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Vol 1 | Issue #2 | Spring 2014

Small Sur

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FEATURE 1 – WORDS BY Joseph F. Conway

Daylight Savings

In the late afternoon of an early spring day, Bob Keal crossed the invisible line that divides Baltimore County from Baltimore City, heading south on Route 83. A slough of concrete and jersey barriers, the highway courses from the rural exurbs toward the innermost reaches of the Chesapeake Bay. Smog arched over the road, tinting the golden hour light particulate-brown. Together with the roadway and blocks of row homes on the streets below, the view of the city piled up like a cross-section of muddy riverbank sediment rich with iron.

Bob pulled on the wheel with both hands to sit up and peer at the sky through the top of the windshield. Without saying anything, he settled back again, adjusted the radio and merged toward his exit, turning reflexively for home.

Just an hour earlier, on the north side of the dividing line, he was cutting trail in shin deep snow. At ease with the slow progress of sliding half steps, Bob’s appetite for the place betrayed itself in the enthusiasm with which he urged his dog, Goose, on. The promise of a real, legitimate thaw hung in the air among stands of young hardwoods, still budless and seeming indifferent to the change in seasons. A mile away, at the end of a still-wintered over trail marked only by the shallow, parallel tracks of cross-country skis, Prettyboy Reservoir waited.

As far as bodies of water go, Prettyboy hardly ranks on any kind of grand scale. It’s not much more than a tangled knot of blue on the map; pretty, but the right kind of stone skipped just the right way could make it from one steep, glacial bank to the other. But Bob drank in this half-country oasis, hidden behind an abandoned orchard and the rolling pastures of horse and hobby farms, the way that the rest of us might gulp its actual physical contents from the tap on a hot day.

After eight years in Baltimore, he navigates the city fluently. But as the singer and songwriter behind Small Sur, he’s four albums deep in songs about the reservoir and spots like it—anywhere else with a little natural beauty and some compelling contours. Most of us skim across the surface of these places: a quick swim in the summer or a surf session with friends far from home is just that. Bob soaks in the experience of being there, wallows in the landscape.

It’s a skill cultivated growing up on a working beef cattle farm in Brookings, South Dakota. 120 acres sprawled on the flood-plain of the Sioux River; it imprinted upon him an appreciation for the kind of subtle splendor that takes really looking to see. His mom was a schoolteacher; dad, an agronomist who sold seed corn to the other farmers in the area whose fields met in right angles at odd intervals. Barry Keal grew alfalfa, hay to feed his herd of Shorthorns and enough corn to attract birds in hunting season.

It was a heartland-at-its-utmost, wholesome enough to be idealized as almost exotic outside of the Midwest. The farm is where the whine of the pedal steel comes from on so many Small Sur tracks; Country country, gritty and doleful, graceful and unforced. And the shuffling, near waltzing two-step cadence, too—the time signature of sunsets over the standing seam roofs of farmhouses in every bucolic daydream, ever. How a kid grew up loving George Strait and Limp Bizkit equally and turned that into draping melody over top of sturdy droning tonal centers built on a humble acoustic framework is an only-in-America anomaly of sorts. As is Bob himself.

People sometimes weep at Small Sur shows. Not often, but they do. In an ironic era, it can be jarring to see someone on stage laid out so bare. Bob plays beautiful music and sings poignant lyrics that, out of context, or read aloud without music, can embarrass him. He uses words like “lover” and writes about “falling to pieces” in all earnestness, without the buffer of nod-and-wink, tongue-in-cheek conceit.

A pony-tailed S.N.A.T.C.H. (Sensitive New Age Tender Caring Hippie) casting glancing blows at profoundness comes off slack and undignified. From a guy whose broad shoulders and Clydesdale thighs tell the story of being “over-sported” through the Midwest in in his formative years, the best, sweetest, saddest and most joyful things in life rendered in stark, naked terms tend to ring true. Without the veil of contrivance, gimmicks or the armor of supposedly not giving a fuck about, well, anything, tragedy seems appropriately tragic in Bob’s hands. Love is grandiose; a beach day with friends in Big Sur, sublime. A song about a father who died on the night of his son’s senior prom seems like an appropriate venue for the expression of mourning and sorrow. When Bob sings about peeling off his shirt and laying himself down in the cornfield where his father is buried, there’s no metaphor. It’s fact. It’s history. And deep down, if we’re capable of being as honest as he is, we all aspire to mourn so properly. We just might not have the vocabulary to do so—a howl at the cruelness of life itself, pedal steel arcing over the image of a prone, mud-caked body. Bob does.

Back on the other side of the Baltimore city line, home is now far from that cornfield. For the past few years it’s been a brick row home on the corner of a non-descript street with a hulking Giant supermarket stranded in an immense sea of asphalt in the backyard. The life that Small Sur songs are about lives out in the woods around Prettyboy, on Monhegan Island in Maine, and in the past—on the other side of college in Southern California, a crisis of faith that included a brief walk with Jesus, and in the small towns Bob lived in throughout South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and the Southwest.

Here, in the present, Bob is an ESL-teacher at a public elementary school. For someone with the capacity to assess existence on such an epic scale, he is remarkably grounded. He owns his home and just got engaged. Getting Goose, the dog—puppy, really—was a big deal.

Music is either all-on or all-off, as it always has been. He won’t write anything or practice with his long-standing band (Austin Stahl on drums and Andy Abelow on keys and the just-short-of-sleezy sax interludes) for months on end, then they’ll piece together a set and play around town.

When Small Sur tours it’s on school breaks or over the summer. Playing, like the moments the songs themselves encapsulate, interrupts the droll rumble of day-to-day monotony like lightning in a thunderstorm. In the audience, if it hits you, it hits hard. Split straight down the middle, charred hair on end, at least a few people stagger out of a venue at the end of a night, probably expecting to see Bob sauntering off toward the horizon without a word, guitar in hand. Instead, he’ll inevitably be standing around, laughing with friends, trying not to smoke cigarettes and maybe looking for someone to dominate on a nearby basketball court in a game of one-on-one.



After spending the first decade and a half of my life in and around Brookings, South Dakota, I’ve moved around quite a bit, twelve or thirteen times at last count, so it’s only fitting that the name under which I record and release music is a reference to a place – a moment, really. The name was ascribed to the songs by one of my musical idols, Kyle Field (Little Wings), sometime back in 2005 before I released the self-titled Small Sur EP. It’s a reference to a weekend spent in Big Sur with a group of friends – camping, playing music, lazing about. And that weekend, spent in that place, with those friends, has maintained a strong presence in my music to this day.

When I sat down to think about what songs to include in this feature, I realized that nearly everything I’ve written is deeply connected to a specific place. A few songs are actually named after them: cities, beaches, reservoirs. Others might as well be. Here are just a few.

"Big Sur"

That weekend in Big Sur became this song. We were camping at Plaskett Creek and my friend Jordan blew up his can of franks and beans in the campfire – or maybe it was Michael’s can of beans and maybe it almost exploded. I don’t think it matters, really. What does matter is that this was the first time I can remember feeling overwhelmed with nostalgia for a moment that hadn’t yet run its course.

On the last night of our trip, Michael and I walked across the 1 during the golden hour and he took this picture of me walking around a field that ends as a cliff and plummets straight into the Pacific salt.

"October 22, 2011"

I wrote this song on a busted, out-of-tune, four string guitar that Peter and Katrine had lying around their loft in Boston. The title of the song and the song itself don’t actually have a whole lot to do with each other except for the fact that I finished it that night, October 22, 2011, and then proceeded to play it for a bunch of strangers sitting cross-legged in front of me on the floor. Almost a year to the day afterwards, Peter, Joe and I would find ourselves on Martinique Beach in Nova Scotia, watching the sunset and reveling in the sheer magnificence of the solitary twilight.

This was the third night of our trip. That’s Peter with the Stiegel and me in the water, paddling back out for what would be the final few little peelers any of us would ride that week.


We stayed at Joe O’Connell’s (Elephant Micah) house in Bloomington after playing a show together in Nashville, Indiana at a former country music biker joint turned locavore bar and grill. The next morning we woke up and Andy was messing around with a little riff on Joe’s Rhodes piano. I improvised a few lines over it, Joe scratched away at his fiddle and Austin manned the hand drum. A “polished” version of it is on our record, Labor, but this is the recording from that morning.

The shrubs around the driveway were thriving in the humidity, but Joe and I’s Camry wagons, forest green and a sort of beige-gold respectively, had just enough space to congregate and swap road stories.


It was August 2009 and a friend and I were driving back to Baltimore after spending a few nights backpacking in the Adirondacks. I called Kyle because I knew he had an art show coming up in New York and he was spending some time out east preparing for it. As we drove into Rockaway Beach the sky was split down the middle, one side bright blue, the other smoke black. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Darkness engulfed everything around us and rain fell in sheets; but as quickly as the storm came, it went.

After the rain stopped, we demolished lunch at Rockaway Taco, grabbed a couple of boards, and made a beeline for the water. I hadn’t surfed in a couple of years and was feeling pretty awkward, but Kyle couldn’t have been more comfortable. His board was finless and he was practicing spins, grinning ear to ear.

"The Wind"

My family moved five miles south of town when I was in first grade. It was a pretty big change for my six-year-old self. I couldn’t run down the street and knock on a David’s door anymore, ask his mom if he could come out to play. I had to find new playmates, new entertainment. Often armed with a BB gun atop my trusty mount, a red Giant mountain bike, I became an enthusiastic, if unsettling force in the shelterbelt behind our ranch style house.

Summers were humid and the fields and ditches within a crow’s mile of the Sioux River were almost always flooded. My dad humored himself by calling the area “Mosquito Flats.” He joked about putting up a sign out on the two-lane highway, a beacon to guide the weary traveler toward our paradise of bug bites and soggy tennis shoes. My mom and I visited years later, long after we sold the farm and my dad passed away. Everything was pretty much the same aside from the late model Dodge pickup in front of the house – he always was a Chevy man.


“Weeds” is about my dad. I recorded this version of it with Nathan McLaughlin somewhere in Pennsylvania Amish Country. He and his family were renting a little house on somebody else’s land and one of the back bedrooms functioned as his studio. I got in pretty late on a Friday night and we hit the hay after a beer and some sleep-addled conversation. Early the next morning I captured a few lively birds out in front of his house on my field recorder. Those same bird songs would later become part of the intro to “The Wind,” which is more or less a tribute to the family farm, my father’s playground. I didn’t foresee the deep connection between these two songs at the time, but I’m glad it worked out this way.

"Into The Light"

During the summer of 2012, I worked as a line cook at an inn on Monhegan Island, twelve miles off the coast of Maine. My schedule kept me bellied up to a grill for the better part of six afternoons and evenings a week and I didn’t often get a much of a chance to take in the sunset. But every once in a while there’d be a lull in the kitchen just as a familiar orange-pink blanket smothered everything in sight. I’d pull down my beard net, dash out to the deck and take a few deep breaths before rushing back inside to check on the filets.


Weighing In

Neil Sanzgiri of Soft Cat

"In late April of 2008, in a small room used specially for recording narration overdubs in a sound studio at MICA, I started recording what would become the first track off my first album, later to be titled Wildspace. I was 19 years old and very insecure about playing music at the time. I asked the only other musician I knew in Baltimore at the time to come record a few tracks on a song I was working on. His name was Andy and he had helped me play my first show in Baltimore the past November. A while back he mentioned he played in a band called Small Sur, a name I had seen on flyers around town and if I remember correctly, a band whom I illegally obtained a digital copy of their first album 'We Live In Houses Made of Wood' from the internet.

I was back in Texas, home from college on Christmas break before I finally got around to giving it a close listen. It was one of those albums I could fall asleep to – a compliment of the highest order in my book. The serenity and simplicity of their arrangements are something that would influence me in years to come. At the moment however, I couldn’t fully comprehend it.

As Andy and I continued to work on our song in the studio, I suggested a flute would sound really nice. We were already adding multiple layers of sound and the song was filling up. Andy mentioned Bob played the flute and I asked if he would be interested in joining us. A few weeks later, we met Bob outside of MICA and escorted him up to the studio. This was my first time meeting Bob and as I tried to play it cool, I couldn’t help feeling like he was so much wiser and more knowledgeable than I was, but then again maybe it was the beard. In some sense, I wanted to be just like Bob, yet I knew I never could. I think he picked up on that slightly, and as a result felt a little odd recording with a spastic nineteen year old. We layered Bob’s flute, and eventually electric guitar and vocals, however those few passages of Bob’s flute really defined the evocative capacity of the song.

I remember feeling embarrassed about how much I was relying on studio production and layering things we would never be able to pull off live. He joked about how I would eventually come around to simplifying my sound when I got older, and yet I was heading in the opposite direction. That album kept getting bigger, adding more and more layers. We struggled for years trying to replicate the sounds from that album live, and it really isn’t until my third album this year that I think I finally understood what Bob meant about simplifying.

And in a word, that almost describes Bob and Small Sur perfectly. Simple is effortless and cohesive. Simple is calm and tranquil. Bob’s songs are full of moments that we pass by in life. In order to fully appreciate Small Sur one must focus on the simplest acts of movements in the world – a ripple cause by a leaf falling in a pond, a particularly pleasant storm brewing in the distance of a long drive home - acts that are at once small yet have a large effect on their environment."

Andy Stack of Wye Oak

"I've known Bob and Small Sur for going on a decade now, and I've had the fortune of playing bits and pieces on several albums. I've also sat in with the group several times over the years.

Spareness is a label often attributed to Small Sur's music, but that word doesn't really capture the effect. Hearing a record or watching the band perform always feels like a most welcome lesson in self-control. As a listener, there is such a palpable restraint to this music that it creates it's own kind of gravitational pull, as if Bob, Austin, and Andy are all playing some kind of joke at the pace of modern life. As a performer in the band, Bob's songs ease you into a leisurely near-catatonic state, and you must make damn well sure that the notes chosen convey the right tones, because in Small Sur, each one weighs a ton."