Ideally, reviews are confined to specific (single) performances and don’t wind up as compare-and-contrast essays describing previous shows, but in the case of The Bobs it is nearly impossible to avoid mention of earlier group lineups and the way it was. I first discovered The Bobs when I was dragged kicking and screaming to a concert at Durham’s Carolina Theater in the early ’90s. I immediately became a huge fan of this deliciously inventive and slightly insane a cappella group. The Bobs, formed in 1981 in San Francisco, quickly became an underground sensation as they brilliantly combined the untapped potential of the human voice in covers of pop hits and quirky originals. Except for some very limited use of simple percussion instruments, everything heard was produced by their voices and bodies. So, when it was announced that The Bobs would perform at Duke’s Page Auditorium with a pianist in a program titled “Rhapsody in Bob,” the first question that came to mind was “why?” After experiencing pianist Bob Malone (“Bob” is his real name), my reaction was “how could you?”

For some unexplained reason, the balcony of Page Auditorium was off limits for this show, so with the downstairs nearly filled, it gave the appearance of a sold-out concert. Without any announcement or fanfare of any kind, three men and one woman walked out and launched right into The Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That.” There has been a renaissance of a cappella groups, many of which do great covers, but The Bobs have a distinctive style and sound that is still fresh after almost 25 years. The well-known harmonies, crystal-clear enunciation, and an authentic-sounding vocal rhythm section make most listeners simply wonder “how do they do that?” A beautifully balanced sound mix in the hall with just the right volume added to the marvelous swirl of voices. The next number featured the relatively new female member, Amy “Bob” Engelhardt, in her original song “Sandwich Man.” This uninspiring and unfunny number exposed the limitations of Engelhardt’s vocal, compositional, and comic abilities. Whenever you hear a group and start to question the replacement for a long-standing member (in this case Janie “Bob” Scott), it is not a good situation. There was no problem so long as she remained an inner supporting alto voice to the three men, but her solos seemed strained and unnatural.

During a good deal of the evening I was wishing that The Bobs would take the advice of one of their superb earlier albums and just “Shut up and Sing.” We have all seen and heard the sophomoric and embarrassing patter of news shows where all the anchors sit around and trade allegedly clever and funny remarks – just like regular folks. At first I thought maybe The Bobs were doing a parody of this, but then it went on too long and too often — it was far from clever and very a cappella unfunny. If this were a comedy club, a good heckler would have had a field day.

One of the highlights was a madrigal version of The Doors’ “Light My Fire.” This was over way too quickly – more of this genre-bending would have livened up the show. Over the years The Bobs have tended to avoid jazz-style works and jazz vocal techniques like scatting, but that has changed with the addition of their newest member – Dan “Bob” Schumacher. With his admission to the group they now employ some old jazz numbers and even spirituals.

This was an intermission-less show (something that is becoming more and more common, especially in non-classical concerts), but The Bobs were able to take a break as they brought on pianist/singer/songwriter Bob Malone. Given the underlying satirical and biting humor of much of The Bobs’ original songs, my first impression was that this was an act in the tradition of Bill Murray’s scathing take on lounge singers. I was wrong. A cross between Jerry Lee Lewis and Liberace, with the vocal texture of Tom Waits with a very bad cold, Malone trod the line but lost the battle of self-caricature. This was quite a shame, since Malone is a gifted pianist with an obvious flair for stride, boogie-woogie, and early blues. Thankfully, his singing ceased after two numbers and The Bobs came back out for the reason for their current tour – their version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Malone played the piano while The Bobs supplied the orchestral parts. They chickened out by not including the famous amazing clarinet glissando that starts the work. This was one of those things that was a good concept but just didn’t quite make it. The main problem was that they couldn’t decide whether this was a serious transcription or a joke. There were some very nice vocal arrangements in parts of this famous work, but its schizophrenic character made for an uncertain and unsatisfying experience. It was a good cut, but the bat just didn’t connect.