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Oral Fixation: Besides their singing gig, the Bobs also share a passionate love of dentistry.

What About Bobs?

The Bobs have been mouthing off to music lovers for two decades

By Mike Connor

"We do a David Byrne song--'Psycho Killer,'" says Richard "Bob" Greene of the a capella foursome the Bobs. "He liked what we did. I think he said, 'You know, I wouldn't have thought of doing it that way.'"

You'd think it'd be tough to surprise lanky New Wave wild man Byrne, but Greene and his fellow Bobs often get that sort of response about the arrangements and compositions they execute for their rockin' a capella quartet.

"When other people see the Bobs' arrangements written out," says Greene in an incredibly rich baritone, "generally the response is, 'You can't do that.'"

Nevertheless, they've been doing "that"--creating and performing witty a capella originals, as well as clever covers of everything from the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" and They Might Be Giants' "Particle Man" to Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and Cream's "White Room"--for 22 years and counting.

The Bobs were born of what they call "The Great San Francisco Singing Telegram Depression of 1981"--a time when a company called Western Onion went under, leaving ex-employees Gunnar Madsen and Matthew Stull with a lot of time on their hands. Inspired by another a capella group in S.F., they recruited songwriter/producer Greene to sing bass vocals in a quirky a capella trio, and quickly found, as Greene puts it, "that this [was] too much fun not to do."

The Bobs more or less adhere to the a capella formula they helped pioneer--rather than taking the Muzak approach of simply parroting melodies in an a capella style, they employ their voices to re-create and invent anew the lively textures of the original music. They're just like a regular band, but without all the heavy instruments to cart around.

In their version of "Psycho Killer," for instance, the Bobs stick close to the song as it was written to capture the staggering intensity of the original version, but then break it down in the finale, settling into a doo-wop tempo and splicing the "Run run run away" line with the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron" bit.

The clever cross-reference punning is typical Bobs wizardry--to pick up on a song's allusions and influences and run with them, making precarious syntheses between, say, Leonard Cohen's ballad "Bird on a Wire" and the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" by virtue of a common organism, and somehow pulling it off.

Amy "Bob" Engelhardt, who joined the Bobs in '98, sees their work as simultaneously reverent and irreverent, paying tribute to different genres of music even as they send them up.

"When you bring material into the Bobs," says Engelhardt, "it has to go through an audition process within the group. You have to ask yourself, what is a Bobs song? Is it something that might be too serious, or go too far in the comic direction that you don't want the group to go in? We use a lot of innuendo, but we're not outwardly nasty. And I don't wear those midriff tops."

They'll be performing a prime example of their ir/reverent schizophrenia at their upcoming Kuumbwa show, for which they've worked up a version of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with pianist Bob Malone, entitling it Rhapsody in Bob.

"It's a completely unique take on this masterful piece of music," says Engelhardt, explaining how the thing came about. "I went over to Bob's house, saw the score sitting on the piano and said, 'I could probably sing every note for you--including the piano parts. And then this light went off in my head."

The result was a perfect fit.

"Given what the Bobs do," says Engelhardt, "I thought it was a really cool idea to do an established piece, and treat it both with the reverence and the irreverence that makes the Bobs. We respect pretty much every musical style there is by having a quirky take on it. Like, 'Come along and let's laugh on this ride, but let's do it with respect, yet have fun."

Yes, Santa Cruz, she's talking to you. And she wants you to know that you're among her favorite audiences. No really--she's not just saying that:

"It's one of my favorite places to play with the Bobs," gushes Engelhardt. "The audiences are wonderful, funny, and they give you lip--which is encouraged at our concerts. But we have internal heckling if that doesn't work out."


The Bobs. Friday, Nov. 28, at 7pm and 9:30pm at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $21 adv/$23 door; call 831.479.9421 for tickets and more information.

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From the November 26-December 3, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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