A Capella is a difficult style to make a name in. For one, originality is a synonym for taking a song and mixing it with another song it really shouldn’t be mixed with. The collage sounds great when it’s got right, but when it’s done with little thought or execution it’s no worse than a stand-up comedian badly retelling a joke to an audience who have heard it all before.
The Bluebelles are Exeter’s latest all-female A Capella venture, and under the management of Posy Curless, and musical direction of Emily Cobb and Rosie Peters, have landed their first show at the world’s biggest arts festival, Edinburgh’s Fringe. Their show, they say, mimics the vocal arrangements of The Andrews Sisters with the visual style of Bettie Page, and so it was tentatively titled Get Jazzy On It. With a further three and a half iron staircases descended, the studio basement of the Space Triplex was reached, to see eleven of the twelve Bluebelles alight in full 30s swing glory, blue and white polkadot dresses adorned, alongside the charisma and charm from a decade which was confident in what it wanted to achieve socially and musically.
The problems with a jazz orientated show were that it had the potential to become self-absorbed, with the genre still occupying a definite niche audience, albeit an enthusiastic one. This possibility was rejected from the first song, where the group mutilated any over-production on Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy In Love’ in an emphatic start, following it up with an answer to the question, “how would Charlie Parker silence Jason Derulo in a conversation?” A question with many potential answers only had one arrangement on mind, with a clever performance of ‘Talk Jazzy to Me’. A series of doo wups later and this jazz conversation wore out.
Then, the real swing took place. Starting with a version of the Chordettes’ classic ‘Mr Sandman’ aligning heavily with the Andrews Sisters’, fronted by a wonderful arrangement of Ray Charles’s ‘Hit the Road Jack’ and Bo Diddley. Liz Kurton then shone, fronting ‘Somewhere Beyond the Sea’. These classics were viewed fondly through jazz tinted eyes, by a cast who seemed to respect and love every note they sang, and it sounded fantastic. The Andrews Sisters vein continued with ‘In The Mood’, only with a Bloodhound Gang twist: “It didn’t take him long to say… you and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals.”
Unsung swing hits continued, and were championed in a setting that made the genre relevant once more, as a small spoken interlude explained how it was a love of old traditional jazz that had brought them together, as well as an intrigue to see how the more mainstream songs of the last 20 years could be interpreted into jazz and swing, getting literally jazzy on it. This was exemplified with the following track, Beyoncé’s second mention in the set, a remix of ‘Love On Top’.
A small surreal twist then stumbled in, with jazzy murmurs and “zum”s a plenty fronting a back drop of what can only be described as Night of the Living Dead reimagined by a cast of 1930s glamour idols. Styling themselves from Bettie Page didn’t reduce the occasional inclusion of zombie based choreography.
A brief – muffled – fire alarm didn’t take from a talented series of soloists, flicking from more swing classics (“it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing”) to a great rendition of Muse’s ‘Supermassive Black Hole’, and an ambitious (but triumphant) ‘I Will Survive’. One downside was the distinctly non-musical venue at the Space Triplex studio, a great space for theatre, but one which sometimes struggled to fully convey the group’s acoustics to the audience, closely huddled in a semi-circle around the performers.
Either way, swing music has been regaining a lot of attention recently. The Jools Holland sessions and BBC wartime programs have documented the cultural importance of the genre to an audience willing to listen again. Resonating through every movement choreographed and every arrangement produced by the Bluebelles, laid an adept concentration to and appreciation for the music they were singing. As the set came to a bluesy end with a brilliantly arranged version of Taylor Swift’s ‘Trouble’, not one person in the room was left unimpressed.
There are a lot of trees in Exeter. A lot of trees. Has nobody told you about the tree:student ratio spiel at the University? But maybe it’s time to take a look underneath the trees, because in the shadows of the large oaks of Exeter A Capella, The Bluebelles are growing fast, and it’s only a matter of time before they turn into something quite remarkable.
The Bluebelles are performing their show Get Jazzy On It, every day at The Space Triplex, Edinburgh Fringe Venue 38, from 7 August until 15 August at 15:10. Tickets can be found here.
Tristan Gatward, Online Music Editor