Bobby McFerrin brought his own infectious blend of groove and good cheer to the Granada on Tuesday, one week into a U.S. tour promoting his new album spirityouall, which is scheduled for release next month. “Concert” is an inadequate word to describe a McFerrin performance. “Encounter” is good; “epiphany” better.
McFerrin is a rare and truly original artist who has always defied categories, an uncaught bird who moves between genres, collaborating with a broad swath of artists. While I would never call it a variety show, Tuesday’s event was a wild ride through music and comedy, amateur guest performance, a game of “stump the band,” a sing-along, and a Q&A session thrown in for good measure. McFerrin is a kind of jester holding court, mining the margins of the social context for the unsuspected spark that will keep the moment fresh. His inspiration was in full force Tuesday night, delighting the audience with a generous two-and-a-quarter-hour play session (no intermission), all the while showcasing his new quintet and new material that centers on the American spiritual.
McFerrin has always been discreet but never coy about his spiritual life: His 1988 title song “Simple Pleasures” makes mention of his daily devotion to the good book. The current set is a combination of new approaches to traditional hymns like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” and spiritual-themed originals, all dedicated to the memory of his father, the great baritone Robert McFerrin Sr. His choice of instrumentation — mandolin, resonator and lap guitars, accordion, and bass ukulele — steered some of the music toward country and even bluegrass. Tambourine emerged for a tent revival feeling, while gutsy electric guitar broke out for the down-and-dirty blues.
Midway through, the band took a break while the audience was treated to classic solo Bobby. The one-man band mesmerized with his distinctive four-part take on Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” — melody, bass, head-tone fill-ins, and chest percussion all at once. Gee-whiz factor aside, one is astonished by the musical elegance and the suggestion of harmonies in the manner of Bach’s unaccompanied string works. One hymn McFerrin didn’t cover was “This Little Light of Mine” — but there can be no doubt about his determination and good graces to keep on lettin’ it shine.