Local musician Nolan McKelvey is nothing but prolific – he estimates he has released an album of original music almost every year since 1999.
And yet, if you happen to run into him strumming the double bass at a Phoenix subway bar, you won’t get to hear his original tunes.
“I like to play in bars,” he says. “I love playing my bass and singing harmony and singing every cover song ever. That’s totally great fun for me, but not when it’s my songs.”
McKelvey, whose original music spans a range of genres from rock and country to folk and bluegrass, calls his songs “truly thoughtful and sensitive and contemplative”—perhaps not best suited to a rowdy tavern.
Instead, the northern Phoenix native prefers to perform their own work at events better designed to allow attendees to focus on the music. That is why he will be on stage tonight, Thursday 23 June, in the Music Theater of the Musical Instruments Museum.
McKelvey has performed in a number of configurations over the years: solo, with Nolan McKelvey and 33, with a Boston collaborative project called The Benders, and with the bluegrass band Muskellunge. Tonight’s lineup consists of him on guitar (a departure from stand-up bass, his primary instrument), Tim Hogan on bass, Megyn Neff on violin, and Gary Smith on drums.
“The MIM theater is simply one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever played,” he says. “You can hear a pin drop there and it’s a beautiful place to showcase my songs. If you want your songs to be heard it’s the perfect place for that because it’s sonically incredible in a way that just makes you want to listen . That’s what I love about it.”
It’s been a long road to becoming a recurring artist at the MIM. McKelvey grew up in Michigan and started playing standup bass in fifth grade. He began his studies at Michigan State University and then transferred to Northern Arizona University.
“I turned 21 in Flagstaff,” he recalls. “The next day I started performing.”
He found Flagstaff a place where he wouldn’t just play covers, where he could play original music and find a receptive audience.
After jumping across the country to places like San Francisco and Boston, he returned to Flagstaff, eventually settling in Phoenix in 2010.
His latest album, In the silence, was a collaboration between him, Neff and Hogan. It’s a relaxing, melancholic collection of music with a hint of folk and bluegrass.
“I present [my music] in different ways,” says McKelvey. “Sometimes it’s a little more rock, sometimes it’s a little more bluegrass, sometimes it’s folky. So it’s a bit difficult to locate it.
He points to The Band and Bob Dylan as songwriting influences, as well as The Grateful Dead and Elvis Costello. He plays upright bass, electric bass and acoustic guitar, but says his main concern is the lyrics and “using my instrument as a vehicle to present a song.”
In addition to his day job as an expert witness in workers’ compensation cases (he has a master’s degree in rehabilitation), McKelvey has an upcoming gig in Flagstaff and often supports Mark Zubia and Jesse Valenzuela at Old Town Tavern in Scottsdale on Tuesday nights.
And of course he is working on his next album, which he hopes to release later this year.
“I’ve completed five songs for this year’s record and six others in progress,” he says, and as always, the heart of the album will come from the words.
“There’s a real emphasis on lyrics and trying to paint a picture as a songwriter. That’s the real focus of my writing and my music.”
Nolan McKelvey Trio (with Gary Smith). 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 23. Musical Instrument Music Musical Theater, 4725 East Mayo Boulevard. Tickets are $21.50-$26.50. Visit the website to buy tickets.