Some Kind of Wonder

SYDNEY FRINGE: The songs of Stevie Wonder as performed by award-winning choral group Soulfood, with special guests Mr Percival and Gary Daley, made for a winning evening.
Some Kind of Wonder
The Greek Theatre, a busy Sydney Fringe Festival venue, became the home of not Hellenic arts energy but American soul, groove and motown inspiration when the Sydney choir Soulfood took to the stage. In their Sydney Fringe Festival debut, the group paid tribute to the early opus of Stevie Wonder in successfully layered choral arrangements. Soloists and ensembles from the choir and outside also gave individual treatment to these mostly familiar songs.

The theatre, with its front facing raked seating and flat side facing seats (used by the choir in rest periods) proved itself to be a reverberant and intimate venue. The keen audience members always responded when invited to participate in the building of musical moments and spirited repetitions. Vocal effects, clapping, clicking and singing from the paid seats all enhanced the texture and timbre on stage. When soloists or ensembles from Soulfood presented separately to the choir, the resting ensemble members seated at the side of the stage still elaborated on the melody with spontaneous vocal backup, clapping and other support. The audience benefitted from this authentic example of soul musicianship hungry to make the most out of each moment.

Stevie Wonder’s music and compositional genius were well celebrated this night in Soulfood’s delicious feast. The highlight was being immersed in the complex but clear a cappella work in up to eight parts. Under strong directorship of Melissa Kenny, the arrangements created by the choir members themselves were successful versions of the instrumental and vocal features of the songs. Lyrics and melody lines were shared around the parts and shifted often with satisfying smoothness. The choir moved to the music they were recreating with as genuine ‘feel’ singers. At times unison choreography was included – not as much as some choral groups attempt – but Soulfood’s delivery even without this was a joy to watch and hear.

Special mention must be made of the choral realisation and transformation of many elements – both vocal and otherwise – within Stevie Wonder’s scores. Brass lines were popping and jamming, instrumental punctuation and chord work were well handled. Scat singing and doo-wah virtuosity bent delightfully the melodies, harmonies and lyrics as we know them. These elements were augmented by firm bass lines, riffs and rhythmic motifs. At all times they were effectively combined. The full choir’s pitch as an a cappella group was commendable. A thrilling beatbox component from a compact but gifted group of males with an expert leader ensured a rich vocal band tapestry. Highlights of the choir’s performance alone were the versions of ‘Master Blaster’, ‘For Once in My Life’, the change of pace to ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life’, and the medley of ‘Pastime Paradise’, ‘Higher Ground’ and ‘Living in the City’ expertly arranged by one of the choir members.

Male soloists from the choir performed notably well. This was especially noticeable in renditions of ‘Uptight’ and ‘I Wish’. In ‘Uptight’, tenor choir member Rob used falsetto and a full range of inflection effortlessly, and was very entertaining. Enthusiastic tenor Monty recorded vocal loops and layered a well-crafted version of ‘I Wish’ complete with suitable elaboration and interaction with the audience or resting choir. A backing group of the males from Soulfood took this number to higher ground indeed – pardon the pun. ‘I’ll be Lovin’ You Always’ pitched a duet against the choir and shared chorus material with good result.

Talented guests Mr Percival on solo vocal and Gary Daley on keys added an extra dimension to the work of Soulfood. Mr Percival opened the evening with excellent vocal delivery which was both heartfelt and varied. His incredibly sensitive singing, exciting vocal range, use of sound effects, physical gestures and beatboxing were engaging. There was little resistance from the crowd when he used their claps or vocal responses to add to climaxes. Synth solos and accompaniments were also of a high standard. Highlights of Mr Percival’s collaboration with the choir were the opening arrival of Soulfood from the foyer, building ‘Superstitious’ from solo to ensemble, and a beautiful delivery of ‘Ribbon in the Sky’ with sympathetic backing from the choir.

This was my first opportunity to hear the talents of the well-blended voices which make up Soulfood. Even though the concert was a varied affair, the fittingly Fringe Festival worthy moments where the choir twisted the classics of Stevie Wonder truly shone. The choral moments with Soulfood alone were also the tightest and most successful in the programme.… I was loving them always! I keenly accessed their website afterward, anticipating my chance to hear their CD, and believe their musicianship and feelgood true performance may well be a highlight of the Sydney Fringe music acts on offer.

Some Kind of Wonder
Soulfood, with Mr Percival and Gary Daley
Greek Theatre, Marrickville
September 16 – 17

Sydney Fringe Festival
September 9 – October 12

Paul Nolan

Wednesday 21 September, 2011

About the author

Paul Nolan is a classically trained pianist. He studied at UNSW and graduated with a Bachelor of Music.