REVIEW: The Vanderbilt Melodores & Cadenza

Nashville, Tennessee picked itself up and moved inside Jesus College Chapel. Yes, really. Yes, it’s gone now.

a cappella Cadenza Jay Richardson Music Singing Vanderbilt Melodores

Nashville just came in from the London train and I heard it was flying to Switzerland next. There had better be someone back home left to pick up the pieces, because America just lost its most exciting a cappella group for a week.

Luckily Cambridge gained them. The University’s flagship ensemble Cadenza were right there in Jesus College Chapel from the start with a warm, well-blended sound that let us know exactly what kind of vocal quality we were in for. But at the twenty-minute mark the switch to Nashville’s Vanderbilt Melodores absolutely stole the show.

Cambridge University’s flagship a cappella group, Cadenza. (Photo Credit: Tom Porteous)

The U.S. of A. — Tennessee more specifically, and, to zoom in further, particularly its university music scene — has been the home of a cappella as long as the universities themselves have been around. Though the Melodores were only established in 2009, the all-male tradition they carry stretches back to 1873 and encompasses the legendary Take 6, a 1980 group founded only 120 miles south of Nashville, at Oakwood College. Admittedly there are some differences: Take 6 have veered towards R&B since their 1988 studio début, and the original group have mostly stuck together since graduation rather than changing their lineup every year to make it student-only, much like Cambridge’s own King’s Singers.

A cappella chic – Alex Porteous, Cadenza’s beatboxer. (Photo Credit: Tom Porteous)

But the parallels are very hard to ignore. The Vanderbilt Melodores released their first album Rain Check in 2010 and have since produced three more, including two since they won NBC’s Sing-Off in 2014, each affirming their status as the rightful inheritors of the crown of brassy, rich and perfectly timed close harmony. Take 6 have proceeded to win 10 Grammy Awards; and although the Melodores are not quite of their calibre – and though it may be too early to tell at this stage in their first ever European tour – there is a sense that Nashville could have something really special to offer.

A confident and well-judged performance from Cadenza was no less enjoyable, brought alive by several impressive solos from the group in an exhilarating display of the Cantabridgian quality of sound. Their choreography was appealing, if not always flawless; by the time they gave up the stage to the Melodores there had been some really first-class moments. Every time I paid close attention to their sound it revealed impressive depth, good balance and a near-perfect blend.

Cambridge meet Nashville; Nashville, Cambridge. (Photo Credit: Luke Naylor-Perrot)

But these boys and girls belong to the Cambridge choral tradition and, although they were obviously loving every moment of it, I smiled inwardly at the thought that they were obviously more used to standing behind pews wearing red and white robes. The King’s Men or the Gentlemen of John’s — even perhaps Cadenza — could give the Vanderbilt Melodores a run for their money in sound quality, but the Butternuts had an utterly commanding, beguiling and frankly seductive stage presence that places them firmly in the semi-professional sphere.

Besides, as one might expect, they had the American style: soulful, throaty singing from the soloists and an unashamedly brazen sound from the ensemble. They even brought out an arrangement of the hymn It Is Well With My Soul to celebrate what must be a rare chapel appearance. Their energy was so infectious that the Cambridge audience were cajoled  into singing a bassline for one of the numbers. (We paid money to watch singing, not to join in…) Yes, I know, it would be hard to make Americans look self-conscious if you put them in the O2 Arena wearing Fitzwilliam rowing lycra; but the Melodores’ performance goes beyond self-assurance into are-these-people-actually-real-oh-wait-they-can’t-be-they’re-all-wearing-the-same-fucking-sneakers territory.

The American style.

But hey, why be competitive? The whole room was clearly having a blast, and both groups were evidently comfortable in their own spaces. Besides, they somehow anticipated my dearest wish and combined forces to end with Hozier’s Take Me To Church. The combined stage presence of the Melodores and sound quality of both groups was mind-blowing. It blew my socks off. It blew everyone’s socks off. There were fragments of sock scattered all over the floor which are probably still being cleaned up.

Put simply, it was stunning.

4/5 stars