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One of my favourite things about moving to North London has been setting up home just five minutes from Kings Place – a tremendous two-hall venue which houses a wide variety of live music, comedy, and spoken word performances throughout the year (and earns bonus points with the office-less entrepreneur for offering good coffee and free WiFi during the day!)

Last night I had the pleasure of attending not one but three concerts as part of the London A Cappella Festival 2011.

I very rarely read music reviews and don’t imagine myself any kind of a journalist, but I wanted to share some of the wonderful experience of the evening. So what follows isn’t intended as a critical review or a thorough recounting of the programme – just some thoughts and highlights from one excitable a cappella fan.

Note: I’m not one to snap photos during gigs, so please note none of the pictures or videos below are from the actual event.

If I’ve made any factual errors or you disagree with any of the views expressed – please shout in the comments below!

Out of Office – Deloitte Choir and The Rhinegold Singers

The first concert featured the two winning choirs from the 2010 “Office Choir of the Year” competition, organised by the Music in Offices project. I think everyone in the audience was a little surprised to see the enormous choir take the stage – I’d say at least 50-60 singers. They kicked off the evening’s programme with a good choice: a fun arrangement of The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling”. It was a slightly shaky start, with the rhythm section’s nice, clear “ba ba ba”s being jarringly out of time with the rest of the choir, but there was a good energy to the singing and it set the mood for the evening well.

Music in OfficesThen Jon Snow took the stage to introduce the organiser of the Choirs in Offices project and they talked briefly about the initiative and related adult instrument tuition project. We were then treated to a glorious jazz solo by tenor sax player Mark Vlessing, who came runner up in the Music in Offices Musician of the Year competition last year. He went on to explain how the project had helped him reconnect with music again as an adult.

Then, back to the main event: individual sets by the Deloitte Choir and the Rhinegold Singers. The Deloitters pumped the energy up again with a gleeful rendition of one of my favourites: ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”, evoking many of the nice touches which make the original so good, such as the almost-but-not-quite-too-cheesy glissandos in the chorus. A polished soloist led “Nobody Does It Better” over a suitably delicate backing from the choir. They rounded off the set with the (seemingly obligatory) ABBA cover – in this case “Money, Money, Money.”

The Rhinegold Singers performed just two songs, but both demonstrated the increased intimacy and subtlety a smaller group can achieve. A touching rendition of Danny Boy, with the verses alternating between solo and multiple voices, truly did justice to the lyrics – which, as their conductor pointed out in the introduction, are far more depressing than you might remember! They followed this with The Beatles’ “Here, There, and Everywhere”, in an interesting arrangement which passed the lead vocals from singer to singer through the course of the song. That sounds like it might result in a disjointed and awkward performance, but in fact it flowed well and reflected the lyrics elegantly.

It seems the Swingle Singers have decided to take a more visible role in their curation of the festival this year (which I think is an excellent move). In this case, it meant joining the choirs on stage to round off the set. They performed the Swingles’ eerie arrangement of Eleanor Rigby, and having the choirs to reinforce the vocal swells worked very effectively.

At this stage Swingle Singer Kevin announced a quick beatboxing lesson, inviting Jon Snow back on stage to act as celebrity guinea pig. Having seen the Swingles perform several times in the last few years, I’ve experienced their beatboxing tutorial several times now. But in this case, it was a super-brief version, focusing mostly on the wonder that is Jon Snow’s beatboxing prowess – it was a thing to behold. And in any case, as my friend Paresh pointed out: being taught to beatbox by the Swingle Singers is fun every time.

Having dazzled the audience with his beats Snow swiftly departed the stage, leaving the Swingles and joint choir to perform Soul Bossa Nova (the Austin Powers theme) – a number that tends to see the Swingles kick back and just enjoy themselves. The choir behind them were quick to follow suit! I found it a bit harder to hear the choir’s contribution in this one, which seemed a pity – but perhaps I was just distracted by the boogie-ing octet in front of them!

The gig closed with a return to the opening number, “I Gotta Feeling”, but this time joined by Swingle Singers beatboxer Kevin to provide the appropriate drum track. Strangely, although this helped with the timing issue on the “ba ba ba”s, it didn’t entirely fix it. But the song held together better, and it was a fun way to close the first concert of the evening.

The Boxettes

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from The Boxettes. I tend to take the same approach with choosing gigs as I do to reading the backs of books and DVD cases: as soon as I’m interested, I stop reading, wanting to leave as much as possible to be a surprise. I also trust the London A Cappella Festival to deliver superb acts, so booking tickets for The Boxettes wasn’t a hard decision.

I’d heard Bellatrix on this interview and was keen to hear her perform. So my expectations were vague – but optimistic. After a brief Swingle introduction the group took the stage in a varied mix of R&B fashions, looking about 5 years younger than I’d expected, and I had a moment of thinking “I have no idea what this gig is gonna be like…”

I was blown away.

The first number “Journey Begins” let the audience know straight out what this group was about. Insane bass beats coupled with deep, lush harmonies and a polished performance won the whole room over immediately, judging by the audience’s resoundingly excited applause – not a reaction you often get for the first song!

Note: I’m linking to a few YouTube videos here, but trust me when I say they in no way do the live performance justice.

As a low bass singer, you pride yourself on those rumbling low notes that most can’t reach, and make listeners go “ooh”. Having defined part of my own worth as a singer by being able to hit those low tones, I have to confess to feeling completely out-done (and ever so slightly emasculated?) by Bellatrix’s bass beats. “It’s probably all about the mic and amp EQ,” I tried to reassure myself, “and it’s not really the same thing as singing low down…”

I expect I’ve been spoiled by my first experience of live female beatboxing being from the world champion, but in any case: wow.

For me, the track which best showcased this group’s polish and amazing discipline of timing was “Pack Your Bags”, an arrangement I could still hear vividly in my head the morning after. Having convinced us they were seriously capable musicians, they let their sense of humour shine through early in the set, with the lead throwing a break into this track adapting the lyrics and beatboxing a little to tease Bellatrix.

I’m almost afraid to go find some Boxettes recordings, knowing somehow that this is a group that need to be seen live. But at the same time, tracks like “Pack Your Bags” leave me craving a re-listen as soon as possible.

I’m not really an R&B or dance music fan, so there were several tracks which could have been originals or covers for all I knew. But I enjoyed every song – the huge variety in the arrangements kept the performance exciting throughout, and it was stunning to see such powerful music performed in a new way with such precision and skill.

One consistent theme during the evening was that audiences love beat-boxing, and especially when it showcases the enormous variety of sounds talented performers can produce. A scratching demo from Bellatrix mid-set let us know that she had more than just incredible beats in her repertoire.

“Feeling Good” is a hugely popular choice of song to cover, which ups the ante for doing something special with your take on it. The Boxettes certainly didn’t disappoint, their excellent arrangement flipping in and out of compound time to keep the audience entranced.

The group have just released one of their originals, “Free”, as a single (and it’s currently available through their website – aptly as free download!) and new video, and the performance was fantastic. Alyusha on lead vocals evokes a Morcheeba-esque soulfulness, in the midst of an innovative arrangement – even featuring yodelling in a non-annoying way. Go, download!

They built up to a great finish, with the super-fast beats of “Vibe With You” before their finale of “Hattie” – a curious blend of folk and reggae influences mixed with a Boxettes beat. I loved the scat solo thrown in, and the track was a great choice to make sure the audience was left spellbound.

The group took advantage of their well-deserved standing ovation to keep the audience on their feet, getting the whole crowd dancing for their encore of “My Dreams Go High”. Looking round the room, this was not a crowd you would expect to see dancing to an R&B track, but The Boxettes bring such energy, talent, and polish to their performance, I suspect it may be impossible for a human being not to enjoy their performance.

Steel and Witloof Bay

I was surprised the hall wasn’t full for this final concert – but you wouldn’t have guessed there were empty seats from the level of applause for Steel and Witloof Bay.

To a lot of people “a cappella” is synonymous with “barbershop” – a misconception which is hopefully being unravelled by TV shows like Glee and The Sing-Off. That said, the barbershop tradition is still a core part of the a cappella world, and (as a former barbershop singer myself) it’s one I have a real soft spot for.

The Bristol-based 2010 British Association of Barbershop Singers Gold medal winning quartet Steel opened for Witloof Bay, performing a handful of songs, and winning over the audience from the outset. Perhaps we were well primed by the earlier performances of the evening – or just wowed by the skillful renditions. They seemed to me to follow the American tradition of barbershop (carefully curated by the Barbershop Harmony Society), rather than the more liberal UK tradition I’m used to, but that’s no bad thing. A fantastic reminder of barbershop’s contribution to the a cappella universe, delivered with just enough of a wink…

With the audience sufficiently toasty, Witloof Bay took to the stage – with a fantastic Dolby/20th Century Fox intro featuring beatboxer Roxorloops “repairing” the group, an appropriate way to start the fun-infused performance which followed.

The set kicked off with a crisp and energetic “Cage of Promises”, showing off the group’s talent, and the jazzy, upbeat “Danser” kept the energy high.

It turns out group member Nicolas has a real talent for vocal impersonation, impressing the audience (and making us laugh) with mini-renditions of Elvis, Edith Piaf, Shakira, and Britney Spears during the course of the set, and making sure things never got too serious on stage.

After leaving the band to do a haunting but powerful French number without him, Roxorloops declared the singers too solemn and gloomy. They reacted by sinking into a plainsong-like religious number, which he then commandeered into a striking version of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us”.

It’s always interesting when a cappella groups include a beatboxer to see how exactly they incorporate it into the group’s sound. Looking at the groups featured in this evening’s concerts, the Swingle Singers’ Beauty and the Beatbox album seems to me to represent “add a beatboxer to an existing group”, while the modern Swingles take has two of the singers contributing beats as part of the overall arrangements. The Boxettes are clearly built around Bellatrix’s beats, forming a particularly cohesive whole. I found Witloof Bay interesting because they generally pair their bass singer and Roxorloops as a traditional drum/bass rhythm section, with the bass (often jazz walking basslines) integrating really well with the drum beat part.

That said, they have clearly recognised the enthusiasm solo beatboxing demonstrations can provoke in the audience, so the set made sure to give Roxorloops a chance to share his talents in a breakdown during “Mr. Beep Beep”, and an impressive beatboxing showcase mid-set, which also served as a promo for the next day’s beatboxing workshop.

A beautiful performance of “God Only Knows” and a rousing “Eye of the Tiger” (working remarkably well with female lead vocals) were both crowd pleasers, and the set also featured a strong adaptation of the Swingle Singers’ Eleanor Rigby arrangement.

In some ways it was a difficult prospect for Witloof Bay – a relatively late start time of 9pm, after many of the audience had already enjoyed other concerts, with a less full hall than one might have expected. But Witloof Bay brought such energy, joy and humour to their performance, the audience were loud and enthusiastic in response, and the standing ovations after their set and an encore were no surprise.

Up next?

In one of the biggest improvements over last year’s inaugural festival, this time Kings Place are streaming most of the concerts live online – you just need to register on the website to watch them. You can catch the star-studded “Swingles & Friends” concert which closes the festival tonight at 8PM U.K. time:

And don’t forget to check out the new videos from The Boxettes and The Swingle Singers:

After a fantastic evening of live a cappella, I find myself strongly reminded of how uplifting and envigorating vocal music can be, and excited to delve into the back catalogs of the groups featured in this year’s festival.

I’m sure I’m not the only one hoping that the live streaming of concerts this year means that a DVD release isn’t out of the question?

Failing that – is it too soon to start looking forward to the London A Cappella Festival 2012?