The Bobs: Unplugged and Unrestrained

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

San Francisco-based band The Bobs have been kicking off recent live shows with a cover of Duke Ellington’s instrumental standard “Caravan” that sounds just like the original except for one thing: They don’t play any instruments.

With 20 years together and 10 albums in their back catalog, The Bobs have a solid reputation as “the World’s most manically eclectic, non-jazz, a capella group.”

Saturday, the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz plays host to the band for what promises to be one of this year’s most unusual and entertaining concerts.

The Bobs began life in 1981, when a San Francisco singing telegram service, Western Onion, went out of business. Two of the ex-employees were Gunnar Madsen and Matthew Stull. They decided to form their own group and placed a free ad in a newspaper for someone who could sing the bass parts to the songs. The sole respondent to the ad was Richard “Bob” Greene, who, in addition to singing bass, was a songwriter and recording engineer.

After six months of rehearsal, The Bobs ventured out to perform live at an open mic at a local Cuban restaurant. They sang a few cover tunes, including the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” Unused to hearing a capella arrangements of this type of song, the audience couldn’t get enough of them.

The Bobs soon found that they needed another vocalist to help perform their expanding range of covers and original songs. They held auditions and recruited Janie Scott to the fold. A run of local gigs honed their sound,

and they signed to Kaleidoscope records and released their first album, “The Bobs.”

A Grammy nomination for their version of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” was quickly followed by a nationwide tour, numerous TV and radio appearances and a tour of European festivals. Since then, The Bobs have won countless Contemporary A capella Recording Awards (CARA), collaborated on productions with several dance companies and even earned a spot in the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of American History.

The current line-up of The Bobs includes two new members in addition to Stull and Greene. Joe Finetti replaced founder Gunnar Madsen in 1990,

when the latter retired from the band’s grueling tour schedule. Most recently, The Bobs recruited Amy Engelhardt, a graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music who met Finetti when they both worked on an episode of “Seinfeld”. Both were playing carol singers and felt an instant rapport, which resulted in Engelhardt being invited to join The Bobs as a full-time replacement for Janie Scott when she left the band in 1992.

The Bobs released their most recent album, “Coaster,” in 2000, on Primarily A Capella Records. Its 18 tracks include the aforementioned “Caravan,” a cover of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and “Fluffy’s Master Plan For World Domination,” a song about a conspiracy by cats to rule the world.

Describing The Bobs as “different” is surely an understatement. Go see them for yourself this Saturday.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, November 28, 2002

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