He may have made his musical mark by singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but Bobby McFerrin recently has been focusing a bit more on songs that seek to reassure on a deeper level. The veteran singer came to Portland on Sunday night for a Portland Ovations concert that tilted heavily toward selections from his latest album, “Spirityouall,” a set of mostly traditional songs about finding the path to a “higher ground.”

McFerrin has long been known for his innovative and sometimes controversial manner of vocalizing. He often imitates the sounds of instruments, both acoustic and electronic, becoming, in effect, a one-man band. Though some have found that a little bit of this goes a long way, others, including many distinguished collaborators, have applauded his unusual approach. The yea-sayers definitely held sway on Sunday night.

For this concert, the 64-year-old brought along a sextet of fine musicians to back him in a program that mixed loose, jazzy pieces with more tightly arranged numbers.

McFerrin’s composition “Woe” was an early favorite, moving from a 1970s-sounding funk foundation into a reggae beat for the close, as the singer condemned the scourge of injustice in the world.

A swinging, upbeat take on “Joshua” followed, featuring a fine accordion solo from musical director Gil Goldstein that spiced up the familiar melody. The walls of Merrill Auditorium didn’t quite come tumbling down, but then McFerrin was only getting started.

It was obvious that McFerrin, the son of an opera singer, loves to clown around when he led into a tune with a wordless medley of classical themes, including a touch of the “Bolero.” With a New Orleans-style march rhythm rumbling in the background, the dreadlocked singer invited several audience members up to sing the famous gospel line to “Whole World.”

“I’m Walking in the Light” was given a chiming pop arrangement featuring some strong electric piano work by Goldstein. “Fix Me Jesus” had a revival feel with some nice call-and-response between McFerrin and his daughter Madison McFerrin, who sang backup throughout as well as lead on a samba tune.

A bluesy piece called “25:15” developed considerable power as the guitars of David Mansfield and Armand Hirsch and bass of Jeff Carney churned while the singer implored the Lord to “release my feet from the snare.”

Pop arrangements prevailed on Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and, with McFerrin at the piano, a “Let It Be”-style soaring ballad called “Jesus Makes It Good.”

“Gracious” featured three guitars as drummer Louis Cato showed his versatility by taking up the stringed instrument. And a little bit of country made it into the finale: a fine McFerrin composition called “Rest/Yes Indeed,” complete with fiddle backing from Mansfield.

Folks shouted for it, but there was no “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” to be heard. Instead, a requested take on “Wade on the Water” was the encore to a highly entertaining performance.

 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.