Tickets for Bobby McFerrin’s Vail performance were hard to come by last Thursday afternoon. Though he’s known in pop culture as the voice behind “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and the Cosby Show theme song, McFerrin’s stage performances are a sight to behold—they’re really community events that incorporate the audience every step of the way.
The crowd is often the lead crooner, helping the four-time Grammy-winner sing everything from the “Ava Maria” to “I Can See Clearly Now”—with the audience providing the lyrics while McFerrin provides “instrumentation” using only his voice. He’s played with Chick Corea, Yo-Yo Ma (another regular Vail performer), and the Lincoln Jazz Center Orchestra, as well as random singers of various talents from audiences the world over.
At Denison, McFerrin shared the stage with students and faculty from the Gospel Choir to the Bluegrass Ensemble to campus’ many a cappella groups to the Chamber Singers and Contemporary and African dance students. The result was two nights of collaborative entertainment (and yes, even audience members joined him on stage for a duet or two—one student belted out a Sinatra-esque version of “Lullaby of Birdland” and a grade-schooler teamed up with McFerrin and another Denison student to perform Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” on the fly).
Throughout the two-night event, McFerrin scat-sang and perfect-pitched his way through pieces, then happily sat back, drank tea, and let the Denison students steal the stage for a few minutes throughout both performances. Cracking jokes along the way, McFerrin even conducted students through impromptu songs, including one in which he gave a shout-out to retired Vail Series director and longtime McFerrin pal, Lorraine Wales.
This was McFerrin’s third trip to Swasey’s stage, and he was true to his belief that his performances aren’t really performances at all. “I try to sing the way I sing in my kitchen, because I just can’t help myself,” he says. “I want audiences to leave the theatre and sing in their own kitchens the next morning.”
It really was as if we had Bobby over for a good ol’-fashioned sing-a-long.