“So I got my lyric sheets up here because I tend to forget lyrics,” Bobby McFerrin said Saturday night at Orchestra Hall pointing to a music stand in front of him. “I don’t sing words all that often. It’s unfamiliar territory.”
No McFerrin, Grammy-winning vocalist extraordinaire, usually sings wordless sounds. On Saturday, he sang lots of words, mostly from spirituals, a couple of famous rock hits and a couple of made-up songs on the spot – and he did spot-on conversational impressions of Truman Capote and John Wayne.
In short, this was probably the most conventional musical performance McFerrin has given in the Twin Cities. Not that it was ordinary. It was special – like most McFerrin performances.
He’d always wanted to borrow a page from the playbook of his father, opera singer Robert McFerrin, who in 1957 recorded an album of, what were then known as, Negro spirituals. Last year, Bobby released “spirityouall,” his collection of spirituals, including several his father had recorded as well as a few McFerrin originals. Material from that album dominated Saturday’s repertoire.
Backed by five splendid, simpatico musicians and his daughter Madison on vocals, McFerrin, 64, gave his interpretations of “Swing Low” (slow and minimalist), “Joshua” (with a hot-jazz groove) and “Glory” (which started nice and easy and then boom-choka-locka transformed into a tent revival).
“25.15” was a gospel-blues stomp, drawing inspiration from Psalm 25, verse 15. “Rest/ Yes, Indeed” started like James Brown and ended up like a front-porch gospel hoedown.
Throughout the evening, McFerrin gave ample opportunities for solos by his musicians, most notably keyboardist/accordionist Gil Goldstein, guitarist Armand Hirsch and guitarist/violinist/mandolinist David Mansfield. Madison McFerrin also was featured on a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t Worry Bout a Thing.”
But the emotional highlights of the 130-minute performance were when McFerrin went off script – improvising a song about a kid named “Joey” in the front row, improvising a verse about late-arriving concertgoers, dueting on “Whole World” with three women from the audience (one of whom is pro, Judi Donaghy, and one of whom, Ariella, sounded like one), spontaneously breaking into Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” and then doing it Broadway-style, and answering questions from fans as an encore (and accommodating a request to sing the falsetto-dominated“The Star Spangled Banner”).
The 10-minute Q&A was a disarmingly intimate touch in a usually formal setting, not that McFerrin was very formal in his jeans and untucked dress shirt.
Here are some highlights of the Q&A:
* What do you think of the remodeled Orchestra Hall? He didn’t really have an opinion but talked about players in the violin section in the past could only hear other violinists.
* What advice do you have for a 6-year-old? “Dream really big – and act as if you’re already in it.”
* What is your current dream? To sing backup for James Taylor and then he broke into “Fire and Rain.”
* What’s the best thing about having your daughter Madison sing in your group? “I get to watch her grow onstage.” He added that she’s graduating from Berklee College of Music next month.
*Why don’t you sing your huge hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” anymore? “I haven’t done it in concert since November 1988. By the time you’d heard it, I’d sung it 300 trillion times.”
* Is there any way to get you to conduct the Minnesota Orchestra? “Just call my management. I’d love to. The whole time I was here, I worked over in St. Paul,” he said referring to his five-year stint in the ‘90s as creative chair of St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.