Emily Ehrensperger ’21 | Assistant Arts Editor
Fresh off of her debut tour through Europe, singer Madison McFerrin performed songs from her two recent EPs on Saturday, Feb. 23, in Sweeney Concert Hall. The daughter of music legend Bobby McFerrin (among his many accomplishments the song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”), she exhibited her own unique style that explored soulful, sensual a cappella through electronic looping.
Starting with a clever cover of “Toxic” by Britney Spears, she moved into original songs from her EPs “Finding Foundations: Vol I/II,” released in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Through her use of vocal and mic percussion and snaps alongside her carefully structured harmonies, she easily pulled off a full, rich sound and engaging presence despite being the only person on stage.
Indeed, McFerrin performed center stage, with only a spotlight and her microphone (decorated with an eye-catching garland of red flowers composing her set. However, her naturally engaging personality and her sparkly, multi-colored sequined jacket made the sparseness inconsequential. And by simply removing her silver boots (performing without shoes being a signature quirk), she immediately created an intimate, confessional rapport with the audience.
McFerrin used this vibe to her advantage in her first original song of the night, “Learn Your Lesson,” in which she asked the audience to snap along with her. The conversational way she sang the piece and the audience participation felt like an open dialogue between the two groups. Her playfulness with the more difficult vocal elements in song “Fallin’” and the minimal but fitting dancing that accompanied “Insane” also added to her stage presence.
She interspersed her songs with personal stories that matched the truthful tone of her lyrics. After performing “Toxic,” for example, she recounted a funny story about a sixth-grade boyfriend, but by the end of the evening, the stories became more and more emotionally potent.
That emotion peaked with the last two songs of the night: political ballad “Can You See?” and motivational anthem “Shine.” “Can You See?” explores McFerrin’s feelings about police brutality through haunting harmonies and heartbreaking lyrics that eventually morph into an altered version of the national anthem: “Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light / What so proudly we hailed while we’re all out here screaming.” She affirmed upon completing the piece, “Black lives matter, y’all.”
The final performance of the evening, “Shine,” was a response to her struggles as a rising independent artist. Out of all of the evening’s songs, “Shine” formed the strongest connection between the performer and the audience.
After establishing the preliminary chord structure of her background music, McFerrin paused to share another personal story over her harmonies: a recounting of a negatively-received rendition of the national anthem at a June 2016 Hillary Clinton rally. Though she admitted distress in the days following the incident, she shared that she now chooses to look at it as the best thing to ever happen to her. It helped her learn to deal with critics, but it also helped motivate her to book her first solo gig and start her on the path she still follows today.
She then transitioned into lyrics that affirmed her hard-won sense of self-worth and once again successfully procured audience participation. “Oh and what matters more / Is you know what you want, don’t ignore / Your shine,” she sang out confidently, in defiance of her critics. Then, with “Don’t you ignore your shine / You know you’ll be fine / Don’t ignore your shine,” she taught the audience to sing back to her. As both audience and performer shared the experience of singing the lyrics to each other, it became therapeutic for both parties.
A fitting finale, the scene perfectly encapsulated the natural connection with her audience that McFerrin curated throughout the evening. Afterward, the singer met with audience members in the Sweeney foyer, signing autographs and chatting with the many who stayed after the concert, happy to prolong the connection a little longer.