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Mabrey Brothers share music skills

Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2003

A trip to hear the Mabrey Brothers band perform at the Rainbow Bar in Kenai can result in some confusion among first-timers in the crowd.

Figuring out which front man is Bill Mabrey and which is his twin brother, Bob, takes some doing for those who don't know the two. The fact that Bill and Bob play musical chairs with musical instruments and lead vocal duties just complicates matters.

There are some aesthetic ways to tell them apart Bob's blond wavy hair is cut short, while Bill has a beard and hair that hangs to the middle of his shoulders. When they perform, Bob tends to look more controlled and has a clear, enunciated voice. Bill, on the other hand, squints his face into an open-mouthed grin and rocks his body along with the music.

Another difference is Bill is older but only by five minutes.

Ultimately, however, you realize it doesn't really matter who's who the bottom line for music-lovers is the band is acknowledged by many to be one of the best things the central Kenai Peninsula's music scene has going for it.

"I think they're awesome," said Pamela Harris, who has been an avid fan of the Mabrey Brothers for the last five years. "Not only their tremendous sense of repertoire, but how talented each one of them is in the band. It's just so incredible how diverse they are."

This talent and repertoire didn't spring up overnight, however. It is something the brothers have been working on in collaborative music ventures and on their own since they were children.

Bill and Bob were born in Kansas and grew up in the San Diego, Calif., area. Growing up, music was always a part of their lives. Their parents, Richard and Joan Mabrey, are both musicians, Bill said.

 

Bob Mabrey breaks up a song with a saxophone solo. The sax is one of the many instruments he plays.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

As is usual for kids, Bill and Bob learned to read when they were 5. Unlike most kids, however, their father taught the brothers how to read notes and sheet music at that age, along with their ABCs.

All of Bill and Bob's siblings there are three bothers and one sister besides themselves are musical in one way or another and many have careers that deal with music. Everyone in the family can sing and they all used to perform with their parents while they were growing up, a la the von Trapp family in "The Sound of Music."

Along with learning how to read music when they were young, Bill and Bob learned how to play it on just about every instrument ever invented.

"Pretty much give me an instrument and I'll figure out how to make it play," Bob said.

Bob had classical piano lessons for 13 years, took up the drums in seventh grade, played bass guitar in junior high school band, had a brief stint playing the violin and played the saxophone and flute in high school band.

Bill learned the guitar, bass guitar and can play any brass instrument you give him.

"We were the school band," Bob said.

Starting in the sixth grade, they were their own band as well when they started a folk group with some friends. In seventh grade, they moved on to an electric band and have been playing steadily ever since.

 

Bill Mabrey solos during a set with the Mabrey Bros. band at the Rainbow Bar in Kenai.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"We've been fortunate enough to never have been out of work since we were 11 or 12 when we started playing professionally in night clubs," Bob said. "There never was more than a couple of weeks at a time off."

It didn't take the Mabrey brothers long to decide what they wanted to do with their lives. The first time they were introduced to the concept of professional musicians, they were hooked.

"It was the Beatles that made us want to play," Bill said. "We saw the Beatles play on ('The Ed Sullivan Show') and said 'You mean they get paid to play music?'"

After high school, Bob became a music major at Southwestern College in the Sand Diego area. While attending school he played in a mariachi band and a soul show band call Quiet Fire that opened for the Temptations, Brass Construc-tion, Dorothy Moore and others.

Bill went straight into full-time music after high school with a rock band called Mad Dog. It wasn't long before Bob got the itch to play full-time as well, so he dropped out of school and joined the band.

Mad Dog lasted seven years and played mostly in the San Diego area. After that they joined the newly-formed Automatics, a touring '80s punk rock and new wave "bad hair" band, Bob said. The Automatics got booked to play at Chilkoot Charlie's in Anchorage in 1982, which brought Bill and Bob to the state for the first time.

"I said 'One day, I'm going to live here,'" Bill said. "People here would smile and look at you and say hello."

"We both fell in love with the place," Bob added. "Here you can say hello to a policeman,"

 

Bob Mabrey does vocal duty on stage at the Rainbow.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The attitude in the Alaska music scene was a pleasant change from what the brothers had experienced in the Lower 48, as well.

"In California I never really felt like I fit in," Bob said. "The whole mentality down there is real superficial. You get the attitude where there's no in between. You either play originals or play covers, you can't play both but I just like playing music. I don't care if I play my stuff or other people's stuff or some combination of the two."

Toward the end of the '80s the Automatics phased into the Barking Spiders, a '70s revival touring band with a core repertoire of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd covers that Bill, Bob and a bass guitarist started at Chilkoot Charlie's.

During one of their Alaska tours in this time period Bob met his future wife, Jeannie Fauser, who moved to California with him, where they got married and had a daughter, Tyler, now 11. Bill also got married in California, to his wife Jan, and had kids Ray, now 10, and Matt, now 12.

As their kids neared school age, Alaska looked better and better as a year-round home.

"We didn't like the way things were going down in San Diego with our lives," Bill said.

 

Bill Mabrey mingles on the dance floor during a tour around the bar during a song.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

For Bob, the decision to move came in 1992 after his car was stolen for the third time in a nine-month period.

"I just was tired of the stuff you had to deal with in the big city," he said.

He got offered a job playing with Horse Feathers, a country and country rock band playing at the Rainbow Bar in Kenai, so he took it.

Bill followed a few years later after he, too, got fed up with the California scene.

"I said 'Let's sell everything and move,' and we did," he said. "I didn't have a job, I just came up and found work playing music."

Bill played solo and duet gigs around the peninsula for a while, then joined a blues band called Stop Drop and Roll with Bob at the Goodnight Inn in Soldotna.

 

Drink glasses, set lists, cigarettes and discarded lingerie fill a counter next to the Mabrey Bros. band's stage.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Six years ago, the owners of the Rainbow Bar were looking for a variety band that would play blues, rock and country music. Bill and Bob took the job, recruited drummer Dale Pease from Anchorage and the Mabrey Brothers band was born.

The current makeup of the band, which has stayed the same for the last three years, includes Bill, Bob, Pease and bass guitarist Paul Wright.

"This is probably one of the best combos I've worked with," Bob said. "There's a lot of talent here, artistically."

In six years of playing at the Rainbow, the band has only been absent a few times a year when they get other gigs that are too good to pass up, like opening for REO Speedwagon at the Egan Center.

Though the Rainbow is their home, the band can be seen performing at a variety of other venues during the year, like the KDLL Art and Music Festival, the Kenai Central High School Pops Concert and various other local school and community events.

Pamela Harris said one of her favorite memories of the Mabrey Brothers is from a festival for at-risk teens when rain caused most of the bands to cancel.

"These guys showed up for like a handful of kids," she said. "We really had a good time. I really admired that about them their heart."

 

Paul Wright works the bass during a recent performance.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Bill and Bob's involvement in the local music community goes beyond their band.

"We try to play any time they let us," Bill said.

Bob has directed the orchestra for "Annie Get Your Gun" at Soldotna High School and has been involved in several Kenai Performers productions, including playing in the pit orchestra for "The Music Man," conducting the orchestra for "The Wiz" and playing Uncle Max in "The Sound of Music." He has recruited Bill and Pease to play in the orchestra for several of these endeavors, and had Bill help him record music for kids to sing along to in a recent children's theater "Winnie the Pooh" show.

Recording songs about a portly bear's love of honey is probably a far cry from the dreams of fame, fortune and stardom Bill and Bob had when starting their careers. Now 45, the brothers say they don't regret the turns their lives have taken, even if they did lead them off the music fast track.

"I'm pretty happy with where my life has gone and where I am right now," Bob said. "I wanted to be rich and famous, but now that I have a family, I'd rather do that."

 

Dale Pease is the Mabrey Bros. band's drummer.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

They spent a decade touring all over the western United States, drumming up new gigs and getting to them in vehicles that could break down at any moment. As they got older, that lifestyle held less appeal for them.

"I met my wife and got married and changed my priorities," Bill said. "I just want to have a steady job playing music and not travel for six months of the year."

The brothers have had high points throughout their music careers that would impress any hard-core aspiring musician, including opening for Cheap Trick, the Moody Blues, the Tubes and the Bus Boys, jamming with Ted Nugent and releasing a record during their time at Chilkoot Charlie's.

Then there are other accomplishments that have nothing to do with chasing a dream of rock-star status that Bill and Bob list with an equal amount of pride. For Bob, it is his involvement with the Kenai Performers. For Bill, it was when he wrote a wedding march and had Bob play it during Bill's wedding ceremony.

They both include being involved in their kids' activities and sharing their love of music with their kids as high points, as well.

"Really, my whole life revolves around my family and my music," Bill said.



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