ICCA season is upon us again and this year it is full Pitch Perfect references and new groups rising to collegiate a cappella glory. I haven’t had the opportunity to attend enough ICCA events in my lifetime thus far, so when I had the chance to head down to Normal, IL for the event at ISU, I had to take advantage. Here’s a quick review of the performances.

Host Group: ISU Acafellaz. This classic all-male group (with a classic all-male group name) had some of their best moments during judging deliberation but gave us a good warmup for the night and a heads up that the mic’ing for the hall was going to be less than adequate for most of the groups. More on their performances later.

In Competition Order:

The University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) Xtension Chords. Same outfits they’ve been wearing every year that I can remember, these guys opted not to run out on stage this time around. The choreography, arrangements, and set order all felt really familiar from the last time I had seen the Xchords perform at ICCAs. The started off their set with Babel (Mumford & Sons) using a bass soloist. I’ve been recently thinking about some Mumford arrangements and the “jim ba da” syllable choice seemed to be a good one, if not the common one. It worked for them and the opener had great energy. The Xchords opted to key change at the end of the piece, rather than stop and take a new pitch from the pipe. This is a great way to literally connect your set together, but make sure your change is clean or it will do more harm than good. A tenor soloist stepped out for Swallowed in the Sea (Coldplay) and based on the range he showed in his background parts in the first song, I was more excited to hear what he would do. Unfortunately the key was just too low and the song took a long time to let him really get in his wheelhouse and flex some vocal muscle. Closing with Some Nights (Fun) could have been a bold choice this year, especially since they ended up having to perform first (again), but the lead carried them to close out a very solid all around performance.

The Northwestern University Undertones. I was looking forward to seeing this group perform after hearing good things about their set from the year prior. The came out strong with the first Pink song of the night in Raise Your Glass. The soloist had a fantastic sincere quality in her voice and backed by the rest of the 17 member group, they put out quite a sound. The shout out to the tv show Cheers to close it was clever. Next up was Follow Me Back Into the Sun (The Rescues) and there was a trio that surrounded a single female lead who would turn out to be one of my favorite soloists of the show. The arrangement had some great moments and flowed smoothly into the closer, another Rescues song, You’re Not Listening. As I noted during my live tweeting, they took a note out of the Voices In Your Head playbook from last year by bringing the songs back together to close out the set. There were some pitch issues here and there, but it was overall a good set.  Many (good) sets don’t have 3 songs that truly fit together, but in this case the final two were so melded that I couldn’t help but feel like the first song didn’t fit in which may have hurt them overall with the judges.

Illinois State University Secondary Dominance. Clear hometown favorites from the second they stepped onto the stage. Leading off with a Jessie J song in Domino, was one of the many head nods to Pitch Perfect by the all-female groups in this competition. Warwick Avenue (Duffy) was the second song of the set and one of the things that was really clear about this set was that these girls knew how to end a song. The final chords of both of the first two songs were aca-awesome (couldn’t resist). Closing with Hate (I Really Don’t Like You) (Plain White T’s) left this set with lots of power belting and high hopes of what would come from the rest of the all-female groups in the evening. Side note: There were 4 all-female groups and only 1 all-male. Feel free to fact check me on this, but I’m pretty sure that’s a first in an ICCA competition. What hurt Secondary Dominance the most in the end was the typical all-female troubles – lots of highs and not enough lows – something which the next group would handle spectacularly.

The University of Illinois (Champaign Urbana) Rip Chords. The second of 4 U of I groups to hit the stage, these girls made their low altos and strong VP known from the get go with Valerie (Amy Winehouse). I rarely notice costuming unless it’s a groups standard (Xchords) or terrible, but the ladies of Rip Chords looked extremely classy in their matching tops, dark jeans, and blazers. We All Need Saving (Jon McLaughlin) was the slow/tone poem piece of this set. One thing I noticed in the first two arrangements was the gaps when the soloist wasn’t singing. I don’t think everything needs to have a filler, but We All Need Saving felt very square and at times empty. These concerns were all but forgotten when the Rip Chords entered their closer, No Light, No Light (Florence + The Machine). An outstanding soloist rose back by a very full arrangement and some outstanding percussion made this one of my favorite all-female performances of all time.

Intermission – I’ll take a moment to comment on how strange it was to see an All-Illinois quarterfinal. With separation of the Midwest Region into Great Lakes and Midwest, logical grouping of universities was sure to follow. It will probably make for several rough quarterfinals this year with the U of C groups all going head to head, and likewise for Illinois, Michigan, Missouri State, WashU, Northwestern, and other traditional midwestern powerhouses I’m forgetting about at the moment.

Illinois Wesleyan Silence Interrupted. The first of two groups form Wesleyan rounds out the Illinois school represented in this competition. I heard this was this group’s first year, and they should be commended for getting accepted to and putting together solid ICCA set after just one year. While this set wasn’t quite of the same caliber of the rest of the groups (partially hampered by only having 10 people vs. the normal 15), there are definitely big things to come from this energy filled bunch. One comment on the set was that they performed A Team by Ed Sheeran which I’ve been expecting to hear all year, but had not heard before this show. I’m a big fan of this song, so if anybody else has done a cover, send me a link.

University of Illinois (Champaign Urbana) Girls Next Door. Try and find this group on twitter some time – NSFW. Just sayin. First Adele tracks of the night, and with all of the all-female groups, I must admit, I was expecting many more. These girls lead off with a mashup of Duffy/Adele with lots of energy. I don’t have a whole lot of notes on this set except for their second song. Hide and Seek (Imogen Heap) came out in 2005 and was consequently performed by every a cappella group in America (and other nations as well) for about the next 5 years. Then Jason Derulo sampled it for a song and people started singing mmm whatcha say, again. The Girls Next Door sang a very clean and beautiful version of this song, but there was nothing original about it and it’s place in a 2013 ICCA set is borderline unforgivable. They closed with I’ve Got Soul But I’m Not a Soldier (The Killers) wrapping up a well sung, but very long feeling set.

Illinois Wesleyan Touch of Class. The final all-female group of the evening. Leading off with a very strong version of Mama Who Bore Me, I could help but think the VP was unnecessary. I recalled a moment in the pitch perfect book where someone was talking about whether or not to have VP on a Beelzebubs track and they decided that they would quietly mix the VP in the background, which was “no decision at all.” This song left me wanting to hear it again without the drums, which speaks to the quality of the singing, rather than against the quality of the VP. The next song was Bottom of the River (Delta Rae) and it was mashed up with Skyfall (Adele) – a mashup which thematically made a lot of sense. The soloist on Skyfall was really outstanding as well and made this one of my favorite songs of the night. Touch of Class closed their set with Perfect (Pink) and swapped soloists about every 8 bars. This is great for showing off your groups talent and making people feel involved, but I feel like it often hurts continuity (unless you do it like the SoCal Vocals). All around I was very impressed by the all-female groups of the evening, despite my initial uneasiness that one of them would come out as the first version of the Bellas. (Enough with the Pitch Perfect references already…)

University of Illinois (Champaign Urbana) No Comment. I heard good things about this group’s sound check and had been looking forward to their set all night. I was not disappointed and consequently took very few notes on the set because of it. They lead off with Dance with Somebody (Whitney Houston) and all I wrote down on the page was “Damn.” Great soloists and great arranging made this set all around amazing. Those of you watching my live tweeting probably saw my commentary on the set, but the second song Breathe Again would’ve made Sara B proud. The final song included an unnecessary dub step drop, but it didn’t take away from song.

As the judges deliberated, the Acafellaz came out and sang a short set before bringing some random audience members on stage to play a funny a cappella version of Don’t Forget the Words (with the songs they had just sang). The soloists for the Acafellaz were very strong across the board, especially their bari-tenors. The judging deliberation was pleasantly short, thanks in part to the length of the evening I’m sure. Here are the results (as written on VarsityVocals.com:

1st: No Comment, Univeristy Of Illinois Champaign-Urbana (423 points)
2nd: Xtension Chords, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (369 points)
3rd: Undertones, Northwestern University (311 points)

Outstanding Soloist: Kelsey Stanker of No Comment for “Breathe Again”
Outstanding Arrangement: Xtension Chords of Alex Blomarz for “Swallowed in the Sea”
Outstanding Choreography: No Comment for the entire set

No Comment was the clear winners, but that second place slot could have gone to any number of groups in my opinion. The judges opted not to give out best VP but it could have easily gone to either Rip Chords or No Comment. In general, poor mic technique hurt what were probably perfectly capable beatboxers and I encourage all groups to make sure you get in some good practice with mics. I’m sure I missed some things that I’ll think about later and I have some additional thoughts on the ICCAs and competing that I will try and get down in the coming week. For those of you that have tweeted/messaged me in some way about the live tweeting, I’m glad I was able to connect you to the event, even minimally. I will be at the U of C quarterfinal, but this time as a judge, so I won’t be able to tweet up a storm like last time. Hopefully somebody else is willing to take my place – I’ll even offer up my handle. This post as a lot of words. Maybe some videos in the next post…