By Kevin Hogan (@radiator9987)
As I am listening to the encore of the July 21, 1991 show, Trey introduces that night's guest; the Giant Country Horns and “Stevo from New Orleans playing whatever the hell you call that thing.” Like every other fan, I went to phish.net to check the setlist notes. Okay so we learn that Stevo plays washboard. But why was a washboard player from New Orleans at a random Phish show in Parksville, NY? Well we tracked down Stevo to get the story.
Sometimes it truly is a case of right place, right time. For “Stevo from New Orleans” this was the case on July 21st 1991. Summer 91 saw Phish hit the road for a short tour supported by The Giant Country Horns. Of the 14 shows played, 04 were outdoors with the other 10 being a mix of Bars and theaters.
Arrowhead Ranch in Parksville, NY was the only venue Phish played at multiple nights, being a sort of mini festival. The first night saw Phish with The Spin Doctors as support. The second night was a co-headline bill with The Radiators.
That is who Stevo Nelson had gone to see and perhaps sit in with that day, but things turned out differently as he recounts:
(Editor’s Note: The following has been edited for clarity) “I was there to see my friends from New Orleans the Radiators, they were supposed to be the head liner that day and I was going up to say hi and to see ... if I could hang out with them when I was informed that they swapped places.” Apparently The Radiators management had double booked them and Phish took the last slot instead of The Rads to facilitate them making both shows. Stevo continued:
“I had gotten there just as the Rads were about done and I entered the backstage area with my instrument (The SpiceRack) over my shoulder. The (Radiators) crew knew me and (that I) ha(d) performed with the Rads on occasion before. The Rads finished and I was there hangin, (thinking) I missed out (on a chance to sit in with The Radiators).”
Nelson is a New Jersey native who “left to Nawlins' when (he) graduated high school” at 18. He started working at Tipitina's, what he calls his Julliard, and that is where the idea for The Spicerack was planted. Stevo explained the genesis of his iconic instrument.: “There were guys who played the old wooden style washboards in the area, not many but one in particular who had some cool ideas on his rig, mostly tin cans and junk but the concept was cool to me even though I'm a drummer....... I always had a love for drums and percussion ....then one afternoon as i was working at Tipitinas a band pulled up with a small trailer... the bill that night was Clifton Chenier' and The Red Hot Louisiana Band ... they set up as I was working ...they had a guy in the band Cleveland Chenier who was playing an all stainless steel washboard also known as the Frottior or rubboard .... he used Denny spoons to play it an I never saw (anything) like it (before), but the second I saw it I knew I had to ask him where he got it from an if he could get me one. I offered him cash, I was 19 years old then, (and a) few weeks later they came back to play again ...and sure enough he kept his word and gave me a rubboard ...I offered to pay him and he said no …”it’s for you ...take it” .... a very kind gesture. Loved him ... eventually I took it to a new level by adding latin percussion an real instrument sounds an cymbals etc and it morphed into what I use now at age 60 ....so the beauty of it is 40 years of fun on the SpiceRack”
It was The Spice Rack which opened the door to a chance to sit in with Phish.
“I ever really even heard of the band till that day ....I was just waiting to say hello and talk to my buds from the Rads…. a red head guy, Trey, asked me what my instrument was about and if I was with (The Rads) ...I explained the day so far to him an he asked me to play (the Spice rack) for a second ....he loved it an asked me if I wanted to play on the encores with his band ...I asked what kind of music and he said “Don't worry, you'll like it. I'll call you up for the encores. What's your name?” and the rest is history.”
Phish, as we mentioned before, were playing with Dave “The Truth” Grippo, Russell “Killer” Remington and Carl “Gears” Gerhard as The Giant Country Horns. They played a double, 4 song encore that night with Trey announcing before Gumbo “Steve-O from New Orleans” sitting in on washboard or whatever you call that thing.”” After Gumbo we get Touch Me to end the first encore. The band came back on, played Fee and then had Stevo back up for the show closing Suzy Greenberg.
Stevo Nelson has sat in with a who’s who of New Orleans and National acts like Marcia Ball, The Neville Brothers, The subdudes, Rob Wasserman and The Wailers. These days you can find him guesting with local New Jersey bands, like Kevin Hill, Touch of Grey, or Sandy Mac. He also has been a member of the HotTakeOutBand since 1998.