Blue Man’s Group

Yes, he has a 45-year-old gold record hanging in his bathroom. But the music that matters most to Bob Nave is the groove he’s laying down at his very next gig.

Inside his rustic, wood-framed home in the woods of Anderson Township, Bob Nave rolls another cigarette at the kitchen table where he works the cell phone, pursuing weekend bar gigs and airplay on public radio stations for his seven-year-old band, the Blues Merchants. A few steps away in the bathroom, hanging above the toilet, is the gold record he received in 1968 as a member of the Lemon Pipers when the group’s hit “Green Tambourine” surpassed one million sales. Outside in the driveway, his 57-year-old Hammond M-3 organ resides inside an old Dodge van, strapped on a dolly and ready for its next engagement. At age 68, Nave has navigated unflinchingly through the wild extremes of the music business for more than half a century.

“When you played bars in the 1960s, you were expected to entertain,” Nave says. “Now, you’re also expected to bring your own audience. It’s harder. Stiffer DUI laws keep people from staying out late. The economy is tough. But you push on to find places to be heard.”

Then, through his Santa Claus beard, Nave flashes his cat-ate-the-canary grin. “If I’m anything,” he says, “I’m persistent.”

The gold record that hangs ingloriously in the john is just one memento from a career that has meandered from door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman to R&B nightclub organist and numerous points in between: schoolteacher, psychedelic rock star, record store manager, radio adman, jazz DJ, and financial planner. Now, in retirement, Nave is taking a walk back on the wild side, singing and playing keyboards in bars and at blues festivals. “An itch had to be scratched,” he says of his latest reincarnation.

While a lot of guys his age spend weekends honing their golf game or wearing out the couch watching sports on a huge flat-screen TV, Nave eases the battle-worn Hammond out of the van, maneuvers it through the delivery door of some area bar or restaurant for a long night at the keyboard, then, in the wee hours, reverses the process and heads home. As longtime local musician and producer Ron Esposito says about his old friend, “Bob has been to the rodeo. He’s no-bullshit, straight-ahead, and soulful as all get-out. You won’t find any pretentious trappings with this guy.”

While the white-haired Nave cold-calls bar owners and DJs with the same rigor as a starry-eyed indie rocker replete with body piercings, he’s not interested in reclaiming some remnant of a glorious past. He views his journey in music through the same long lens. He has never lost that hunger to help a group of like-minded musicians gel into a single-minded entity, and then go out and find them an audience. The only difference these days is he has time to make those calls.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously lamented, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Too bad he never met Bob Nave.

Bob Nave’s band—a five-piece fronted by charismatic singer Amy McFarland—has established itself as a working act in the Facebook Age, where electronic word-of-mouth and social networking creates a following one listener at a time. In August, they closed out the Lebanon (Ohio) Blues Festival before a crowd of 2,000 mostly middle-aged, raucous fans. Two weeks later, they were playing for a mere dozen beer drinkers at Legends bar in Cheviot. (The sign in a pickup truck on the curb announcing “live music” with an arrow pointing at the bar failed to whip up a crowd.) Building a fan base is painstaking work; regular dates at deSha’s at Harper’s Point help draw the Blues Merchants’ faithful, who applaud through long sets of succinct, original songs mixed with vintage blues from Freddie King and Willie Dixon and contemporary numbers by Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. No endlessly meandering solos here to fill a 90-minute set; the Merchants present a master class in the blues canon, with Nave delivering commentary on each number.

With more than a century of professional playing among them, they are accomplished, well-rehearsed, and motivated by new material and covers tailored to their strengths. By day, McFarland is a hair stylist, guitarist Chris Kepes is an architect, drummer Dave Koenig is a cabinetmaker, and bassist Marc Hoffman builds sound speaker cabinets. Because they don’t need music for their financial livelihood, they can pursue the funky, high-octane course they find more artistically satisfying.

It is especially evident on their second album, Tattooed With the Blues, released last summer. The crisply produced collection of mostly original songs is delightfully showcased with a cheesy 1960s-style cover photo of a seductive McFarland raising her skirt above her knees in front of her older and admiring bandmates. Jim Emig, owner of Jim Dandy’s Family BBQ in Sharonville, helped finance the photo and the release party, which explains why the restaurant’s smiling pink pig road sign appears prominently on the CD cover. “A deliberate product placement strategy,” says Nave, with a satisfied grin.

The band pooled their money to produce the album and press 1,000 copies. Nave secured Ron Esposito, the former music director at WVXU (where Nave was a radio host before the station’s switch to news), to produce the sessions. “I told Bob that if this was a vanity record, I wasn’t the guy,” says Esposito, a longtime blues bassist who now performs with Tibetan brass and quartz crystal singing bowls. “But they were serious about the project, and I was impressed by their songwriting.”

Nave and Kepes each contributed five original songs to the project, but it is the highs and lows of Nave’s life that define the album. His tune “All American Blues” has the progressive, lyrical rock style of the early 1970s—a smooth Steely Dan groove, which Nave teases out of a vintage Fender Rhodes electric piano. He actually wrote it in 1974, but until the Merchants were formed he hadn’t heard it performed to his liking. “The song never had the right singer,” he says. “Then Amy comes along. She used very different phrasing and really got behind the lyrics.  At first, I had my reservations. Then I realized she made the song her own. The more I listened, the more I liked what she did with it.”

The genesis of two other tunes is more recent—and more poignant. Nave wrote the album’s title track, “Tattooed With the Blues,” along with “Why, Why, Why” after he lost his beloved partner of 22 years, Arleen Inger, who died suddenly in 2009. His voice still cracks when he describes the morning she collapsed near the kitchen table and passed away several days later. “Why, Why, Why” appropriates the chords and melody of Paul Butterfield’s 1960s blues-rocker “Get Out of My Life Woman”—a sentiment that Nave could no longer sing in good conscience. The song’s chorus—“Why, why, why / Why did you have to die?”—encapsulates his very personal anguish. He wrote it, he says, “for everyone who has lost somebody.”

Despite a deep and abiding respect for the art and practice of the blues, a nostalgia band the Merchants are not. Nave and company certainly revel in the music, and in performing live, but their aim is forward, not back. That said, Tattooed With the Blues contains one nod to the past: “Green Tambourine,” the song that launched Nave into rock and roll history.

In 1967, he was freshly graduated from Miami University, teaching at Pleasant Run Elementary School, and playing nights and weekends with the Lemon Pipers, an electrifying psychedelic blues band that packed the area’s college bars, high school gyms, and parks. Buddah Records, a fledgling record label out of New York, got wind of the Oxford-based group and signed them—with a hitch. Buddah’s producer and songwriter, Paul Leka, presented them with “Green Tambourine,” a gimmicky, archetypal bubble gum pop number with whimsical lyrics by Shelley Pinz. It wasn’t the sort of thing the Pipers were interested in playing, really, but recording it was nonnegotiable.

The Pipers held their noses, entered the studio in the fall of ’67, and by February 1968, they were stunned to have the top record in the country. Overnight success brought Nave and the Pipers a year of fame, touring, and elbow-rubbing with some of the biggest names in rock and roll, followed rapidly by clashes within the band, financial disappointment, and near-oblivion—all created by a song and a record label that had stripped the band of its hard-rocking identity.

So Nave has every right to feel conflicted about the tune. But like the creative pro that he is, he has morphed it into something new. For old time’s sake, the Merchants open “Green Tambourine” with the same psychedelic trappings—Chinese bells and Vibra-Slap percussion—as on the original. Then it slides into a funky groove topped with Amy McFarland’s clean, sultry vocals.

Whatever Nave and the Pipers thought of the song in the whirlwind success of 1968, it has stood the test of time. “Green Tambourine” still generates $7,500 in performance royalties annually for the Pipers through CD anthologies and compilations—royalties that a savvy Nave negotiated eight years ago with Sony BMG on behalf of his far-flung former band members. And at least one musician isn’t hung up on its bubble gum pop roots. “I considered it an honor to record that song with one of the [Lemon Pipers] original members,” says McFarland, who was 5 years old when the song was recorded in 1967. “For me, that was a big deal.”

But there was a legal hitch to putting the song on the Merchants’ record. CD Baby, the online music store and a key distributor for independent recordings, required that mechanical rights—the rights to record the song—be secured for “Green Tambourine” before the Merchants’ album would be included in its catalog, and Nave had to establish a process for paying royalties to the song’s owner. But with Leka and Pinz both dead, Nave and Kepes have not been able to locate an owner. Did this 1960s classic quietly slip into the public domain? Nave has no idea. Still, to protect themselves and satisfy CD Baby, the Merchants took out a small insurance policy (similar to title insurance in a mortgage transaction) through a music licensing firm just in case an owner appears out of nowhere demanding royalties.

It was a wise investment. Nave has scored airplay for Tattooed With the Blues with several regional public radio stations, including WNKU and WYSO in Yellow Springs. “When I ask them what songs they are playing on the air, they always say ‘Green Tambourine’ and something else.” Nave’s bemused expression says it all: Don’t argue with success. “The song continues to follow me after all of these years,” he says. “I don’t fight it anymore.”

The album’s polish extends well beyond a fresh treatment of a 1960s psych-pop hit. Precise arrangements, McFarland’s expressive vocals and perfect diction, and Kepes’s clean Santana-style guitar playing combine to give the Merchants a distinct personality. Nave even belts out a couple of songs in his own husky voice. And while he and Esposito succeeded in mixing the record so that it has a modern feel, the timbre of Nave’s Hammond M-3 organ preserves a vintage nightclub atmosphere.

That old Hammond organ is a story in itself. In 1965, Nave and his fellow Pipers squeezed into Clifton’s once-legendary Black Dome nightclub to hear John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, the preeminent British blues band of the era, on the final leg of a U.S. tour. Mayall announced from the bandstand he was selling his Hammond M-3 rather than ship it back to England. Nave took a loan from a music store, bought it, and played the organ throughout the Pipers’ reign. After he wound down from playing professionally in the late 1970s to focus on a career in banking and finance, the well-traveled M-3 spent decades literally under cover—supporting potted plants in his dining room.

Nave removed the blankets in 2006. At the time, Kepes, an experienced guitarist who toured with the late blues singer Piney Brown (an institution in Dayton), was rehearsing with veteran jazz and rock drummer Dave Koenig, inviting Nave and Esposito to jam with them. Initially, Nave found it unnerving. “It’s not like riding a bicycle,” he says. “It took me a good eight months to feel confident again on the instrument.”

Kepes, Koenig, and Nave soon evolved into a group following the jam session, becoming a quartet when guitarist Phil Buscema responded to a “bassist wanted” sign in a Buddy Roger’s Music store. And lo, the Merchants were born. But for all the talent and experience, they fell flat in front of an audience. “With the four of us, there wasn’t much excitement,” Nave admits. They hired female singer Sami Springer, who successfully fronted the band, but her departure in 2010 led to a new search.

Esposito sprinkled a little magic on the Merchants. At a concert he was jolted by the natural stage presence and voice of a local woman on the bill. “Amy was immediately impressed upon my memory,” he says. He remembered that the Merchants were looking for a singer. “I phoned Bob and said, ‘Call her right now!’ ”

“Her impact on our sound was immediate,” Nave says. The 50-year-old McFarland has broadened the band’s audience appeal and her vocal range created new musical possibilities. But she also fronts three other bands—Chasing Amy, Trinity, and American Honey—making her a blues-rock-country singer. Because she books about 60 dates a year, the Blues Merchants work around her schedule. “With a talent like that, you make accommodations,” Nave says.

In 2011, the Merchants personnel changed again when Buscema decided to focus more on guitar playing. In stepped Marc Hoffman, the bassist for nearly a decade for Cincinnati-based touring blues guitarist Sonny Moorman. “I’ve known Bob from a number of different music projects, and everyone in the Merchants gets along very well,” he says. “That’s not always common with musicians.”

Clearly, the first impression at any show is the band’s stage camaraderie. Nave describes them as “the most civil group I’ve ever worked with,” while McFarland finds them to be the “most levelheaded, laid-back band you can find.” Which does not mean they aren’t ambitious: they’re intent on pursuing solid venues geared to live music, especially blues, where they can showcase McFarland, and hopefully attract a wider audience.

That requires casting a wider net. Nave and Kepes are forging relations with blues festival organizers and bars specializing in live music. In November, the Merchants scored their first night at the Slippery Noodle Inn in Indianapolis, a regional music mecca in the Hoosier State’s oldest bar. Out-of-town engagements in early 2013 include the Filling Station in Troy and the Roop Brothers Bar in Delaware. “It’s challenging finding places that properly showcase live blues, so we’re eager to branch outside of Cincinnati,” Kepes said.

This isn’t an easy road but as veterans of the nightclub scene, the Merchants know exactly what they are chasing: the elusive “vibe” that occurs when musicians connect soulfully with a live audience. “When you combine the interaction between the musicians and then with the crowd, you create a third thing that is hard to put in words. But when you have experienced it, you know it,” says Hoffman. “It’s tangible. It’s what you’re after.”

Sitting at his kitchen table, reaching into his leather tobacco pouch to roll another cigarette, Nave knows exactly what Hoffman struggles to describe. But he opts for a more direct analogy: “Playing music is still the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”

That quip sells him short. Nave confronts the social and technological trends conspiring against today’s nightclub musicians and he willingly assumes the grinding business details for the Blues Merchants, just as he did with the Lemon Pipers. Of course, the music business has changed radically since the 1960s. Still, as long as Nave’s cell phone is charged, and there are clubs out there willing to give a well-seasoned blues band a whirl, they are getting a call from the bearded guy in the woods of Anderson Township.

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