3pm Sunday, April 14
Boston Symphony Hall
Bobby McFerrin is a virtuoso, and his instrument is his own windpipe and chest. He is not a powerful singer, but he is a beautiful singer. Although he practices many forms of music (directing classics, singing duets with Yo-Yo Ma’s cello, etc.), he truly excels at just a few of them. The same can be said about his most recent concert in Boston. As part of a multi-city tour for his upcoming album “spirityouall”, and through the felicitous auspices of the Celebrity Series of Boston, Bobby McFerrin paid a visit to Beantown last Sunday, and treated a full Symphony Hall to an afternoon of good music.
The same lack of predictability that characterizes Bobby himself is reflected in his concerts: as warned in the handout, the proposed sequence of musical pieces was just a suggestion, and in the end it was not followed to the letter. This degree of randomness, combined with the fact that the names of some of the pieces were not announced nor were evident from the lyrics, made it difficult to know what we were listening to at any given time.
I would roughly divide the pieces of Sunday’s concert — which presumably foreshadow those in the album — into three categories. The first category included all the pieces for which Bobby sat at the grand piano (like “Jesus Makes It Good”), and those closer in form to a slow ballad. These were just average at best. There was nothing particularly “Bobby” about them, since they could have been sung by anybody else just as well, and honestly I could have done without them.
The second category included the pieces Bobby performed only vocally, away from the piano, and with a partial imprinting of his characteristic improvisational, rhythmic style to them (“Whole World” and “Wade”, among others). These were better, yet not masterful.
The third category, which is where he hit the ball out of the park, included pieces that blended dirty blues, rock, and gospel (“Fix me Jesus”, “25:15”) and also — the crown jewel of the afternoon — Bobby’s long vocal solo halfway through the concert.
The long solo was particularly noteworthy. Throughout the concert Bobby had a few short solos in the middle of songs, where he would signal to his band (“Ok, I got it now”) and they would just stop playing to let him fly. Yet it was in his long vocal solo that he truly showed what makes him one of the living wonders of the musical world. It started with all his band members standing up and leaving the stage rather hastily. Bobby sat calmly in his chair, in his jeans and dark T-shirt, and everybody knew what was coming.
And he delivered. A total of three pieces were performed by Bobby alone, with no instrument but his hand drumming on his chest, and his gifted vocal cords flying up and down his prodigious four-octave range. This solo part was nothing short of magical.
When he is at his best, calling Bobby McFerrin a musician seems like an injustice. It would be better to say that he is made of music, a wholly universal expression of human joie de vivre in musical form.