Participants in a triathlon must compete in swimming, cycling and long-distance running, one activity immediately after another. To be the winner, they must demonstrate amazing flexibility and be able to think on their feet.
No triathlete, though, has ever stopped between two legs of the race to tell a joke or playfully criticize a fellow triathlete, and this is precisely where The Bobs differ from triathletes.
Well, that and maybe that The Bobs aren’t famous for running, cycling or engaging in any other sport. Rather, the members of the almost 30-year-old a cappella quartet exercise their voices and minds with astonishing flexibility.
On April 22, The Bobs, who formed in Berkeley, brought to the Barclay Theatre their unique blend of musical genres and sharp creative talents. Through arrangements of everything from Ray Charles, a rap song about schizophrenia, a 16th-century madrigal sung to The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’ and George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ The Bobs imitated trumpets, guitars, a complete drum set and more, often soon after finishing a vocal solo.
But to separate The Bobs’ vocal quality and technique from their amusing stage antics would be like separating the singing performances on ‘American Idol’ from the insults traded between Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest—both elements are essential to the entertainment’s success.
Noting the many differences between Berkeley, where The Bobs were formed, and Irvine, The Bobs sarcastically described Irvine as Berkeley’s sister city. Later in the show, The Bobs playfully teased Matthew ‘Bob’ Stull about his comparatively lacking bass range compared to Richard ‘Bob’ Greene.
‘If we ever get too slick or professional,’ said Amy ‘Bob’ Engelhardt, ‘please stop us.’
The Bobs began beautifully, with a bluesy yet upbeat rendition of Ray Charles’ ‘Unchain My Heart,’ featuring Eric ‘Bob’ Bradley (substituting for Dan ‘Bob’ Schumacher) on the vocal percussion and vocal trumpet.
During the song, Stull began ‘playing’ invisible maracas, shaking them passionately to the beat. In the midst of the vocal maraca solo, he threw the maracas into the air, pretended to look for them and waited to catch them when they eventually fell back to the stage.
About the imagination-provided maracas, Engelhardt commented: ‘That is so worth it.’
Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever,’ a song rarely covered by anyone, was led by Engelhardt in a sexy rendition, with appropriately timed sizzling noises complementing the song’s sultry mood.
At some point in the a cappella group’s existence, The Bobs may have all sat down and had a serious talk about how they could best honor Jim Morrison and The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire.’ The fitting Bobs response was to set the lyrics of ‘Light My Fire’ to a 16th-century madrigal, which was performed flawlessly. The smooth juxtaposition of 1960s drug-inspired rock with a 500-year-old madrigal made me wonder why this combination had not been attempted before. Musical adventurers looking for the best genre crossover performance should look no further.
Although The Bobs started life as an a cappella cover group, their recordings now feature many original tunes with The Bobs’ quirky flair. A song about random people spontaneously combusting repeats the line: ‘An unexpected cremation.’
On a musical and creative scale, the original The Bobs’ song ‘Kill Your Television’ ranks highly. The word-heavy song uses dissonance and odd harmonies to catch the listener’s attention, which is then held by the numerous bumper stickers which form the lyrics. Despite ‘Kill Your Television’ being one of the highlights of the one-and-a-half-hour set, which included a handful of songs by guest pianist Bob Malone, it left out the best bumper sticker ever envisioned:
‘Save the apartheid boycott of the lesbian Nazi lettuce growers for Jesus of the nuclear whale.’
In case a listener thought that The Bobs had no more startlingly different musical and creative paths to explore, The Bobs’ Engelhardt and Greene performed ‘Bach to Bach,’ a duet based on a classic Bach piece which pitted Bach against his wife in a typical married couple argument, except that Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena was the birth mother of 13 of Bach’s children.
As the concert fell on Earth Day, The Bobs sang a specially prepared birthday song for the Earth, which was arranged in a minor key and sounded more like a funeral dirge. This comical take on the Earth’s current troubles was followed by a harder-edged take on Cream’s ‘White Room,’ complete with feedback and some of the best guitar solos