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Bobby McFerrin: London, UK, March 3, 2013

John Eyles By

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Bobby McFerrin
Barbican
London, UK
March 3, 2013

One of the pleasures of going to a Bobby McFerrin concert is that you never quite know what you are going to get on any particular day. "Spontaneous Inventions" was not just an album title for McFerrin, it became a description of his performance philosophy—one that has delighted audiences across the globe for decades. McFerrin's freewheeling attitude on stage—going wherever the whim has taken him, be that to Bach, bebop, the Beatles or beatbox, and involving the audience in off-the-cuff singalongs—has been one of the joys of concert-going. To see McFerrin wander on stage alone, mike on hand, has long been the cue to suspend disbelief and go with the flow, safe in the knowledge that two hours later you would leave feeling far better than when you arrived. "Don't Worry Be Happy" was not just a song title, it was a promise.

So, arriving at the Barbican for McFerrin's second concert of the day—he'd already played a 3 p.m. matinee—presented a couple of surprises. First, a set list was in circulation, detailing the songs that McFerrin was going to sing and, secondly, rather than just his customary stool and music stand, the stage was set up for a band with keyboards, guitars, bass and drums. The concert was billed as "SpiritYouAll," that being the title of McFerrin's next album to be released in April 2013. Yes, McFerrin was out on the road promoting a record with a band and a set list; it raised worries that this freest of free spirits might have been tamed...

But such fears were allayed soon enough. Thankfully, the set list bore the get-out line, "Subject to change" and that meant it provided a framework within which McFerrin was free to roam wheresoever he chose. And, in line with the billing, the majority of the songs on the list turned out to be classic spirituals such as "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," "Wade in the Water" and "Fix Me, Jesus." Altogether, Jesus was mentioned so many times that it felt entirely fitting that the concert was on a Sunday evening. Without taking undue liberties with the content of the songs, McFerrin was in typical form throughout, ad-libbing and adding improvised embellishments as the mood took him (see YouTube below).

The band, led by keyboardist and musical director Gil Goldstein and subtly propelled by drummer Ali Jackson Jr., provided sympathetic and versatile accompaniment, displaying their capacity for funky backing on such fine McFerrin compositions as "Rest / Yes Indeed" and "Woe." Despite Goldstein's role, while singing McFerrin frequently took charge of the band, cueing them in to play duos or solo breaks, fading them down to allow for a capella sections and conducting prolonged fadeouts. In one clearly unplanned deviation from the set list, McFerrin announced that he wanted to play some piano and promptly did so, accompanying himself on his own "Feline" from his 1982 debut album. The band demonstrated their skills by seamlessly fitting in with whatever McFerrin demanded of them.

One key member of the band was not mentioned in the program, a backing singer who remained unidentified until McFerrin introduced her as his 21-year-old daughter Maddie. Although most of her singing fitted it, she played a far greater role in the performance than is covered by the term "backing singer"; she duetted with her father, the two prowling the end of the stage. She was a featured soloist on "Whole world" and—most charmingly—during a cracking version of "Sweet Home Chicago" she and McFerrin improvised a two person dance routine. Throughout, McFerrin radiated the kind of pride that any parent could identify with—recalling his 2007 Barbican concert when he introduced his son Taylor, an accomplished beatboxer, and the pair gave a brilliant duo performance. What a family!

After the breathtaking complexities of McFerrin's last release VOCAbuLarieS (EmArcy, 2010), the content of this concert gave every indication that SpiritYouAll will be a complete contrast, a straightforward celebration of some great songs old and new, even including an atmospheric reworking of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."

Following prolonged applause and cheers, for an encore McFerrin and daughter duetted on the appropriately chosen "A Foggy Day in London Town," with its closing lyrics:

"For, suddenly, I saw you there
And through foggy London Town
The sun was shining everywhere."

How very appropriate!

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