Rolling into Saddleback College on Friday on the energy of a hit record, singer Bobby McFerrin seemed totally unaffected by his startling breakthrough to the pop audience.
Despite the enormous popularity of his recent No. 1 hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and the high visibility of his singing in “The Bill Cosby Show” theme music and Levi’s 501 jeans commercials, McFerrin’s performance at the college’s McKinney Theatre in Mission Viejo was as gentle, communicative and, yes, as humble as ever. His often stated intention to “get a mature audience to be childlike and spontaneous” rolled through the room like a gentle cloud of love.
Does an adult audience feel silly singing camp songs such as “Head and Arms and Knees and Legs” and “The Eensie Weensie Spider”? Not at a McFerrin concert.
Is it possible for a single singer, without any instrumental accompaniment whatsoever, to do a mini-performance of the score from “The Wizard of Oz”? It is if the singer is Bobby McFerrin. And he did it with an ingenuous sharing of the silliness, the fun and the sheer musicality of it all.
Certain set pieces--calling one group of listeners up to the stage to dance to “Thinking About Your Body” and another to join him in a spontaneous musical improvisation--were especially remarkable for McFerrin’s ability to make them as musically fascinating as they were warmly interactive.
But his astonishing musical skills peaked on the numbers that made the greatest demands of his unique vocal abilities. Among the highlights: A brilliant simulation of Miles Davis’ muted trumpet on “ ‘Round Midnight,” a soar through “Blackbird” that included both the melody and the moving guitar harmonies so vital to the tune, a brilliant performance of a Bach Invention and a jaunty African piece complete with clicks, pops and vocalized percussion.
Most fascinating was the fact that throughout an evening of musical sharing McFerrin was also--in his own sweetly subversive way--playing the role of educator, teaching his audience how to feel the swing of a jazz phrase and how to experience the exuberance that uncluttered contact with music can bring.
One suspects, in fact, that the McKinney Theatre audience will savor McFerrin’s ability to open up the musical expression that is within everyone long after his hit records have disappeared from the charts.