This is Steve and Kristi Nebel live in the studio.
1 Wish You Were Here Waltz
2 Angels of the Road
3 Alternate Universe
4 Great Grandfather
6 County Durham
8 Would You Hold My Hand
9 Whistlin’ in the Rain
10 If Peace Will Come
11 Big Floppy Hats
With the release of ‘Tandem’ I found an opportunity to interview Steve and Kristi Nebel. The album from Icebird Records, Steve’s label, contains many, but by no means all of my favorite Nebel compositions. ‘Wish You Were Here Waltz’ is a lovely beginning in a generous collection of original songs. This is a pleasant, lyrical love note, like a warm letter going out to someone who is missed, “…how I wish you were here.” I have been at performances where these songs were sung with such intensity that I got those chills. The guitar line is simple and responding to the melody line. ‘Great Grandfather’ begins with the guitar strains of Elizabeth Cotton’s ‘Freight Train’. The strength of his story song is personal connection to relatives. Steve’s grandfather and great grandfather were both railroad men with his great grandfather assigned to the roundhouse in Everett at the turn of the century. Grandfather had the awful task of fishing the other’s engine and body from the Stillaguamish River where it had left the bridge. One of Steve’s first projects and bands was with the Madrones, with Kristi and J.W. (John) Sparrow. Steve and Kristi had traveled to an old railroad hotel in Canada so close to the tracks; they made recordings of trains out the hotel window. Those recordings wound up between audio tracks of an album of train songs Thunder On The Highline. ‘Jesse’ starts with the classic harmony mix between Steve and Kristi. ‘Jesse’ is based on a mostly true story of two local brothers who decided to seek work overseas. Jesse went to work for an electrical contractor in Afghanistan and was promptly kidnapped by the Taliban. But these Taliban had an addiction to watching the X files and one evening while they watched, he simply slipped away until he found respite at an American army base. There is a serious beginning, but not without humor. To get there Steve’s writing takes you through poverty, unemployment, loss of house and finally estrangement. ‘Papa’ begins with folk guitar and Steve’s voice, “Papa always said he’s take it with him…those times weren’t easy, but he did alright.” The conflict between father and son is clear but forgiving. Father and son had experienced war and that shared suffering made the relationship somehow acceptable to the son. Steve and Kristi have long been supporters of causes like United for Peace for Pierce County. As a Vietnam Veteran, Steve is quiet but steadfast about his convictions. ‘Alternate Universe’ has some clever rhymes and timing. I especially like the rhyme between “fit” and “make sense of it,” (emphasis on ‘of it’). “I’ll be returning to carbon and gas, nobody gets out of here alive.” ‘County Durham’ is Nebel’s ode to North East England, “When I dream, I dream of Durham…” This is a sing-able and memorable fable of sea captain long at sea. ‘Angels of the Road’ has held me captive since I first heard it. The recording is good, but the intensity of this song sung live puts it over the top. “It’s only fate, something that you know. When the world has given up on you there’s a place where you can go…” Kristi’s beautiful voice is always powerful on this haunting poem. This tribute and thanks to friends who rescued them from a night of unavailable hotel rooms near London. Steve and Kristi were stranded twice on the Alcan highway and that isolation is in there with everything else. The Nebels began their odyssey of trips to England in 2000 when Mike Freeman suggested they look into all the clubs in the UK (Mike Freeman and Tania Opland play frequently in Europe). ‘Would You Hold My Hand’ has a wonderful hook, like many of these songs it will stick to your ribs. Steve’s guitar work is simple, perhaps understated and melodic. Kristi plays electric bass mostly, but in the early days when the boys in the band bought an upright bass, she was the only one who could figure it out. With a background in family singing, barbershop and experience in the special travel choir from the University of Idaho her voice stands out. ‘Whistlin’ in the Rain’ is a song of unemployment, dashed hopes “…two doors down from hell.” ‘If Peace Will Come’ is strong statement from two people who have marched and demonstrated against all wars everywhere. ‘Big Floppy Hats’ is a warm approach to conflict—who could be mad at someone who wears a goofy hat and oversize pants. “Everyone would wear a big floppy hat….”
Steve Nebel feels he was a rank amateur at the beginning and wrote at least 100 songs during college. They’ve paid dues which Steve sees as an effective means to learn the business and get your chops. There are nine CDs available from their website and all have some notable reviews. Next on my wish list is Bohemian Outback (2002). Also intriguing: are Caught In The Balance (1981), Taking Off (1993), Out Of The Tangled Years (1994), Birds Of Winter (1998), Nobody’s Hero (2003), Big Red Smile (2004), Sum of 2 Parts (2005), and Raven Speaks (2008).
Still more albums are out there, even if not officially released, like Kristi’s country swing “Detour” album. A Baltimore radio show of the same name uses her version of this old chestnut for it’s theme. Steve’s dream was always to be a songwriter on the road and now with 7 trips to the UK under their belt they epitomize that working couple who write and sing about it too. Other well-known Northwest musicians who have been a part of their bands and lives are David Michael and Thaddeus Spae. I’m able to catch them now and then at the Antique Sandwich Company in Tacoma. These two work in tandem and not always on the main highway, but if you can find yourself at any of their shows you won’t forget it.
Steve & Kristi Nebel: Tandem
Veteran Puget Sound folk duo Steve & Kristi Nebel’s newest CD is a satisfying collection of Steve’s original songs, sung with passion and clarity by both Kristi and Steve. Their tenth duo recording is meant to be a reflection of their live performances. Thus, they stood in the studio and sang side by side, resulting in a special energy and enjoyment that we can hear.
The song list flows like a concert set. Titles include new ones as well as crowd favorites, such as “Big Floppy Hat,” about a world where everyone knows how to get along. Backed by Steve’s solid fingerpicking or with the strong drive of strumming, the songs are accompanied simply by guitar and Kristi’s electric bass.
The duo trades off lead vocals and harmonies. Kristi’s clear voice rings out like a bell on “Jesse,” a snapshot of the personal hardship of a family with the dad in Afghanistan. Sometimes her voice is reminiscent of Judy Collins, like on “Angels of the Road,” about the uncertainty of life as a traveling minstrel. In “Alternate Universe,” she sounds like a cross between Collins and Buffy Ste. Marie. Kristi is blessed with a beautiful resonance and depth of timbre.
Steve does a moving performance on “Papa,” a Prine-esque song about understanding his father. His impassioned lead vocal softens to gentleness, moving from smooth warmth to just the right touch of rasp with the lyrics: “Papa was a healer, I was never sure just how he got to be. The war had torn his mind up. It took going through a war myself to see that it isn’t easy, but we do alright.” Another line straight from the heart is, “The little boy who dogged him all around his garden thought there was no one else on earth he’d rather be.”
Song topics cover romance, family, trains, roads, seafaring and social commentary on peace, poverty and the American Dream. Steve’s melodies are creative yet familiar – they rise and fall, underscoring the details of his stories. His choruses are perfect for harmonies on “Whistlin’ in the Rain” and “Durham County” (“When I dream, I dream of Durham, that’s a county where I long to be… I hear the piper’s calling. They all sing, ‘come you home to me.’”) Steve stands against the injustices of war, sweatshop labor, the divide between rich and poor, and global warming in “If Peace Will Come,” asking, “Will the rich man come to see the injustices we see so plain? Or will his arrogant stand bring us all to naught? Must the earth perish underneath the weight of all he’s got?”
In Tandem, the Nebels strike a nice balance between the comfort of playing live and the attention to detail that marks a studio project. This album feels like an old friend, like music shared around the circle in the livingroom by folks who’ve done it for years.