Well into his third set at Guy Hollerin’s, Steve Nardella asked for a request from the still sizable audience, and someone yelled “Chuck Berry!” It was all Nardella needed to break into the familiar opening riff of “Oh Carol,” and within seconds the dance floor was jumpin’. By this point in the show, I was too worn out to dance, but Nardella, at sixty-one, showed no signs of slowing down. Sweaty and breathing hard, maybe, but too old to rock? Never.
“When I get on stage, age doesn’t affect me,” he told me later in a phone call. “I don’t even think about it.” And age has its advantages, like the lifetime of songs Nardella has learned. His online bio describes him as a “walking encyclopedia of American roots music,” and just one set will confirm that. Whether it’s a tune from Hank Williams or Muddy Waters or Bill Monroe or Elvis, Nardella can pluck it from his memory and onto his guitar.
He’s been playing 50s rock, R&B, and blues guitar and harmonica in Ann Arbor since he came here from the East Coast in 1970. (He started performing in his teens, after watching Muddy Waters and his band at the Cafe au Go Go in Greenwich Village.) Nardella bought his trademark 1956 Gibson decades ago from jazz guitarist Joe Summers, who still lives and plays guitar in Ypsilanti. “If you wanted a nice guitar, he was the guy to see,” Nardella remembers. “I told him I wanted a big fat Gibson.”
For years, Nardella played with George Bedard in various bands, and they still perform together occasionally. He recorded several albums with other local greats, including Mr. B, and backed blues artists who came to town. He still plays with Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
When I saw him, he’d brought along Eric Schabo on sax, Rudy Varner on upright bass, and Loney Charles on drums, and the combo was tight. While Nardella was the veteran, they were all musicians at the top of their game, capable of bringing the house down with a slapping bass line or smokin’ sax solo. And when the song reached its peak with everyone playing at once, hollering was in order.
Most arrangements were fast-paced and irresistible to dancers, with just enough soulful blues thrown in to catch your breath. But Nardella does have a tendency to filter songs, from “Kansas City” to “Sea of Love,” through the same R&B interpretation. While the numbers are familiar from different genres, they become rather mashed into one similar–albeit engaging and high-energy–style.
Nardella tells me he is always adding more songs to his repertoire, and his original songwriting is “just throwing together old blues phrases…the blues is basically my thing now. It seems more real to me.” In performance, the pure blues numbers seem to come more from his heart than his encyclopedic memory.
Nardella still plays a few times a month, sometimes at clubs, sometimes at private parties. Occasionally an opportunity to tour comes up. “I need to play music,” he says. “It’s the only thing I know how to do, all I’ve ever done, all I’ve ever wanted to do.” Steve Nardella is back at Guy Hollerin’s on Saturday, February 6.