“We don’t balk at weird noises,” says Amy Bob Engelhardt of the vocal a cappella quartet, The Bobs, appearing Saturday at Pepperdine’s Smothers Theatre.
“Stylistically, we know no bounds. Or, as Matthew Bob says, we leave no style unturned.”
They sing all-vocal cover tunes, including songs by Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Talking Heads, They Might Be Giants and Louis Jordan. And what evening is complete without “Disco Inferno?”
“It’s not set up as bass, baritone, tenor and whatever it is that I am,” Engelhardt says. “We take it from an instrumental approach and not a vocal approach. We ask, ‘Who can get that guitar lick?'”
They perform “Caravan” as a horn section. “Joe Bob is particularly skilled at this,” says Engelhardt. “He was originally a trumpet player. And a drummer. He’s adept at this. And at vocal guitar.”
Engelhardt is the newcomer to The Bobs, which currently also stars Joe Bob Finetti, Richard Bob Greene and Matthew Bob Stull. They call themselves The Bobs, however, for the anagram for a dog show term, “best of breed.” Stull and Greene formed the troupe in 1981 with another singer, as New Wave A Capella. “That was the Zeitgeist,” Engelhardt says.
Only Engelhardt and Finetti live in Los Angeles. So the foursome rehearses right before gigs, or, if they must learn new material, they rotate among their home towns. Or, they brush up on the road.
“We do a lot of workshops for kids, seminars and master classes,” she says. “They ask, ‘When do you rehearse?’ We say, ‘You’re watching it.'”
At school workshops, they work on vocals and performance technique with choral students, the instrumental aspects of their vocalizing with other students. It’s an excuse to make evil noises in class, she notes. She insists the show is clean, even though the group was banned in Moses Lake, Wash., resulting from a misunderstanding by its city council of a song — about tolerance.
Greene writes most of the group’s original material. “Inspiration can come from anyplace,” Engelhardt says. “You find such odd things in your daily life, and originals come from the depths of Richard’s wide subconscious.
“As far as gigs go, it’s probably the most challenging. Not only musically is it the most difficult. The Bobs ‘live’ are a mix of a concert, performance art, stand-up comedy and improv. Anything goes. We’re not scripted. We play off the audience constantly.” At one performance, the group passed a hat holding 80 song titles and let the audience choose.
Currently, The Bobs are collaborating with a San Francisco-based monologist, Josh Kornbluth. Engelhardt describes the work as an “educational, possibly fictional lecture/demonstration that goes horribly and hilariously wrong; it’s brilliant and sweaty and digresses a lot.” With a working title, “The History of Vocal Music: Survival of the Loudest,” it stretches from cavemen to Peaches & Herb.
Engelhardt was raised in musical theater. “I was always the geek in the chorus,” she recalls, standing in the back row and critiquing or correcting her fellow singers. She studied at Syracuse University and was working in musicals when she “dumped classical” and returned to music school, at Berklee in Boston, studying pop, rock and jazz.
After working in radio promotion and tour support for a Hollywood agency managing rock stars, she returned to singing in sessions and met Finelli on the set of “Seinfeld.” At his prompting, she auditioned for The Bobs.
“We hit it off immediately,” she recalls. “It was insane. It was Kismet. We were cracking each other up right and left.” They work well together, she says, because they have a healthy respect for one another and they are “willing to look ridiculous at the drop of a hat.”
While she can adeptly read music, she prepared more by listening to the group. “And I’m damned glad I had classical training,” she adds. “The breath support alone is worth the price of a college education.”
At 70 to 100 shows per year, she says, she earns a comfortable living while being able to maintain a home life. She is married to a screenwriter, and she writes music for his works, as well as for live theater.
She considers her fellow Bobs as “older brothers who are insane.” Finelli, a graduate of Gonzaga University as a trumpet major, sang with Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra. Greene, who was a bass player, as well as the group’s bass voice, may be best known for his commercial voice-over singing of the words, “fall into the Gap” — a commercial he fell into when he was engineering the sound and the singer hired for the job couldn’t get it right. Stull was a San Francisco-based actor with a sideline in singing telegrams when he co-founded The Bobs.
The company tours for long weekends or, at most, two weeks, with occasional one-month tours of Europe. Although much of Europe speaks English, she says, the group is popular because anyone can “get” their musical ideas. And even though the audience speaks English, she likes to try out their languages during the show, bringing out phrase books and attempting miscellaneous phrases.
On tour, upon entering a new city, the four scout for the nearest Starbucks. Engelhardt admits to two addictions, e-mail and nail biting.
The group’s website, www.bobs.com, includes such items as “Bob Tales” — Engelhardt’s recounting of tours, from Europe to Iowa — and “goofy but accurate” company biographies.
The Bobs appear Saturday, 8 p.m., at Pepperdine University’s Smothers Bob Theatre. $25. Tel. 456.4522, fax 456.4556 or TicketBobMaster 213.365.3500.