For Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is much more than his most famous song. It’s also his way of life. Taking the stage at the State Theatre this weekend, McFerrin wore an infectious smile and an unassuming presence for his entire set. Grinning and singing for over two hours, McFerrin stunned an adoring audience with a diverse set of solos, audience collaborations and band-accompanied pieces.
McFerrin often described as a world music or jazz singer, yet his unique vocal patterns and unbelievable talent far exceed the limits of that genre. Critics like to compare his otherworldly voice to an instrument, but between the pitch-perfect falsetto, beatboxing and multiphonic singing he presented on Saturday, he sounded more like an entire orchestra. Whether he was improvising duets with audience members, providing a soundtrack for volunteer interpretive dancers, or performing an astounding version of “Drive,” McFerrin’s range of abilities was truly incredible.
Most affecting, however, was his complete and utter humility. In a modest gray t-shirt and impressive dreds, he genuinely seemed both pleased to be there and invested in his audience. Even his accompaniment — the impeccable pianist Paul Nagle and the virtuosic bassist Jeff Carney — seemed more like partners than backup. The show opened with a series of partially-improvised tunes, including a soulful and solo-packed version of Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” Eyes shut and hunched casually over his microphone, McFerrin could have been singing for a group of close friends rather than the packed State Theatre. This illusion, however, was soon broken as Nagle and Carney left the stage, and McFerrin invited the audience to replace his accompaniment.
From there, McFerrin spent the next hour engaging the audience and allowing us to play and musically experiment with him. For an evocative version of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” he divided his fans into two groups to create a simple harmony that provided all the accompaniment he could possibly need. Next, he invited audience members — including a tiny and adorable young girl — to join him on stage for a display of interpretive dancing guided by his scat vocals. Closing the interactive portion of the program was a series of McFerrin-audience duets accompanied again by Nagle and Carney. Several audience members were afforded the opportunity to join McFerrin for the song of their choice. From “My Funny Valentine” to “Honeysuckle Rose,” McFerrin jumped right in and improvised with his new partner. At one point, he even composed an ode to the dog twhich was inexplicably sleeping in the front row of the State.
This sort of collaboration was wonderfully refreshing; this is something all artists could strive towards. Who needs condescending pandering when musicians like McFerrin want to challenge you?
McFerrin first rose to prominence in the late 80s following his performance of The Cosby Show theme song and the release of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Following that song, he recorded the soundtracks for a number of films and was eventually appointed as the creative chair of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. For the past 20 years, he has made regular tours as both a vocalist and a conductor, gaining increasingly widespread fame and attention. He has also recorded over 40 albums, either as a leader or a supporting musician.
While McFerrin’s recorded music is fantastic, his true genius lies in his live performances. As the State learned this weekend, a Bobby McFerrin concert is not about replicating songs exactly as they sounded on an album. It’s about creating entirely new songs and experiences, individually tailored to each audience.And on Saturday, he achieved this goal magnificently. In a two-hour concert that seemed much shorter, he charmed, delighted and awed the crowd down on State Street. As a performer who defies all criticism, McFerrin brought a rare sort of inventiveness and talent that Ithaca may never see again.