As his performance last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville headed into the home stretch, Bobby McFerrin took the roots driven mix of gospel, blues and jazz references that formed the basis of the program and lit a fuse to it.
The tune was 25:15, a blues incantation adapted out of the Book of Psalms that stands as a modest Americana mood piece on McFerrin’s recent spirityouall album. Last night, though, the song was a monster. Possessing an almost respiratory flexibility, it locked the vocalist and an immensely versed band – one that included veteran jazz keyboard ace Gil Goldstein and pop/folk multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield – into tumultuous unison. The resulting torrent rose and deflated over and over under a single, repeated lyric until McFerrin’s four-octave voice became a stratospheric wail. It was what you could call serious – if not downright frightening – testimony.
The tune’s intensity was a shock only because the rest of the performance was so unassuming with McFerrin proving a cordial host that summoned decidedly lighter spirits during a reggae-fied revision of Swing Low, the non-spirityouall inclusion of Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home, a sing-a-long version of Whole World that allowed four very capable audience patrons to sing the chorus on their own and a slightly darker original, Woe, that spoke to most any time of social hardship.
As usual, McFerrin was something of an alchemist onstage. His voice was regularly used as all-purpose instrumental tool throughout the program. It veered into rounds of traditional scat singing and expanded into layered sounds that mimicked bass and percussion patterns, the latter having been a trait of his live shows for decades.
Not surprisingly, such a sense of discovery possessed a hefty dose of playfulness, whether McFerrin was greeting an invited audience member by impersonating John Wayne or asking a stage hand to bring him a sweater to shake off an onstage chill by singing the request.
But on 25:15, the gospel took over and the ensemble’s vocal and instrumental symmetry skyrocketed. It was a reminder that while sometimes the spirit might move you, there are also instances when it may give you a good hearty shove instead.