I have a confession to make: Before last weekend, I'd never been to a collegiate a cappella concert. Now, I've seen collegiate a cappella groups perform, but only twice: Once at SoJam 2009 and Singstrong DC 2010, but both those were within the context of a competition of the BEST groups that had applied to the festival. I've seen many professional concerts, listened to COUNTLESS collegiate and professional albums, ran and founded my own a cappella group in 2011 for one short semester while I was toying with the idea of grad school at Kent State University. I was also a member of Full Sail, an elite a cappella group on Crystal Cruises, in 2008 and 2009, which exposed me to some of the best singers I've ever met. I have seen many, many, many musical performances, both in the aspect of musical theatre, which is my background, and in the context of a lover of music, but collegiate a cappella concerts, before last weekend, were very very foreign to me.
It was with this in mind that I and a friend attended two a cappella concerts at Northwestern University last weekend: those of the Extreme Measures and the X-Factors. Both concerts had incredibly enthusiastic and hardworking groups, but the difference in the concerts was breathtaking. This is a review of both concerts by compare and contrast, which should help to also illuminate my likes and dislikes in collegiate a cappella.
Both groups had a good balance of ballads and uptempo songs, and these songs were well-organized. I never felt that I had head way too many ballads, or uptempo songs, and the structure therefore, was well thought out and balanced.
Extreme Measures, by and large, had many less immediately recognizable songs. The majority of the songs they performed were not songs that I knew. I've discovered many songs by a cappella first, so this was just fine. It also allowed the group to have much more flexibility in structuring the songs, as I had no sonic memory to compare the song to. I was also excited to be introduced to new songs in a concert setting, which doesn't often happen if you go see a concert by a group you know.
The X-Factors, on the other hand, had many, many very recognizable songs. Most of the songs they performed were or had been in the Top 40 in the last year, or are those songs that you know through the ages. This added, to some degree, to the enjoyment of the show; if there were things lacking in the mix, I could easily fill these in from my sonic memory; however, this sometime led to additional disappointment into the soloists, mainly because I had very strong identifications with the soloists.
Winner: slight edge to the X-Factors, mainly because the song selection, on its own, was very very strong and well-structured.
The X-Factors, for this category, were in an interesting dilemma. Three of their members were abroad, the space they performed in was acoustically dead, and the sound design for the show was not conducive to the groups' strengths, with speakers only directly in front, and aims above the audience's head. I'm pretty sure the group had three basses, but only one had a mic, and he did not often keep the mic near enough to his mouth to make a difference. When the group sang in a more choral fashion, as in, "Back to Black," their sound was quite good and full. However, in the more traditional "vocal band" arrangements, the group often sounded empty, specifically in the midrange vocals, which left me less than satisfied, I'd like to attribute most of this to the space and sound design, as well as the lack of members, since I DID hear great sound when not moving and standing as a group and singing together, but it may be that the arrangements did not take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the members.
Extreme Measures, on the other hand, had a space that was very intimate, echoed in a way that may have covered up some flaws, an incredibly strong blend at all times, arrangements that took advantage of the group's strengths and minimized their weaknesses, and excellent balance all around. At no time did I feel that the group lacked any part of their sound. Their basses were incredibly strong and anchored the sound very well. I was very happy with the sound of the group as awhile, and they supported the soloists quite well.
Winner: Extreme Measures, no doubt.
This is an interesting category and both groups had their strengths and weaknesses.
The soloists of Extreme Measures, overall, were very solid and capable across the board. Only once did I find myself lost or disconnected because the soloist did not seem engaged with the song, namely Austin James' solo for "Animal", but even then, his second solo later in the show, the Destiny's Child medley, was solid and incredibly engaging. Standouts include Lindsey Charles' solo on "Hear No, See No, Speak No", and Sophie Rich's amazing solo on "Songbird". Also, Mike Sladek's solo on the group's parody of "We Are Never Getting Back Together", while not technically astounding, was a perfect fit to the show.
The X-Factors soloists, however, varied wildly. Amazing solos were in abundance, by Mallory Moser on "We Belong", and Aaron White, though I often felt his performances were slightly affected at times. The best performances of the night, though, go to the X-Factors, with Courtney Ritcher's phenomenally embodied solo of "Back to Black", and Sarah Cartwright's incredibly beautiful solo on "Fire". However, the group's closing medley performance, which was probably one of the strongest and most engaging performances of the night, had an incredibly rough male solo on "Thriller", where the soloist really did not fit the song at all.
Winner: The X-Factors, for their amazing standouts, but Extreme Measures gets points for consistency and fit.
I have an incredibly strong aversion to themes, especially when done wrong, as one group here will demonstrate. Themes can either be done incredibly well, with a clear intention and songs that fit the mode. Both groups also took advantage of nonmusical skits in between song sets to elucidate the theme as well.
The X-Factors theme was "The X-Factor." I was NOT a fan of this theme, as it seemed like the theme you choose when you don't know what else to do; it's the name of the group, for Deke's sake! The central conceit was that there were 5 "acts" that had made it to the finals, and group participation at the end determined the "winner." None of the groups were necessarily built around singing, and truly, the two standout acts were the step/slap percussion duo and the modern dance/oboe performance. While it was interesting seeing the other talents of the group, the performances of the group didn't seem to fit in any way to the theme, nor did the acts fit. it was much more a "America's Got Talent" more than "The X-Factor" and did not add any enjoyment to the show for me.
Conversely, the theme of the Extreme measures show was "The Extreme Measures tries Online Dating." From the very beginning, each individual member of the group had a very defined identity. They were dressed as their fictional (possibly?) online dating profile personas; read actual messages they had received on OKCupid, and had very funny skits about dating and what it's like, etc. All the songs were around dating and love, and the entire show was filled with small nods to dating and the strange experiences you have when attempt to date online, even the foibles of trying to be in the closet when showing your face on Grindr. Overall, the theme absolutely added a lot of fun and enjoyment to the show, and I felt it helped me get to know the members quite well.
Winner: Hands down, Extreme Measures.
For me, the standout show of the night was the Extreme Measures show. From start to finish, they were polished, fun and had inventive uses of video and audio. The sound was great, and the members were personable and really showed who they were as individuals and as a group. I'd go see another one of their shows in a heartbeat.
The X-Factors show, while not as engaging (they probably suffered for me seeing their show second; after the EM show, it being my first college aca show, it was going to be difficult to beat my excitement), had amazing soloists and, for missing three members, still sounded pretty darn good. Also, overall, the skills of the vocal percussion duo of the X-Factors were pretty freaking awesome and made me want to hear more of their work. I'd be very interested in seeing them again, in a better space with all of their members, stripped of all the extra trappings. I bet I'd have a much better experience.
I'm glad I went and saw both of these shows. I'll absolutely see more from both groups, and I've been shown that collegiate a cappella groups can put on solid, engaging shows with great vocals and fun concepts for very little money. I'm also reconfirmed in believing that, for me, blend, balance, tone, as well as passion and connection with the song sell me and make the song every time, no matter how much movement or kitsch you may have. To both groups, kudos for putting a show together, and I can't wait to see you again!
About the writer:
Bryan Guffey has been singing since he was old enough to talk; 1983, to be exact. A bass/baritone with a fierce falsetto, Bryan has performed all across the United States and around the world for the last seven years. Currently living, in Cleveland, Ohio, Bryan started his first a cappella group while in high school, and a cappella has been his love ever since. A graduate of Kent State University, Bryan was the founding Music Director of the Kent Clarks in 2011 when he returned for a (brief) MS program, and holds a BFA in Musical Theatre. In 2009, Bryan sailed around the world with such luminaries as Blue Jupiter's Tim Foust, singing in the a cappella group Full Sail. Bryan recently moved to Chicago where, in his secret day job, he provides technology leadership for nonprofits. Recently, Bryan restarted his long-suffering CAL group, vocalFISSION, which has traveled with him in his head from Cleveland. This has been a much more fruitful endeavor, as Chicago has about 400% more a cappella than Cleveland.