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Word Processors : Quirky, Irvine-Bound Bobs Still Defining ‘New Wave A Cappella’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Low-voiced female wanted for new wave a cappella group.

The free ad ran in a Berkeley throwaway in 1982 and caught the eye of Janie Scott, a dishwasher at a local restaurant who, frankly, hadn’t done much singing, certainly not professionally. And besides that, she wasn’t even sure what “new wave a cappella” would sound like.

“I guess I figured it wasn’t barbershop,” Scott says now.

She gave it a shot anyway. At her audition, she followed a “gorgeous” woman with a “great voice,” then bluffed her way through an arrangement of an Elvis Costello tune (she told them she could sight-read music; she can’t).

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She got the gig.

And so, Janie Scott became Janie Bob Scott, one of four Bobs, who make an improbable living doing a cappella cover versions of everything from Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” to the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” alongside a burgeoning catalog of slightly twisted original ditties with such titles as “Sign My Snarling Doggie,” “Spontaneous Human Combustion” and “Meat on the Moon.”

The Bobs, who play the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Friday, don’t just sing the words to these tunes. Using nothing but their vocal cords, they do bass lines and percussion fills along with instrumental solos that can be uncannily . . . well, instrumental. Just check out the guitar solo on their version of Cream’s “White Room.”

It’s a quirky niche, and while Scott and the other Bobs aren’t necessarily getting rich, they are staying busy: touring the world, recording (for Rounder Records), contributing to dance projects and working in other media (they’re doing a soundtrack for an upcoming film directed by Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld”). In Seattle, where Scott was reached by phone, they were at work lending their voices to an interactive CD-ROM project.

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All of which feels a whole lot more like a career than anything these folks were willing to imagine when they launched in 1981. That’s when Richard Greene, Matthew Stull and Gunnar Madsen got together in Berkeley and began doing gigs in local restaurants, pizza parlors, clubs and festivals.

By the time Scott joined the next year, Greene, Stull and Madsen each had taken Bob as a middle name and had landed a weekly gig at a jazz club where they were able to hone their sound while building a steady base of fans.

“It was really, really good for us that we could do that one night a week,” Scott recalls. “We really learned to sing together.”

Things began to build, and Kaleidoscope Records, a small independent label, proposed doing an album. Still, no one was ready to give up his or her day job.

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“I don’t think anyone really envisioned anything,” Scott says. “In the beginning it was like, this is fun, people like it, let’s just do it and have a good time.”

By 1984, however, the Bobs had begun touring nationally, had released their first album and even had done a one-hour PBS special. By 1987, they were traveling the world. Scott’s dishwashing days were finally over. “Air percussionist” and tenor Joe Finetti joined the group in 1989 and Madsen left in 1991, cementing the current lineup.

Scott says that all the time together has built a cohesive and friendly working atmosphere. “It’s like a family,” she began, then added, “It’s not like my family. I’ve never had this many men in my family.”

Describing the group’s sound is not an easy task for the Bobs, even after all these years. Some of their albums have offered this little bit (very little bit) of assistance to perplexed record store clerks: “Alternative a cappella.” It’s probably not the most crowded rack in the store.

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The Bobs’ reluctance to define their own sound hasn’t stopped journalists from trying their hands at it, though. The Seattle Times put it this way: “The Bobs sing like [Gary] Larson draws.” The comparison, to the retired Far Side cartoonist, works for Scott. Like Larson, she says, “We take those normal things and put a twist on them.”

Beyond the Bobs’ sound and subject matter is their freewheeling concert persona, which includes plenty of unscripted banter and a willingness to play it loose. A few fans wish the group would talk less (a request that led to the title of the 1993 album “Shut Up and Sing!”), but most Bobs fans seem to like the intimacy and unpredictability of the live shows, Scott said.

“The stage show is much better than the records. We like to have a good time on stage. There’s no reason to do it otherwise.”

The group wasn’t always so lively, however. “When we started, we would stand four across, hands in our pockets and just sing.” Now, she noted, “we’re all willing, to larger and smaller extents, to make total fools of ourselves.”

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* The Bobs sing Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, UC Irvine. 8 p.m. $18-$22. (714) 854-4646.


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