If you listen to a really good a cappella group, you would swear you are hearing instruments in the mix. The Bobs — who formed in the Bay Area in 1981 and celebrate 30 years of harmony at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse on Sunday — are that kind of group.
“There’s different schools of thought on a cappella,” says Amy “Bob” Engelhardt, a Bob since 1998, “like a cappella that’s done in a Swingle Singers style where it’s obviously not instruments and more of a doo-ba-doo-ba-doo sound. The Bobs were the first ones to make the attempt to sound like instruments.”
Founding “Bob” Matthew Stull — along with retired founder Gunnar “Bob” Madsen — is astonished that they have been bobbing along as long as they have.
“The whole thing was started as a hobby,” he says. “I was working as an actor, Gunnar was composing and playing piano, and we also worked for Western Onion Singing Telegrams.”
Both men had a cappella in their past, and when Western Onion went bust they decided to explore their options, adding members and refining their sound, which still leans primarily to original and offbeat compositions.
“It’s very challenging, but that’s the fun of it,” says Engelhardt about arranging songs for the group, a responsibility she shares with Richard “Bob” Greene and Dan “Bob” Schumacher. “It’s especially tricky with only four voices. How do you make it something to be reckoned with?”
“We really do think in terms of being a band,” she continues. “We decide on the core elements needed to put the song across. You go back to your basic music theory, which is: what’s important in a chord?”
“Richard has a way of singing his bass notes, an articulation that makes it sound more percussive. Dan is a chameleon. He’s able to do some funky things and groove in the space in the middle of notes.”
The group’s first recording scored a Grammy nomination in 1984 and 13 more titles have been added to the catalog. According to Engelhardt, there is virtually no overdubbing in a Bobs recording. “If we do,” she says, “it is very judiciously because we want to do everything on a record the way we would do it in live performance.”
Early recordings were made with various labels but the last decade’s output has been self-produced. “We tried working with labels,” says Stull, “but they kept wanting to treat us like some novelty act. I kept telling them no. We’re a rock and roll band, just without instruments.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $28.50 to $30.50
Contact: (510) 644-2020, www.thefreight.org