HomeConcert Review: Bobby McFerrin at The Jefferson Center, Roanoke VA

topsvox's picture

This is my first review for CASA, so I'd like to start by telling a bit about myself so you can get a sense of my point of view. I'm Ed Cohn, a classically trained bass singer and one of the founding members of The EDLOS, a contemporary a cappella male quartet that formed in 1987 and lasted until 2012. I was with the EDLOS for 17 years. In 1987 the contemporary a cappella "movement" was in its infancy. There were a few groups that were notable at that time - Rockapella, The Bobs, The Persuasions, The Nylons (mostly a cappella), and of course some jazz and classical groups (Manhattan Transfer, King Singers). But not much more.

I auditioned for the original Voicestra at that time but did not get in. Probably a good thing as the EDLOS were taking off then. In The EDLOS we sang a very wide range of styles, from classical to pop, rock, country western, musical theater type stuff and on. We explored techniques, instrument sounds, VP and all things a cappella. Though we were all classically trained we were children of the 60s, so had a firm footing on rock and pop ground. I was very into jamming and improvising, circle singing and experimenting. Bobby McFerrin was a huge influence on me.

I had the opportunity to see Mr. M. perform at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke VA this past week in a concert supporting his latest album, "Spirit You All". I did not know what to expect. According to a schedule I saw online it was the 14th performance of this show this year.

This show was not a cappella, though Bobby always does, and did, some pure solo a cappella. The instrumental line-up was Bobby on voice and piano (! - more on that later), Gil Goldstein, arranger, on piano, electronic keyboard, and accordion, David Mansfield on mandolin, National Resonator guitar and lap steel, Armand Hirsch on acoustic and electric guitars, Jeff Carney on acoustic bass, and Louis Cato on drums, vocals, and bass ukelele.

I want to get some technical stuff out of the way before I get into the music. Unfortunately, I was very frustrated by the mix. The voice was way out in front of all the instruments. This is understandable as Bobby's singing was what we all wanted to hear, but it was so drastic that it just didn't work for me. I could barely hear the bass all night, which was too bad because it was obvious that Mr. Carney is a great player, and it took a while for the sound person to catch up to solos at times. The first guitar solo was inaudible until it was almost over. I wondered if the sound person was part of the group's entourage or a union sound person provided by the Jefferson Center. If it was the former then that person should be replaced. If the latter, then that's unfortunate as the mix is an essential element, just as important as any of the musicians, and needs to be approached as such.

The stage set-up was a bit unusual. The drums were placed stage left, facing center stage, the two guitars upstage center, flanking Bobby in front of them with a comfy chair and side table, and the keyboards stage right. The grand piano was upstage, behind the keyboards, with its keyboard facing the audience. This was strange and I'll get into why later.

The show began with the ensemble entering the stage and getting situated. Bobby, dressed in his usual jeans and tee shirt, took a seat in the comfy chair, wireless mic in hand, picked up a cup of tea (I assumed) took a couple of sips and, seated, began to sing while the others joined in. The first piece was rhythmically complex and compelling - a good starter. I was wondering about the ultra casualness but after reading the program the reason for this became more clear.

In the program, Bobby is quoted saying, "I try not to 'perform' on stage. I try to sing the way I sing in my kitchen". I think he was attempting to create that atmosphere. And this was evident in his singing too. Mostly, his approach to singing this night was to sing as unaffectedly as possible. Very non-singerish. He sang largely in a very comfortable range. But of course he had many opportunities to show his stuff - his impressive low end and his astonishing flexibility and falsetto. There was some use of a sub-octave generator on his voice, which seemed superfluous, but is, unfortunately in my opinion, ubiquitous these days.

We don't hear Bobby McFerrin just sing songs much. He's usually making instrumental types sounds, or other vocalisms, and has a vast palette of tones. He's been called a human sampler. This, and his flexibility, being able to jump around quickly to extremes of range to give the effect of singing more than one part at once, is what we know him for. So when he just sings a song without all the hoopla and affect, what are we left with? To me, it's nothing special at all.

About three quarters the way through the two hour show we were "treated" to this when Mr. M. announced he was going to play the piano, admitted he hadn't kept up with it (though he's proficient enough) and, with his back to the audience, proceeded to perform two songs accompanying himself. This left me cold. It seemed very self-indulgent, shutting off the audience. His style of singing here was in a subtle jazz style - cool and unexpressive. He did what he said he would do. Not perform. My take? Boring. But, as could be expected, the audience loved it all, as he can do no wrong. Must be nice.

His back-up band was excellent. All great players. The drummer, Louis Cato, is very young and androgynous looking. My friends and I were thinking he was a she, and it was even more confusing by his vocals, which were usually in falsetto, very tastefully and judiciously adding harmony to Bobby's lead. This kid is a major talent, and played the bass ukelele as well. Both guitarists were excellent each in their own way. All solos were very tasty. And, again, the acoustic bass was great as far as I could tell, but again, I could barely hear it. Keyboards were top notch.

Quite a few pieces were very rhythmically rich and complex, with odd meters and fast tempos. I got a kick out of watching the guitarists and Bobby keeping time with their heels. Amazing in and of itself to see these bobbing legs furiously tapping in synch. I had trouble keeping up!

The show was titled "Spirit You All" - (wondered why he didn't call it "Y'all" - hey, I'm in the south), inspired by the recent passing of Bobby's dad, who was a successful operatic baritone. Bobby sang songs that his father had, though in his own style, and these were spiritual in nature. His god of choice is Jesus, and he was not shy about using that name in his expression of faith, without which he "couldn't do anything". I felt a tinge of proselytizing, but it was expected because of the nature of the content of the show. Though I do not ascribe the the Christian faith myself, it seemed appropriate.

The music was a very eclectic mix - serious jazz, spirituals, blues, rock and lots of spontaneous improvising. Just what you'd expect. There was the obligatory a cappella solo portion where Bobby just improvised. He didn't seem to be in the groove that night as his improvs were not as impressive as I'd heard. And I think he may have not been in the best voice as his falsetto wasn't as clear as I was used to and his pitch wasn't as flawless as I have heard. Maybe his 60+ years are starting to show. But he still pulled it off very well and again, the audience loved it all.

Bobby has a tradition of getting someone from the audience up on stage to sing, and this night was no exception. He suddenly had two mics in his hands and asked if someone wanted to come up and sing. His attitude was one of indifference, like it was an obligation. Seemed funny. After his invitation there was a pause - I myself had an urge to run up there, but I was in the middle of the row and I would have had to climb over people, so I waited. Then there was a rush. Though he really only wanted one person, two arrived simultaneously, a man and a woman. The guy went first. Bobby asked him what he wanted to sing - Amazing Grace was the song selected. Couldn't get more cliche than that, eh? He was a very competent, gospel style singer and Bobby gave him a big hug afterward. Then the woman sang. She continued singing Amazing Grace, and she was OK, but not in the same class. Bobby seemed annoyed by her. No hug. It was awkward.

My favorite parts of the show were the comical ones. Bobby is a funny guy and likes to be entertaining that way. I liked it when he would sing totally outside of the harmony and go wacko. This is singer fun stuff. I giggled a lot, like it was an inside joke. The man sitting next to me kept looking at me like I was crazy - he didn't get it.

In conclusion, this show is different, yet familiar. Little a cappella, straight songs. But the usually expected stuff was there too, just in smaller doses. It definitely would not satisfy the hard core a cappellists out there, but it did give us the opportunity to experience this vocal genius doing his chest thumping thing. If you love Bobby McFerrin, as most unabashedly do, then you'll love this too. Another side of a musical whiz that is worth checking out.