The original Swingles group was formed in Paris in 1962; with a move to London in the early 70s and a few variations on their name (as well as a constantly changing roll-call of singers), they still, arguably, represent the ‘grand old man’ of a cappella interpreters. Back in the 60s, accompanied by a string bass and percussion, they became popular for their swung versions of short Bach pieces; these days, however, thanks to the development of beatbox and electronic looping techniques, they have no need of any instrumental support.
In 2009, The Swingles co-founded the London A Cappella Festival to showcase this increasingly popular way of presenting both original works and cover versions by vocal groups worldwide, and to demonstrate the range of styles (from takes on Baroque pieces to vocal re-workings of Country and Western and hip-hop) that are possible.
Saturday evening’s gig was the curtain-closer on this year’s festival, and the seven members of The Swingles presented a mixture of music (from Tallis to Radiohead, taking in folksong, Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel and Fleetwood Mac en route) in their usual relaxed and affable style.
The engineers took a little while to sort out the balance with an audience in the space, so the early, upbeat rendering of Peter Gabriel’s Red Rain was a touch distorted and bass-heavy in places, but by the time the following loose-limbed arrangement of Simon and Garfunkel’s America began, it had settled down. Federica Basile and Jon Smith took the early solos in this most wistful of the 60s duo’s hits, and Edward Randall’s arrangement brought out this quality, with small decorations of the melody seeping out from within the choral underlay. It’s a pity, though, that Randall didn’t point up the tiny conversation within the song (“toss me a cigarette …”) through the use of solo voices. A Goldsmith-Eteson arrangement of de Falla’s lullaby Nana followed, the original enhanced by the ostinato vocals, the almost-Arabic flourishes and the gentle slushing of breathy beatbox work.
Kurt Elling’s clever segue of his own Leaving again into Sinatra’s hit In the wee small hours of the morning followed – again, the gentle waltz of the latter brought slightly to the fore by a gentle brushed beatbox rhythm. Following Oliver Griffiths’ almost folky, round-the table, Forgotten for male voices (featuring some precisely rhythmic, and somewhat sarcastic hand-clapping from the women), the group presented the first performance of an arrangement of Radiohead’s 15 Step. It was a cleverly busy take, full of claps and stamps and cross-rhythms, but much depended on whether or not you found Radiohead’s original at all inspiring or interesting.
A deconstructed version of Tallis’ If ye love me featured a wash of background harmonies into which the original tuned in and out, and a slick rendering of Fleetwood Mac’s You can go your own way was followed by an intricate re-working of LP’s Tokyo Sunrise, full of solid beatboxing and overlapping vocal Japanese musical tropes. Oliver Griffiths’ solo for Mumford & Sons’ After the storm was sadly a little strained, but equilibrium was restored in a couple of foreign-folksong arrangements from Bulgaria and Afghanistan.
The group was joined by former members for a couple of down-memory-lane numbers, and a stage full of 25 Swingles proved that Ward Swingle’s arrangements of Bach’s ‘Little’ G-minor fugue and American folksongs were still solidly in everyone’s memory. The Swingles’ calling-card, a version of Piazzolla’s Libertango, followed by an enthusiastic rendering of You’re all I need to get by – sung by current and former Swingles members, LACF headliner m-pact, and even the audience – closed the evening with élan.