A spotlight, a water bottle, a chair, a microphone; it was all Bobby McFerrin needed to captivate the 800 people in Campbell Hall and receive a standing ovation. His one-man-band performance redefines what a human with a mic can do. As heard in his hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” the 10-time Grammy winner with a four-octave range utilizes his body as an eclectic orchestra of instruments to create his unique sound.
Playing his chest like a hand drum, McFerrin mimics an ensemble, seamlessly interweaving pieces of each instrument’s melody line to resemble the sounds of a full band. One of his greatest talents is switching sounds and making each song sound as if it were played by a different band.
When McFerrin improvised funk grooves, he became a polyphonic-synthesizer module transposing different sounds with ease. For blues numbers, he became a standup bass accompanying a horn, while for Bach’s preludes, he transformed into a solo violin. When singing about riding in the car, McFerrin held the mic to the side of his throat and became the car engine. He embellished the Beatles’ “Blackbird” with birdcalls and sounds of flapping wings. McFerrin very well could be the modern-day equivalent of the sound effects character from “Police Academy.”
Unlike many performers, he invites the audience to interact with the music. He improvised over audience chanting, then split the crowd in half, assigned each a two-note blues motive to sing, and cued each section as he supplied the walking bass line. After slightly intensifying the difficulty, McFerrin morphed the exercise into a call-and-response. He would scat something rhythmic, “dee bop flacka doowee ha ha!” and 800 laughing people sang it back until McFerrin flustered everyone with a line that only he could repeat.
He invited dancers into the spotlight to interpretively dance to his voice, and later he invited about 50 audience members to sing in chorus as if Campbell Hall were a kindergarten music class. His commitment to improvisation keeps his shows fresh. When a big moth visibly flew near his face, McFerrin, fitting into the rhythm of the song, pointed, sang “look at that!” and proceeded to sing about the moth. Later, between songs, someone yelled, “Hey, Robert, do that one song for your mother!” McFerrin obliged and led two women onstage, who were revealed be his sister and mother, from across the hall.
McFerrin brought the show home with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” ending the number by blowing into the mic. Spinning around and singing the “Wizard of Oz” tornado theme, McFerrin echoed characters of the film: the booming wizard, the nasally wicked witch melting from the water tossed on the stage, and at least nine distinct munchkins. With his impeccable sounds and unpredictable acting, McFerrin seems to be a never-ending source of surprise and delight, setting a precedent of what one man can do.