Australian a cappella group The Idea Of North have been a well respected and successful act for two decades now. They have released over a dozen albums, won ARIA awards and toured internationally. They have an enthusiastic following which is evident from the packed Dunstan Playhouse for the first of two shows this Cabaret Festival. There is no denying they are a talented bunch.

Opening with an impressive Michael Jackson mash-up/medley, combining elements of Wanna Be Starting Something, Bad, Billie Jean, Man In The Mirror and more, things get off to a great start. During Dance Medley, there is some amusing ‘horn’ arrangements and their take on the German folk song My Hat It Has Three Corners is full of well rehearsed sound effects and vocal trickery.

The Idea of North have brought along a secret weapon on this tour in the form of Japanese ‘vocal instrumentalist/beat boxer’ Kaichiro Kitamura. Who is in no uncertain terms completely remarkable. Creating complete and intricate rhythms and grooves on a drum kit which isn’t there, he lifts proceedings to a whole new level. And when he does his solo he pops in some bang on impersonations of vacuum cleaners and washing machines. His skills are used beautifully. He is not performing in every song, he sits in the precisely correct place in the mix with the vocalists. He is a pleasure to watch.

There is something truly magical about people creating music using nothing but the human voice. Canadian a cappella group The Nylons said in an interview 25 years ago that a cappella was Italian for “how to save money on the band”. Because all the sounds, vocals, bass parts and percussion are produced by the human voice. I love good a cappella, and perhaps more than ever before through American Collegiate Choirs and TV shows like Glee and movies like Pitch Perfect, there has been a huge renewal of interest in a cappella music.

One thing that many groups have often done in efforts to keep the form contemporary, is doing vocal-only arrangements of contemporary songs. YouTube is full of groups doing songs by U2, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Coldplay, etc and outfits like Pentatonix from the USA are smashing it with material made famous by artists Daft Punk and Justin Timberlake. For me personally this element is sadly missing from today’s performance. With the exception of one song (Tim Minchin’s hilarious F Sharp), all the material is over thirty years old.

The next most ‘new’ song is a terrific take on Cold Chisel’s classic Flame Trees. The rest of the set is what could be referred to as ‘standards’. Frank Sinatra’s Embraceable You, Charlie Chaplin’s Smile, Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, Sergio Mendez swinging jazz classic Mas Que Nada (a highlight).

I believe that two of the regular members of the quartet have recently vacated and that perhaps this line-up had not had much time to put these shows together, which may explain the heavy reliance on material they have been doing for almost two decades. Some of the banter seems hackneyed and clunky but there are a couple of quite funny pieces, one morphing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Music of the Night from Phantom of the Opera, into a musical based on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The other turns an audience member into conductor / remixer by directing the five vocal musicians on stage into a unique arrangement.

The encore of Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely is nicely executed, and they turn the entire audience into a four part harmony choir.

While musically a very good outfit, all talented performers, for me personally the song selection was a little too vanilla, especially as two years ago Eddie Perfect (who introduced today’s performance) & Tripod delivered one of my favourite a cappella performances ever in the same festival. That said, I am was definitely in the minority because the audience today gave them thunderous applause and went home more than happy.

Review by Ian Bell

Photo Credit: Claudio Raschella