Out of the Blue

Impressive Oxford University-related male a capella singing group.
New Theatre, approximately once per year, lately June.

June 9, 2013
7th June 2013: the 13th year of Out Of The Blue

You know you've been to an infectiously high-spirited gig when you see grown men (well, large students, anyway) singing multi-part harmonies from Britney Spears songs in the local Sainsburys, round the corner, after the show.

And that really sums up what Out of The Blue is all about - fun, frolicks and really good close-harmony singing.

The first set started with a great video sequence of the group apparently comming from all corners of the globe (and indeed, they'd been there, and taken the videos!), finally converging on the stage door of the New Theatre, and then magically, in person, onto the stage. It was a great opening sequence, and set the stage - quite literally - for what was to follow.

Out of The Blue are a constantly changing group, taking on new members, and saying farewell to veterans every year. That they are able to manage this constant turn-over while remaining a top-quality acapella group is very impressive.

The first set was largely popular songs with one member as soloist, backed by the group. It's amazing to hear the variety of beat-boxing and vocal techniques used to re-imagine songs you'll be used to hearing with a full instrumental band, multi-track studio, and all the tricks of the recording industry, totally re-created for you, live, on stage.

It's equally impressive that these numbers have all been arranged specifically for OOTB by their musical director, Ollie Ralph, and you can hear the skill that has gone into choosing arrangements to suit not only any close-harmony group, but the voices of the group on stage (this year!).

From the inter-song banter and comprehensive program, you get the feeling that this is a very friendly, close-knit group of performers, who really want to get the best out of every opportunity. The first half of the show also gave a lot of solo-time to the newer members of the group, which highlights how inclusive the group is, from the very start.

Part-way through the show there was a quick update and run-down of what the group has been up to so far this (Academic) year. Tales of 'round the world tours' (now we know where the videos came from!) and 'backwards carol singing' gave a quick insight into the whirlwind lifestyle that is being a member of OOTB. A trip to Japan to perform in an international acapella festival, in sold-out 3,500 seater stadiums, and being the only non-professional group there, hints at just how well-known and well-regarded OOTB have become, across the globe.

And rightly so. The second half moved into more 'chorus' territory, with a cleverly-staged 'sing-off/battle of the ballads', some fantastic audience participation (one girl got a birthday present she'll never forget) and some performances by smaller groups with - excellent - niche taste. The rendition of Daft Punk's Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger with accompanying robot-dance moves was really fun, and reminded me of the perfomance by fellow acapella maestros - Fork, of Finland - who sang on the same stage earlier in the year (and indeed, referenced OOTB as their friends in Oxford).

There were some truly stunning soloists. Bayo Randle (the group's oldest member) has a meliflous tenor, Ollie Ralph a soaring falsetto and rich, reverberant bass and Selali Fiamanya an effortless baritone.

The group also runs workshops for local schools in the places they perform, and we were treated to a barn-storming rendition of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, with attendant animal impressions and noises created by about 40 school children! The OOTB boys calmly presided over this happy chaos, seemingly at ease training up the next generation.

Subtle use of pyrotechnics added to the show's joie de vivre. You know a show has made it when they have fireworks! A throughly enjoyable evening was rounded off by a very well-chosen encore and had people, quite literally, dancing into the streets.

June 11, 2012

Oh Can’t I Take You Home Tonight…? (with apologies to Queen).

I’d like to think that it was my review of the preview (see below) that led to such a turnout at the New Theatre for this latest performance by Oxford’s best loved (shucks, they even have their own GnDs ice cream flavour) all male a cappella group, Out Of The Blue, but I quickly realised that these boys seem to have a loyal fan base created simply out of their own talent.

Tonight, in addition to the music, there were some skits, humorous banter, a video, some must-see incriminating security camera footage during the interval and some pyrotechnics, to boot. As the show was twice as long as the preview, the repertoire was wider, including a brave but excellent ‘mash-up’ of Marvin Gaye and Amy Winehouse, the timeless ‘No Diggity’, some mandatory Coldplay and a curiously contrasting offering of Skinny Love to Fat-Bottomed Girls. Particularly noteworthy was 'Human Drumkit II' (exactly as its name suggests), which showcased the breadth of their talent. Maybe in the future they could foray into different genres or world music?

This time they were also individually miked, which added some serious depth to those glorious harmonies, enhanced the ‘drums’ (incredible as it increasingly appears to be, all the sounds are produced by human voices) but which served as a double-edged sword for the quieter soloists, some of whom were occasionally drowned out by the backing.

The staging looked good, the arrangements were generally taut, and all of it stopped well short of being gimmicky due to both the excellence and good-naturedness of their performance. The camaraderie shown by these young men was palpable, even more so tonight, as several alumni joined the stage to perform the one song that has been maintained since their inception in 2000, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. And it was just as good – if not better – than when I first heard it over ten years ago.

I had forgotten to mention last time that OOTB have a close relationship with a local children’s hospice, Helen and Douglas House. Their music alone is therapeutic enough but they have also donated around £16,000 to the charity since 2010.

Music can contribute in so many ways to the wellbeing of individuals and of the communities to which they belong. Who needs drugs – medicinal or otherwise – when you can have two hours of OOTB? Since they seem to be accruing accolades faster than Phil Collins can say "gorilla", perhaps we should consider putting them in the British National Formulary: dose - at least four times daily; food - before, with or after; alcohol - definitely not a contraindication. Make sure you get your fix.

May 29, 2012

The A Cappella Boys are back in town, and must be seen!
A Preview of the 2012 summer show.

When I first arrived in Oxford, a couple of friends persuaded me to go and hear them sing in their newly-formed all male a cappella group, Out Of The Blue (OOTB). So I went along, mainly for a bit of fun and to support my friends. I was blown away. I really recall nothing like it at the time in Oxford, and probably not even in the UK. Twelve years later, after five sell-out Edinburgh Fringe runs, several international performances and a stint on Britain’s Got Talent, the boys – albeit a different cohort – have come back home, to the city where dreams, beneath dreaming spires, really can come true.

Their concept is to deconstruct popular songs (anything from classic pop/rock to jazz, soul and funk) and reconstruct them into a wide repertoire emblazoned with a unique, creative, OOTB stamp. Their methods, which have diversified over the years, involve building harmonies from interwoven melodies and countermelodies, accented with solos, texturing and blending as an artist might work a palette; there also features the ‘mash-up’, where one song is mixed with another. Tonight’s offerings ranged from Marvin Gaye to Amy Winehouse (coincidentally, the wonderful ‘Tears Dry on Their Own’ had accompanied me on the walk to Magdalen College auditorium, with its strange tapestry collection and interesting acoustics).

There were, of course, no instruments, and no conductor to keep time, but that my ears were almost unconscious of this fact – that an orchestra was effectively recreated on stage - is a testament to their talent. The rare occasions where tuning was not entirely pitch perfect were more than compensated for by numerous ‘spine-tingling’ moments of delicious sound that led me to close my eyes and dream of Para-para-paradise (apologies to Coldplay). Usually you look to the back row of a choir to find the bored strategically partnered with the hapless, but this time there was no back row; every person contributed with versatility to the whole, with some outstanding solo performances to enhance - but not outshine - the group.

The choreography (oh yes, they dance, too) flitted between boy band and drunken uncle; whether this is clever marketing I don’t know but, for me, it worked, because it just enhanced their likeability. The only thing I would change is their wardrobe, which made them look just too much like schoolboys.

The great thing about tonight’s press preview was the opportunity to meet the group before and after. It is easy to forget that these young men are students. Of medicine, chemistry, architecture and other subjects, from both Oxford and Brookes; only three actually study music. In addition, many cannot read music and so dual processes of rehearsing with and without written music occur. This fosters interdependence and their camaraderie today was as apparent as their joy at being on stage. Despite the outward polished publicity, which I suppose is an invariable and often necessary consequence of increasing fame, the guys themselves remain refreshingly down-to-earth, not just in their performance, but in their back room chat. Neither geek nor chic, they just are what they are. Which is: just great.

Oxford should be proud of its home grown talent. OOTB’s full performance will be on 11th and 12th June at the New Theatre. Seasoned fans will not be disappointed by the new blood and those who have never experienced it are in for a treat. I have decided that the effect of OOTB is almost subconscious; it catches you unawares and lasts longer than you might expect. I certainly came away from tonight’s fun-filled, toe-tapping preview with a few things I hadn’t expected: a beaming smile across my face, a funky tune in my head and a curious desire to skip all the way home.

June 7, 2010
New Theatre, 7th June 2010
Out of the Blue are an all male a cappella choir made up of Oxford University and Brookes students, and about a million times more fun than that sounds. Now in their tenth year as a choir (with new members joining to replace old ones as they leave) the group appear to have a massive fan base in the city; the New Theatre was almost sold out and most audience members seemed to be serious fans. As the lights dimmed at the start, there was actual screaming.

This turned out to be pretty much justified – Out of the Blue are irresistible. The music is largely high energy pop/rock covers with the occasional witty extra line thrown in, which they perform with enthusiasm and charm; their version of Sex Bomb was one of the most appealing things I’ve ever seen. There are also quieter, more harmony-led pieces, which really demonstrate the technical skill of the choir. The choice of songs suit the group perfectly and the arrangements are imaginative and thoughtful. The choreography is adorable – sometimes boy band-style slick, sometimes sweetly hapless. The execution all round was mainly excellent with the occasional dodgy note or misstep more then compensated for by the rest of the show.

The energy levels from the group were incredible, and they inspired an amazing amount of goodwill from the audience. They also showed real warmth to each other and are clearly having a brilliant time. Really, there is nothing about them not to like, from the floppy hair to the charity work (they gave a slot of their show over to talking about the work of Helen and Douglas House). This show was brilliant, silly fun, hilarious yet heartwarming. Really, really lovely.

Sadly, this show was only on one night, but they’ll be doing a run at the Edinburgh festival and are definitely highly recommended. Take teenagers who like Glee! to see them – they won’t look back.

May 31, 2009
I was invited along to a preview by the Oxford acapella sensations Out of the Blue in advance of their show at the New Theatre next week, and boy was I in for a treat! I got a private acapella performance of 7 full songs and routines – shut in a room with 13 energetic, lively fantastic performers for a personal show. Result!

An interesting ensemble, Out of the Blue are a collaboration of students from Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University performing acapella covers of contemporary songs from all genres, with all the arrangements and performances created by the performers themselves. I was treated to lively full-length renditions of the following numbers:

You Give Love A Bad Name
Sex Bomb
Don’t You Want Me
I Don’t Feel Like Dancing
Poker Face
Mustang Sally

These guys have such a great rapport between them, which makes their performances fun as well as vocally pleasing – between them they have a full range of pitches that come together to create interesting versions of these well-known songs, with lively renditions and routines that I couldn’t help but smile at.

Speaking to three of the band, Scott, Ed and Nick, they told me how they actually consist of 14 members at a time – all students who are auditioned on a rolling basis as previous group members leave. New members are personally auditioned by the outgoing members, and they are intending to always continue this rolling membership tradition rather than trying to go professional – they say the high turnover keeps things fresh and lively.

Very proud of being the only student group allowed to perform at the New Theatre, they are excited about their performance and have been rehearsing like mad – smartly dressed in matching blue suits, shirts and ties. They did ask me to say that they would all be changing into red sequin mankinis for the second half of the show, which should up the ticket sales!

Asked how it works having both rival Oxford HE institutions working together as a group, they said it doubles their available pool of good singers to choose from and it’s a good example of the universities collaborating for the benefit of both students and the community. Pretty unglamorous and unstarry, the guys do not make a profit from their performances, instead choosing to donate their profits to Helen and Douglas House, a charity close to most Oxfordshire hearts. Unlike most MPs, they don’t even make the most of their expenses – asked what they had as a tour rider for their performances, they said ‘water – and food would be good too’. Bless them.

They admitted their song arrangements don’t always go according to plan, telling me about a Flight of the Conchords-cover disaster, and also a tongue-in-cheek version of ‘Wow I Can Get Sexual Too’ – apparently you can check out YouTube for some appalling covers of this song!

Check out the Out of the Blue Myspace page for details of other performances they’ve done and to listen to some sample tunes – as they told me, they are equally happy when performing to large audiences or serenading an old couple down by a lakeside in Boston – and from my private preview tonight, I have no doubt that the New Theatre show will be outstanding. Here for one night only, go and see these guys for a lively, fun and fantastic performance – this is an Oxford institution that we need to support!

June 12, 2008
Now, I’ve seen these boys busking in Oxford and thought ‘Hmm, Glee Club, but in a nice English way’ and then walked by on my way to the Covered Market. So I turned up at the New Theatre expecting a sparse audience of their close friends and fiercely supportive family members: ooh, was I wrong! The auditorium rapidly filled with a combination of, admittedly, friends and family, but also a cross section of Oxford from prep school to OAP club.

What everyone had come to see was a group of 14 chaps, and chaps is the best way to describe them, attack a huge variety of music from modern pop, 80s hits, show tunes and even (I think) classical Lieder. Now these boys aren’t a professional, highly polished vocal group. What they are is an Oxford University club that sing close harmony, totally unaccompanied, and make it all wonderful fun! Their energy is amazing and you just know that they are having a really great time performing.

Try and imagine fourteen disparate students from scientists to architects, singing like stars and dressed for an accountancy convention! Floppy hair abounds in a Brideshead / High School Musical combination, as they project infectious good humour and sheer joy at making music. The chutzpah with which they attacked brilliantly arranged songs such as A-Ha’s Take on Me and Maroon 5’s Harder to Breathe had the audience whooping and cheering at their vocal dexterity and beat box-tastic abilities!

On a slightly more serious note, the concert entire profits were promised to Helen and Douglas House; a charity which continues to provide end of life care for children and young adults with terminal conditions, as well as support for their families. This charity has been established for 25 years now and deserves continued support for its excellent work.

Highlights of the show are too many to mention, as so many of their interpretations were both musically innovative and coloured with humour. Forced to pick just two, I would have to plump for The Lion Sleeps Tonight - which featured guest performances from about forty former members of the group, as will as some audience participation – and You Know My Name (the Chris Connell Bond theme) delivered in a cracking ‘rock meets lounge’ style. If you get the chance to see them, go. I’d definitely have to add Out of the Blue to my list of guilty pleasures: for sheer fun and genuine enthusiasm coupled with a great choice of music they can’t be beaten!
I was also walking along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh this August 09 and came across these performers. When they said they were putting on a show that afternoon I pricked up my ears.
I was simply blown away. They are extremely good singers, could move with rhythm, were having a good time and were good-looking. Who wouldn't want to see them!

I consequently went along to their concert which was sold out but luckily I got a last-second ticket (great because I'm from Australia) and I thought they were just brilliant. There's no other word to describe them. I felt so alive and emotional with their range of songs; they had a couple of slower ones "Patience" and "Cold Water" which were simply stunning in terms of the harmony and emotion in their voices, and the other songs were so entertaining and uplifting. A particular favourite was "Harder to Breathe" - the guy's voice is unusual, and "Oh What a Night". I couldn't believe the beatbox and percussion sounds they were producing without a microphone. Every guy had something unique, a different dynamic to add to the performance - it seemed noone was doing the same thing yet they were so cohesive and bouncing off each other.

I left feeling 20 times lighter and excited, blown away by the talent and creativity not only of the guys themselves but also of the person behind it (whoever that is?).

At the end they said they donate all their profits to charity, which made them doubly impressive. I hope they come to Australia - they would be a massive hit without a doubt!
A couple of years ago I was walking through Oxford and encountered a group of young men singing a capella. Pausing to watch for a while, I thought, ‘Pretty good’, and then moved on. I now realise that they were members of Out Of The Blue – Oxford’s own 14-strong boy band – that brought the New Theatre to its feet last night.

I’d done a bit of homework (well, I looked on YouTube) but didn’t really know what to expect: and, as the theatre filled with a remarkably young and predominantly female audience, the 'boy band' tag began to resonate. As soon as the lights went down the screaming began (I was too young to go to a Beatles concert – just – but I can now imagine what it was like). Different singers take the lead in different songs and it was clear that they each have their own fan base: as each lead singer stepped forward they were cheered and the end of each song was greeted with rapturous applause.

So what are they like? If you remember the Flying Pickets’ Only You in 1983 you’re part of the way there. They are a team of talented singers ranging from basses to counter-tenor, performing amazingly well-adapted songs without the aid of musical instruments – although you would swear there were instruments there, as everything from percussion to guitar sounds are reproduced by the human voice. The songs range from the Beatles to Stevie Wonder; McFly to the Human League; Scissor Sisters to Elvis; plus, of course, Take That!

I must admit that, after the first few songs, I wondered if the show was going to be a bit ‘samey’: clever, full of harmony but each song a bit like the previous one. However, Out Of The Blue is obviously aware of this risk, and the diversity of pace and tone, together with a few non-musical sketches (which I didn’t find particularly funny but then I’m nearly three times their age), ensured that the performance never became predictable.

The whole show is delivered with wit and charm, with some funny dance routines that the group takes pleasure in describing as "outrageously unprofessional". In fact, professionalism is highly evident throughout the performance. Ed, the musical director, has produced some brilliant arrangements: he recently won ‘Best Arrangement in the World’ at an international a capella competition in America; the group also proved themselves to be the second best choir on Earth in the same competition.

Out Of The Blue are entertaining, engaging and highly talented. They’re nice guys, too, as they give all their profits to Helen & Douglas House, a hospice providing care for children and young adults. Next time they’re in town, don’t miss them.
Fantastic, original, funny, moving, great entertainment - what more can I say? These young men even gave an impromptu performance in our local beachside cafe to a great reaction. We then followed them to their evening performance - awesome! Great cause too - not to be overlooked! Cant stop playing their CD. I am definitely going to seek them out again!
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