything I hoped they would be and so much more. Between songs they took time to relate to the audience which made the show that much more enjoyable. They were endearing, humble, and so effortlessly classy, which was also represented in their wardrobe choices. They took the stage confidently with a relaxed yet energetic take on “American Boy” that showcased their phenomenal blend as well as their individual voices. Their simple and effective choreography kept the energy up and the tight harmonies locked with ease. When the boys stepped up to the front of the stage, they didn’t disappoint as they improved upon the original song. They took on everything from Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On” to Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” with ease and always managed to find a way to enhance the original.
Afro Blue’s effortless blend continued to impress me throughout the performance and every soloist executed their melody perfectly. The group proved to be true professionals, as they didn’t even flinch when the mics gave off feedback. Soloists throughout the set gave stellar performance, complete with amazing range, clear and deliberate riffs, and powerful soul from every performer. The background allowed each part to be treated specially but never let it overpower or outshine any other part or the soloist. The transitions in the arrangements were natural in places where it is so easy to be cheesy. Afro Blue’s passion could be heard in their voices, seen in their faces, and felt through the emotional journey they invited the audience to share with them. Closing with “A Change is Gonna Come” was a powerful and moving choice, and I could feel the emotion and the pleading from the effortless solo, full of gentle strength and pleading.
I had no prior experience with Cluster, but after reviewing Fork’s new live album, hearing The Boxettes at SoJam, and experiencing The Glue earlier in the evening, I’ve come to expect nothing less than a mind-blowing experience from live European a cappella. The American debut of the Italian sensation, Cluster, was no exception. The five musicians worked so well together that it was hard to believe they were performing live at times. As discussed in one of the master classes, the percussion went with the song instead of just keeping a beat and really added to the overall effect. Tempo and key changes were effortless; guitar solos never seemed out of place or silly; instruments were replicated so easily. It was amazing to me how seamlessly the group managed to fit jazz into the background of popular music.
The percussionists in the group were astounding, and there was a moment when they turned the other members of the group into a turntable… AMAZEFACE. The background slowed down and lowered their pitch simultaneously, then sped up and raised it at the demand of the “DJ” and managed to uniformly pull off a skipping record effect, bringing the crowd to their feet in astonishment. They had the most deliberate and accurate pitch, which was so impressive and refreshing. They also got the audience involved with “Smooth Criminal.” For the first time, I actually enjoyed crowd participation – thanks to all the talented participants of VoCAL Nation for that one! At many points during the concert I found that I had stopped breathing so I wouldn’t miss a note, and so that the superior humans on stage would have more oxygen to fuel their fires.
As I left the Strathmore, I listened to strangers passing by to hear what they had felt about the experience. I heard a lot of “OH MY GOD DID YOU HEAR ____” and “I don’t think I’ll ever hear music the same way again” and even a few “Well, I’m never singing/percussing again because I’ll never compare to ____.” Though I hope the last part is a joke, I felt like we had a sense of unity as the audience, experiencing something truly special together as a unit instead of as individuals. It’s amazing how music can do that – bring masses of people together from all types of backgrounds and lifestyles and let them experience something so real and so powerful together. VoCAL Nation 2012 brought a lot to the table, and I have to encourage anyone who didn’t make it this year to find a way to make it next year!
About the writer:
Nina Beaulieu is a student at James Madison University, studying Media Arts & Design with a focus on Converged Media and a Music Industry minor. She is a proud member of The BluesTones and has arranged various songs for them as well as for other groups. Nina hopes to stay very involved in the a cappella community after graduating. She likes ice hockey, peacocks, and dissonance.