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Listen to the Story of a Man Named Jed: Bobby McFerrin included a romantic version of the 'Beverly Hillbillies' theme in his show last week.

Bobby McFerrin Is Insane

Many clever people have been seduced by the idea that language is a barrier to true communication. The most radical of said group actually try to communicate via intuitive vocal emissions that, depending on how one feels, sound like bird calls, sirens or gurgly baby noises. While an effort to master this form of communication might usually amount to checking oneself into the cuckoo's nest, some return from la-la land with a baffling, beautiful form of art. Thoth, with his invented operatic language singing the praises of a world of his own creation called The Festad, has an especially pronounced effect on small children, who can relate to the size of his tiny loincloth, and to his insistence on forms of expression unbound by language.

Similarly, a cappella maestro Bobby McFerrin pulled off an incredible one-man show last week at the Civic Auditorium as part of the UCSC Arts & Lectures series. Without the loincloth and gold lamé, however, he was forced to rely on his vocal prowess--a four-octave vocal range combined with broad musical scholarship--which lead to some interesting and uncannily coherent vocal musings. He'd hit a note and a titter would sweep around the audience, as if everyone was on exactly the same page. While highly improvisational, his performance relied heavily on familiar touchstones--popular tunes that are nevertheless too complicated for most mortals to perform a cappella, such as his rendition of The Beatles' "Blackbird," in which he sang the percussive guitar part and the vocal part at the same time. And he did it (as he did everything) with humble grace, as if to say, "See? Human beings can do some freaking incredible shit."

And if that weren't enough to keep people engaged, Bobby enlisted us to participate every chance he could. He gave different parts to different sections of the auditorium and conducted us like a gigantic chorus. He sang Bach's First Prelude, while he asked the audience to sing Charles Gounod's "Ave Maria" on top of it. Sure enough, two women sitting directly in front of me sang the entire piece flawlessly. I'm still convinced Bobby planted them there.

He even came offstage and engaged in some one-on-one duets with random members of the audience, including small children. The best duet, though, was with Tandy Beal, who performed an interpretive dance alongside some of Bobby's improvisation. The intermedium riffage was goofy and touching and hilariously imperfect; dangling threads were inevitably seized by one or the other and shaped into some new emotion that would come sharply into focus, and then blur and morph into something else.

Though jazzy at times, McFerrin's music was accessible in a way that instruments can't be. With the rare exception of those kids in the Amazon who were raised by trumpets, human beings have a deeply engrained connection to the human vox--one that the trumpets will never be able to supplant.

He crooned a romantic version of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song and did an extended Wizard of Oz medley, as well as Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn" theme and a version of "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt." But enough name-dropping; if you missed him this time, don't do it again. And bring your small children along--they'll love it.

Mike Connor

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From the April 28-May 5, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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