The crowd that gathered in The Basement last Wednesday night reflected the fact that ARIA Award-winning acapella vocal quartet The Idea of North have the power to charm anyone who can appreciate what happens when jazz, vocal gymnastics and hard work come together. With the exception of a university choral group, it was cultured retirees who occupied much of the seated area, while the casual twenty-and-thirty-somethings around the edges shared drinks with parents and friends.
Twenty-one years after their formation, The Idea of North is, technically speaking, half the band it used to be. Andrew Piper (bass) and Nick Begbie (tenor) are the only remaining original members, performing with Sally Cameron (soprano) and Joy Hague (stand-in alto for the duration of Naomi Crellin’s maternity leave). The result? A group that proves its dedication is good enough to withstand change – and a sound that is, if anything, twice as good.
Strolling on stage with characteristic humility, the talented foursome warmed their crowd up – quite literally – with old favourite “Chilli Con Carne”. The slightly silly humour and flawless execution perfectly encapsulated the dazzling arrangements, comedic showmanship and polished deliveries that were to be the standard of the show. Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet” invited everyone to “get lovey”, before the group’s feisty performance of a traditional song arranged by Finnish acapella ensemble Rajaton. “In Finnish, not scat”, deadpanned Begbie, referring to the group’s usual ad lib prowess.
Before things could get too high-brow, Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” became “Blew By You”: a tale of windy days and lost toupees that is definitely as silly as it sounds (and, judging by the guffaws, resonated particularly well with the higher age group). A slightly nervous-looking Hague featured in a lovely delivery of Gershwin’s “But Not For Me”, closely followed by the ridiculous Muppets ditty “I Am My Own Grandpa”, the Nordic “Bumblebee” and “Keep My Supper Warm” (a composition by the group’s own Andrew Piper). Sting’s “Fragile” and Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” took us to the interval with a sing-a-long – but not too loudly because, you know, The Idea of North were doing it better.
They may work hard, but The Idea of North play hard too. Cameron’s ditzy diva jokes (frequently ending in innuendoes) and the group’s general sense of self-deprecating humour broke down any barrier that might have dared appear between such formidable talent and its spectators. After discovering that many of the audience members had seen them perform before, Cameron noted: “Yes, I thought we were amongst friends!”
The inclusive vibe continued into the second set, which saw the group pull out the big favourites. After opening with jazz standard “The Simple Life”, the John Williams medley revealed the number of Star Wars geeks in the room, another Piper song about Mondayitis resonated with us all, and a cover of Rajaton’s tear-jerking “Butterfly” left a hush in the room.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a live gig without an element of danger. Inviting an audience member to “switch” the singers “on” or “off” at random, the group performed perennial favourite “Mas Que Nada” in stop-start fashion, showcasing the layers that create their kaleidoscope of hair-raisingly close harmonies. No smoke and mirrors here, just bloody fine musicians.
Rare are the singers who have the chops to learn (and create) such complex arrangements, but rarer still are the ones who can deliver their technical prowess with flawless cohesion in a live setting. “Psycho: The Musical”, Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” (which involved audience participation in four-part harmony) and a swingin’ encore arrangement of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” finished the night to thunderous applause and stomping feet. And rightly so.