Live Music + Gig Reviews

Bobby McFerrin @ Royal Festival Hall, London

17 June 2009

Bobby McFerrin rarely performs in the UK these days. So, for anyone somehow unfamiliar with the enormohit Don’t Worry, Be Happy, a brief introduction.

McFerrin is a jazz artist who uses only his voice as an instrument, creating sound effects and beatboxes between fluttering his vocals across octaves. His split second shifts from extreme falsetto to the rumble of a bass have always elicited gasps and whispers. His method has netted him 10 Grammys.

Using his chest he creates a rhythm section and brings “throat singing” into the forum of popular music. He improvises and riffs, conducts and collaborates with the audience, turning them into a choir and, in doing so, brings musical masterpieces to life. He is polyphonic in the truest sense of the word and, as his performance tonight underlines, he really must be seen live.

Don’t Worry Be Happy aside, his repertoire is far ranging. Perhaps this is why this song was entirely omitted from the programme. Old favourites created the framework and included Drive, Ave Maria and The Beatles‘ Blackbird. He brought together some distinctly African flavoured works, nursery rhymes, American blues and rock’n’roll (Sweet Home Chicago) and somehow managed to keep the audience constantly surprised.

And how. His version of Charlie Chaplin‘s Smile was magical. Turning from straight jazz version to a spicier Latin interpretation, folding the occasional lyric made this a highlight. His duet with a giant tuba (played by Oren Marshall) was dream-like and playful. It conjured up images of oceans and rainforests, otherworldly environments as the only scheduled non-a cappella moment.

The South Bank Centre’s own Voicelab Choir joined McFerrin on stage and took their cues from him in an unscripted, totally improvised performance. Performing each part from baritone to soprano McFerrin gave call-and-response direction and produced wonderful harmonies.

Most people would cringe at the idea of audience participation but this was far from a sing-along panto style. McFerrin presents instead something akin to a workshop. He invited people from the crowd to dance to his spontaneously created numbers on the stage, and a throng of very talented and not so talented people are given two minutes solo time with the man himself. Further than that, McFerrin invites people to duet. Lined up and seated along the front of the stage fans had the chance to riff with their hero or duet or perform a song of their choosing. Some chose jazz standards such as Summertime or Over The Rainbow. But Britney Spears‘s Hit Me Baby One More Time sneaked in. Who else could or would present the opportunity for dreams to come true like this?

Above all this McFerrin was joined by Meltdown curator Ornette Coleman for a once in a lifetime encore. Both improvisational masters fused to deliver a melancholic piece that recalled Coleman’s early work. McFerrin worked all manner of accompaniments around Coleman’s eerie melody. Few words can describe what left many teary-eyed and dumbstruck. A sensational musical night.

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Bobby McFerrin @ Royal Festival Hall, London