A cappella trailblazers The Bobs prepare to hang up the pitch pipes with farewell tour
A singing telegram company going belly up isn’t your typical catalyst for revolutionary innovation in a branch of music.
But when Western Onion Singing Telegrams shut its doors in 1981 and former employees Matthew Bob Stull and Gunnar Bob Madsen founded a cappella quartet The Bobs, that’s exactly what happened.
Thirty-six years and 16 albums later, the original “band without instruments” has forever broadened a cappella group music from the doo-wop and barbershop that had come before.
But The Bobs recently announced they are “hanging up the pitch pipes” after a farewell tour including a run of West Coast dates this month and several shows in the East and South in the fall.
“Manhattan Transfer meets Monty Python”? Sure. The Bobs combine unusual “instrumental” vocal sounds and innovative arrangements to augment the melody and harmony lines, all of it supporting very funny original songs and a few choice rock covers.
“I’d been in an a cappella group in college,” said Stull, “and the thing I brought to Gunnar is that we should not try and be like other a cappella groups. Gunnar came up with an a cappella version of ‘Psycho Killer.'”
When the original trio of Stull, Madsen and Richard Bob Greene unleashed that at their first gig, they knew they were onto something.
While their singing is meticulously tuneful and their arrangements exact, The Bobs’ animated performances have the careening energy of a car rounding a turn on two wheels. They don’t wipe out – but it’s sure fun to see them push the envelope.
Stull corrected me.
“We don’t always [avoid disaster],” he said. “Sometimes it goes over the edge. And then you learn from that.”
The Bobs’ recording career started with a bang with their self-titled debut in 1983, when their arrangement of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” earned a Grammy nomination and their innovative sound (then called “New Wave a cappella”) changed everyone’s understanding of what a cappella groups could do.
“We changed a cappella music,” said Stull. “No one was doing what we did in the 80s. There was doo-wop and rap but nothing like us.”
“We introduced vocal percussion to the a cappella scene.”
Fast-forward a few decades and more than a few albums to April, when the Contemporary A Cappella Society awarded The Bobs the 2017 lifetime achievement award for recording.
Deft wordsmiths with a knack for writing catchy pop, rock and occasionally jazz, The Bobs craft funny and occasionally exhilarating songs. They find fodder in everything from quirky views of the mundane (young love at the laundry mat) to the outright bizarre (both cats and shoes intent on world domination). Some of their most satisfying numbers resonate emotionally with listeners, and have a touch of wistfulness in with the laughs.
The Bobs add a few well-chosen covers along the lines of “White Room” and “Purple Haze” to the mix, using their voices to supply the instruments. These get epic rock show treatment in concerts, fuzzed out “guitar” solos, “bass” riffs, “drums” and all.
While the quartet’s line-up has changed – nine people have cycled through over the years – founding members Stull and Greene have anchored the sound and brought continuity. Long-time Bobs Dan Bob Schumacher and Angie Bob Doctor complete the current line-up.
“We always allowed the new person to bring something of their own into the sound,” said Stull, “and it kept the whole sound fresh.”
The band cites “location and logistics” as the main reason they’re retiring.
“We now live in four different places in the United States,” said Stull, “and it makes it too hard to rehearse and put together a show.”
According to Stull, “Richard Bob has inherited the family farm in Virginia and he has gone off to raise pigmy cattle or something. Maybe Civil war re-enactments? Angie Bob is teaching at the San Francisco Performing Arts High School where both of her kids graduated. Dan has moved to Minneapolis and wants to sing in a funk band. And I have a new three-piece vocal combo with guitar, bass and drums called Sweet Spot Combo. I have been hankering for a band that you can dance to and you can’t help but dance to the new trio.”
Remarkably, Stull plays drums in addition to singing in his new group.
“Funny, right? I started an a cappella group so I wouldn’t have to carry an instrument!”
Stull said that audiences at their farewell shows can expect “songs that they may never have heard and songs we haven’t sung in many years. We have a lot to choose from!” Bobs alumni Lori Bob Rivera and Joe Bob Finetti will appear as special guests at select dates this weekend.
The quartet’s farewell tour focuses on venues they’ve played repeatedly over the years, including the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco and The Palms Playhouse in Winters, Calif.
As The Bobs play their final shows, they’ll take decades’ worth of performance memories with them.
Take Saturday’s show at The Palms as an example. The Palms was in an old barn in Davis, Calif. when the original quartet (Stull, Greene, Madsen and Janie Bob Scott) first played the venue; it relocated to the Winters Opera House down the road in Winters in 2002.
“We started at The Palms in 1984,” said Stull, “at the old place [in Davis]. I would bring my dogs and they would just roam around sniffing and occasionally come on stage to make sure I was still around. That was great!”
Contemplating The Bobs’ final tour, Stull said, “Thirty-five years is not a bad run for a musical group.”
Not bad, indeed – and especially for something that started as a back-up plan hatched by a couple out-of-work singing telegram guys.
For more information about The Bobs and their farewell tour, visit bobs.com and the venues’ websites.
The Bobs’ farewell tour:
May 19: Kuumbwaa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz, CA with special guest Lori Bob Rivera
May 20: The Palms Playhouse, Winters, CA
May 21: The Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, CA with special guest Joe Bob Finetti
May 26: The Tower Theater, Bend, OR
May 27: The Alberta Rose Theater, Portland, OR,
May 28: The Triple Door, Seattle, WA (two shows)
Sept. 14: Wake Forest University, Wintson Salem, NC
Oct. 14: The Opera House, Boothbay Harbor, ME
Oct. 21: The Barns at Wolf Trap, Vienna, VA