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MusicMakers: The Bobs Transform a Cappella With a Rock and Classical Influences

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By Catherine P. Lewis
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 24, 2009

Throw out any perceptions you have of a cappella music: The images of stuffy Ivy Leaguers propagated by jokes on NBC's "The Office," the quirky house band from the PBS series "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" and the classic sound of the 40-year-old British group the King's Singers.

Like those groups, the Bobs perform with no instruments, but their use of vocal harmonies takes them to a sound more rock than choral, allowing them to take on such electric songs as Cream's "White Room."

"We don't define ourselves as being an a cappella group as much as being a band that writes songs and does covers of other songs," says bass Richard "Bob" Greene via telephone from the Fauquier County farm where he lives for half the year. "It's just incidental that we don't have any instruments."

The group was formed in 1981 by two former singing telegram employees, Matthew "Bob" Stull and Gunnar "Bob" Madsen, who recruited Greene through a classified ad. Madsen left the Bobs in 1990, but Greene and Stull remain, and the current lineup also features Amy "Bob" Engelhardt and Dan "Bob" Schumacher.

Even with just four voices and no instruments, the Bobs, who perform Wednesday at the Barns at Wolf Trap, can conjure a rock sound. On their version of "White Room," a distortion pedal turns Engelhardt's sweet mezzo-soprano voice into a forceful guitar-like squeal. It may not have the same resonance as a guitar, but it's a compelling way for a voice to mimic the power and angst of the original piece.

The musicians don't always try to re-create a song's sound so closely. "We usually try to take a song and dissect it and rebuild it in a different way so it has a different dimension," Greene says. The ability to mix one song's lyrics with another song's style creates a sort of vocal mash-up that shows off the Bobs' many -- and often diverging -- vocal interests.

"On one of our records and in the live shows, we do a madrigal," Greene continues. "We announce it as a madrigal, and stylistically it is a madrigal. But the thing that makes it a good cover for the Bobs is the fact that we do it with lyrics by the Doors. I love that moment halfway through the song where you see the audience go, 'Wait a minute! That's not right, they're doing "Light My Fire"!' "

The group's covers aren't always from the rock domain. On its 2005 album "Rhapsody in Bob," the group performs Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." The Bobs' voices become the supporting cast for pianist Bob Malone's central melody. It may be hard to imagine nearly 20 minutes of vocal-driven music without a single lyric, but the Bobs' orchestral score complements Malone's playing effortlessly and shows that this vocal band is still finding ways to shake up its sound.

In addition to the covers in their repertoire, the Bobs devote quite a bit of time to writing their own tunes. Their latest album, 2007's "Get Your Monkey off My Dog," showcases 19 original numbers. One of the most memorable (and amusing) tracks is "Tight Pants Tango," an ode to the awkwardness of trying to retrieve a cellphone from one's pants pocket. The song is a typical display of the Bobs' ability to infuse an ordinary moment with comic timing, and, true to its title, it is framed in the style of a tango.

"I'm a huge fan of [Argentine tango composer] Astor Piazzolla," Greene says. "The title was suggested by Dan, and I took that and wrote this tango. Some background lines are extremely nonvocal but [replicate] much of what you would find in a tango. I brought it in lyrically unfinished, and Amy worked with me to finish the lyrics."

Other songs take a similar tack of finding the humor in everyday situations: professing a fascination for the guy dressed up as food to push a restaurant ("Sandwich Man"), using a friend's name as a mnemonic to remember a shop's address ("Tom Spath"), getting intimate voice-mail messages intended for someone else ("Howard Peterson") and spoofing the pick-up lines used in bars ("Come Here Often?").

Not all of the songs are intended to draw laughs. "We actually have some songs that are not designed to be funny in the slightest," Greene says. "There have been occasions at shows where people just don't know how to take them, because they're looking for the little twist." But it doesn't bother Greene when people find humor in songs not intended to be funny; instead, he takes it as a compliment.

"What you write and how people receive it are two completely different things. You just can't define someone's response. All you actually want to do is to get a response; the worst criticism is when there's no response at all."

The Bobs Appearing Wednesday with Bob Malone at the Barns of Wolf Trap (1635 Trap Rd., Vienna). Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets: $22; 877-965-3872 or http://www.wolftrap.org. The Download: For a sampling of the Bobs' music, check out: From "Get Your Monkey off My Dog": -- "Tight Pants Tango" -- "Tom Spath" From "Rhapsody in Bob": -- "Rhapsody in Blue" -- "White Room" From "Shut Up and Sing": -- "Mr. Duality" From "Sing the Songs of . . . ": -- "Ring of Fire"


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