The ubiquitous Rob Tobias is Mr. Northwest — by way of Ohio
BY SERENA MARKSTROM
Published: Friday, Dec 17, 2010 06:00AM
Rob Tobias is about as famous as you can be in this town without being involved in athletics, politics or television news. The man gets around. Whether playing one of the annual Beatles tribute events, entertaining at the Saturday and Holiday markets or at the Oregon Country Fair, or stoking the crowd’s energy at a peace rally or political gathering, Tobias is one of the more active musicians on the local scene.
On Sunday, his band the Northwest Express will play a CD-release event for its self-titled debut, a recording of mostly original music by Tobias. Tobias said people often approach him and say he’s “so Northwest,” but the fact is that he grew up in Ohio. Still, the West Coast import does love it here, and the title track of the CD pays tribute to many positive aspects of this part of the world. “For so many people, it’s the end of the rainbow/ Breaking free from California, New York and Chicago,” he sings. He also takes note of the region’s independent spirit, its good food and beer, and the multitude of rivers.
If the Northwest has a little of all the good stuff, Tobias’ own songwriting mirrors that diversity. His blended style samples from jazz, blues, reggae, folk and rock. Tobias worked on the album with Billy Barnett at Gung-Ho Studio. When the producer was asked about how to describe Tobias’ music, Barnett called it “hippie blue-eyed soul,” Tobias recalled with a laugh.
The CD starts off with “The Seed,” a reggae-tinged number that serves almost as an overture for many of the themes explored throughout the disc. “I like the notion of (the song) being a seed for the rest of it,” he said. “It’s really about doing the thing that you love and letting that be an inspiration, and doing it with all you’ve got. ...“Really, it’s about that whole thing of ‘do what you love and the rest will follow.’_” And for Tobias, music is his love.
In fact, love is everywhere on the CD. Even if Tobias doesn’t quite accept the “hippie soul” label, he’s written something of a soundtrack for progressive values. “Planetary Blues” laments environmental degradation. “Bless All the Land” gives thanks for the natural beauty still with us. There is one cover tune on the album, a piece written by Saratone, a Portland artist. He also has a track called “Green Is Hot!” a playful list of a song that gives examples of “green” ideas that would help lessen human impact on the environment. Tobias also goes back in history, piecing together Abraham Lincoln’s words with his own in “House Divided,” a folk song about freedom and human rights. “Abe was a wise man/ He knew just what to say/ And many of his words/ Hold true to this day,” he sings.
But the album is not all political. There are a couple of love songs and tracks that touch on spiritual themes. “The Wealth of Kings” is a type of love song because it’s a tribute to Tobias’ mother, who penned the lyrics. She died in 2005. When Tobias was home in Ohio organizing her belongings, he came across the poem. He remembered it being posted at the house with another poem, both displayed in a double-sided, padded cloth frame. “It had been in our house; I had certainly seen it,” he said of rediscovering the poem. “You just look a little closer when you lose someone.”
The Northwest Express features Tobias on keyboards, acoustic guitar, vocals and harmonica. Rich Glauber is on bass, keyboard and vocals, and Nancy Evergreen handles backup vocals. Ralph Novak plays guitars, Sean Brennan is on drums and David O’Tool plays alto saxophone and flute. The album also includes slide guitar by Jerry Zybach, violin by Chip Cohen and contributions from Theo Halpern, Rick Markstrom, Karly Loveling and Eostar.
Tobias knows there are easier ways to earn a living. “It’s just a calling for me,” he said, “and that’s part of ‘The Seed’ thing. ... I just think that if you can do something that inspires one person or is healing. ... “To me, it’s modeling doing what you love and hoping for the best, and that it can sustain you and help sustain people around you.”
The band includes:
Rob Tobias: Acoustic guitar, Keyboard, Vocals, Harmonica
Rich Glauber: Bass, Keyboard, Vocals
Nancy Evergreen: Vocals
Ralph Novak: Electric and Acoustic Guitar, Bass
Sean Brennan: Drums
David O’Toole: Horns, Flute
More info can be found at www.robtobias.com and on Rob Tobias's facebook, myspace, and youtube pages.