Edinburgh Fringe 2019
a Cappella that delivers a show in perfect harmony. “The Songsmiths are pitching you the honest truth of what it’s really like to be in an a cappella group. The highs, lows and off-key moments are certainly not to be missed. An eclectic mix of styles and enthusiastically executed dance routines is on offer. Prepare to be serenaded in your seat at The Songsmiths’ debut performance at the Edinburgh Fringe.”
The 15 young singers of The Songsmiths from the University of Leeds take us through what they say they hate about a cappella, despite being an a cappella group. The story is told in songs, seamlessly woven together with concurrent themes.
The concert opens with a beautiful choral blending piece in classical style. It’s a love story about a boy who meets a boy that he likes, but his whole world is tied up in a cappella. That is the jumping off point for various of the performers to air their complaints about the genre. “Too many rehearsals.” “I hate being compared to Pitch Perfect (movies about a cappella competition).” And my favourite, “ I hate when people think of me as just a beatboxer”, spoken, of course, by the beatboxer.
The thread of the relationship plot is reinforced by a touching rendition of the popular tune, “A Million Dreams” from the movie, “The Greatest Showman”. The song shows the struggle as the boy grows away from a cappella towards the hopeful relationship. Each song in the program nicely advances the story lines.
The music chosen shows off the versatility of the group. There is the old-time jazz standard, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, staged in lines to replicate the train moving. “Just the Way You Are” from Billy Joel and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” are a bit more current. Pop tunes from Beyonce, David Bowie, Billie Eilish and more round out the program. There is even audience engagement, where the viewers are split into two groups to learn parts that accompany the singers.
The performance is beautiful and compelling. The wardrobe choices are classy, all black but individualized for the women, and black with gold-accented jackets and vests for the men. The precise choreography works because it compliments the music and is not gratuitous. The singing is most powerful when the ensemble is in a single line with simple harmonies. That delivery is stunning. The program is very well-paced between ballads and up-tempo tunes, with solos frequently rotating among the singers. There are lots of funny bits that work well to break up the continuous music and give the audience insight into the various personalities in the group.
The most impressive feat is their impeccable tuning and perfect rhythmic timing. Singing in tune with a cappella is very challenging. This group amazes not only because of their musical accuracy but also because they hold the pitch from the beginning to end of the show without using any aids, such as a pitch pipe or in-ear monitors. That tonal memory comes from hours of rehearsal. The preparation has paid off for them. The choreography keeps them moving throughout the show, but they never fall out of tune and are never winded from all of the actions on stage. They retain their enthusiasm and smiles, which endears them to the audience.
The vocal parts and voices are well-balanced. However, some soloists project better than others, so I did occasionally find that the group was covering the featured performer. As much as young groups seem to prefer to work without microphones, this group needs a mic for the soloist, a mic for the beatboxer, and a mic for the bass singer. That would solidify the sound as well as provide opportunity for some effects on the voices.
I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, as did the rest of the audience. It was a beautiful musical experience from an enthusiastic young group who don’t seem to actually hate a cappella!
The Songsmiths began performing in 2011 around Leeds and the UK as well as producing and founding the first ever Showcase of Northern A Cappella in Leeds. They earned third best a cappella group in the UK at the 2019 UK ICCA (International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella), the competition that inspired the enormously popular Pitch Perfect movies. As a manager of an a cappella festival, I have seen many groups from all over the world. Songsmiths definitely rank high on my university list. With the kind of dedication and practice that they have devoted their debut Fringe show, they have a good shot at advancing further on the national music stage.