On 3 March 2012, the Voice Festival came rolling into Bristol for the first time ever, as five groups, three debutants and two one-time participants, competed for a prestigious place in the final in London. The event was held at Denmark Hall in Red Maid’s School in Westbury.
Before we get to the review, a quick summary of the show:
THE UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL BARBERSHOP SINGERS from the University of Bristol
THE SWEET NOTHINGS from the University of Exeter
HOTTUBBS from the University of Bristol
SEMI-TONED from the University of Exeter
AQUAPELLA from the University of Bath
The Sweet Nothings, who last participated in the Festival in 2009, kicked us off in their simple white top black skirt combo with a rendition of Madonna’s Like A Prayer. Quite a sombre, slow start was emphasised by a procession through a hand made arch and almost made me feel like I was at a funeral. This was quickly remedied as they picked up the beat and slipped casually into the more upbeat tempo of the song. Good solo. Soprano backing at times drowned out the lower parts, which was shame as there seemed to be some really nice chords in there. The choreography was nothing special – a little too many step-togethers for my liking. All in all a solid opener with very few musical issues, although it was maybe a little long – I had become a little disinterested by the end and maybe needed something a little extra to keep the interest towards the end.
Their next song was Corinne Bailey Rae’s Put Your Records On. The one word I’d use to describe their version would be ‘cutesy’. I enjoyed the way the girls were positions, with two girls sat on the edge of the stage, as if dangling their feet in an outdoor swimming pool during a hot summer day – the song certainly reminded me of that. It put a smile on my face, if nothing else, and was very relaxing – almost overly so. The arrangement itself was simple and simply sung, but in a way it kind of worked with this song. Not blown away, but pleasantly entertained.
The group closed with Sweet Dreams (Are Made of Nothings), a playful pun on the Eurythmics original. Again, quite a simple arrangement to start with, which transformed into Adele’s Rollin’ In The Deep, which was very effective with the backing of the previous song. However, it soon became apparent that this was a medley of songs that didn’t seem to have any kind of theme, both lyrically or musically (Everybody by the Backstreet Boys, Crazy by Gnarls Barkley and American Boy to name a few) and it did seem as though it was merely a case of “How many songs can we fit to the original beat?” While entertaining and humorous, it didn’t quite hit the spot for me – I think the arrangement might have been more effective if kept to two, maybe three songs, rather than a countless mish-mash. So all-in-all a moderate set from the girls, which was never bad but never outstanding, but a good effort for an inexperienced group of girls.
Next up were debutants HotTUBBS from Bristol, who are the auditioned version of their parent group, TUBBS. They opened, wearing black with red waist-ties for the girls and red neck-ties for the boys, with their infamous McFly Medley. I was looking forward to this, as according to their Facebook page it was HotTUBBS classic, and as such probably very well rehearsed. They kicked off with Five Colours In Her Hair, with several boys taking the solo from the back, which led to some nice blend. Some good musicality here, dipping and rising at the appropriate times. It’s All About You was next, and was pleasantly surprised by the excellent unison harmonies from the SAT section, which continued into Obviously, which I feel would have benefitted from a single soloist. But they did add a key change at the end – of which I was a big fan, although it did seem the tenors were pushing their range slightly towards the end as a result. Very good opener though, despite the urge for a single soloist.
The group’s second song was a Ragtime Medley. They had a conductor on stage for this one. Again, no soloist it appeared, but once again some really nice chords in places, although the song itself didn’t really do much for me. The group appear very skilled at harmonising in unison, and their pace was perfect throughout, although that was partly because of the effect of the conductor. A different style of a cappella here – not my cup of tea, but well done nonetheless. The chord they produced at the very end of the piece was outstanding.
The group closed with Lady GaGa’s Telephone, and I enjoyed the layered effect during “I’m kinda busy”. The group suffered slight timing issues in the first chorus, where they sped up slightly, but the rest of the song was good and amusing – a highlight being when the boys switched to some rather posh RP accents, which was cleverly juxtaposed with Beyonce’s rap in the middle of the song. I particularly enjoyed the soprano harmonies in the chorus. All-in-all a good closer, but I still wanted a soloist to come out and really take the song by the scruff of the neck I think that’s what this entire set was lacking.
New all-male group Semi-Toned were up next, wearing white shirts, black trousers and braces – classic barbershop look – and opened with Happy Together, made famous by The Turtles, and after promising to ‘cast away the shackles of choral stereotypes’, they proceeded to stand in a choral stance and sing the first verse of the song as if choirboys. I could only assume this was ironic, and indeed they wasted little time moving into the bouncier second verse, which did seem to accelerate away from the boys at times, but their comedic use of fake instruments and the introduction of the Star Wars Theme, however random, did work well (as did the fake light-sabre fighting) and was the perfect length. A good, energetic start from the boys, and I was looking forward to more.
They then went into the Beach Boys’ I Get Around. Nice, strong falsetto solo at the start and in the choruses. Nothing too spectacular here though – the problem with the Beach Boys is that the arrangements almost write themselves, and the boys didn’t really add much of their own to this one. Solid musicality nonetheless.
The third song, intriguingly called Jaundice, began with Travis’ Turn. Good soloist, if a little pitchy on the very highest notes, and really nice blend in the background. The soloists swapped and launched into Coldplay’s Yellow – the title – Turn Yellow – Jaundice – get it? Clever. The harmonies weren’t quite as tight on this section, but the subtle reintroduction of Turn was effective and led to a really mellow and soothing mash-up. Good work from the new boys.
The boys finished up with Michael Jackson’s Blood On The Dance Floor. MJ is notoriously hard to cover and do justice to, so I was really looking forward to see if the boys were able to manage it. They built the sound at the start VERY effectively – from clicking, add bass, add bari, add tenor, and then filled the room with luscious harmony and for the first time this evening, the beatboxing really stood out as excellent here. Some humorous and actually very good moonwalking and general choreography going on throughout the song. Some really good moments, and the soloist, although his moments were short, was very good. However, the very nature of song didn’t really allow any real build towards anything, and as such the performance remained on the same level throughout, despite the slightly pitchy falsetto sing-off from two of the boys towards the end. A humorous end, but the song choice let them down here I feel.
Next up were the first ever group from the University of Bath, Aquapella. Wearing black and blue, a classy combination their set included Coldplay’s Fix You. Some really nice blend at the start. Male soloist – very brave, as it’s a very tough song for a male voice to handle. Unfortunately, his voice was a little crass – the song was a little high, and as such he had to sing it loud, which disrupted the calmer feel to the song. The top notes weren’t always quite there, either. I think that may have been partly due to nerves. However, when the group moved into the chorus, they filled the stage with some really beautiful harmonies and open vowels, and each chorus was undoubtedly the best part of the song. I was intrigued to hear what they were going to do with the bridge, and they did it well. Quick yet soft ‘na-na’s from the backing led into “Tears stream down your face” really nicely, and while the bridge lack a little bit of emotion, the sound produced was generally excellent, especially towards the end. The final soloist was weak, but overall a really impressive arrangement from the new group.
The group finished with the barbershop classic Goodnight Sweetheart. I was interested to see if they would add their own identity to it, as it’s a very extensively covered song. While it was well sung, there was nothing outstanding about it, save for the awesome sombre minor chord on the finish. All in all a good set from the newcomers, but nothing to write home about.
The final group of the evening were The University of Bristol Barbershop Singers, and the first impression you get from this group is that there are A LOT of them. They opened with Mika’s Happy Ending, one of my favourite songs of all time, stood in a large semi circle with a conductor facing them. More like a choir than a contemporary a cappella group. The song itself seemed quite big, due to the sheer number of voices on stage, but was missing a few of the distinctive “twiddly-bits” (that’s a technical term) in the original. However, several of the blocked chords in the bridge and chorus were really full and harmonious. In fact, for the first time in the evening, during the “little bit of love” section, I got goosebumps from the glorious chords emerging from the stage. It’s a shame they were very restricted on the movement side of things, because the song could have done with a bit more going on on the stage to keep the interest flowing all the way through. A little shouty from the girls at the very end, but otherwise good and quite different to all the groups we had previously seen.
Firstly, I apologise for being unable to fully review the final two groups, due to the lack of videos available on YouTube. That said, I think it was difficult to decide between Semi-Toned and HotTUBBS for the best two groups. HotTUBBS had the advantage of being able to fill the stage much more easily than their all-male counterparts, but I was left wanting a single soloist for much of their set. Semi-Toned managed to squeeze four quite original songs into their set, and my favourite was Jaundice, but they lacked a consistent blend to their sound. The Sweet Nothings were pleasant to listen to but lack a real cutting edge for me, and although they should be commended, they didn’t stand out above the rest of the groups. TUBBS filled the stage (how could they not?) but may have been hindered by their inability to really move on stage, while Aquapella were solid in their debut outing.
Outstanding Performance: The Sweet Nothings
Outstanding Arrangement: Ed Henley of Semi-Toned for ‘Jaundice’
Outstanding Vocal Percussion: Jack Telfer St. Claire of Semi-Toned
Outstanding Choreography: HotTUBBS for ‘Telephone’
So, despite what our readers thought, debutants HotTUBBS went through to the London final to test their mettle against the best groups in the country.