A newbie’s take on the Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers phenomenon
Prior to attending the first night of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers’ sold-out two-night stand at Sierra Nevada’s Big Room on Monday, my only exposure to her music was watching the now-famous Van Sessions videos posted on YouTube in which the band covers classic-rock and country tunes in their tour van while on the road.
I was also aware that Nicki is married to a legendary figure in the Chico music scene, Tim Bluhm of the Mother Hips, and that much of the Hips’ ardent fan base is equally infatuated with her group. So with an open mind and a full pint, I jumped right in to see what this Chico phenomenon was all about.
The evening kicked off with un-billed opener the Dave Mulligan Band, made up mostly of Gramblers assuming different instrumental duties, playing a roughly 40-minute set of down-tempo Americana with a couple boot-stomping numbers thrown in. Mulligan—who serves as back-up vocalist and acoustic guitarist for the Gramblers—earnestly sang of “the working man” and offering a shoulder to lean on through hard times, while Tim Bluhm added understated blues licks here and there. The players were more than competent and the music non-offensive, but the lyrics too often strayed into corny, near-parody territory. Indeed, when Mulligan opened a song with the line “There’s a hole in your heart as big as the Grand Canyon,” I couldn’t help snickering into my beer.
But when Nicki hit the microphone around 8:30 p.m., after a brief intermission, she immediately demonstrated why the Big Room was sold out—she can really wail.
From behind a curtain of dark bangs long enough to hide her eyes, she controlled her voice down to the finest nuance, from delicate and wavering to chillingly powerful. She sang with the technical proficiency of an American Idol winner, but backed her precision with real soul and substance. The effect of Tim Bluhm and Mulligan providing supporting harmonies for Nicki’s soaring melodies was particularly pleasing; they offered a rather gruff, grounded base for her otherworldly range.
And unlike a good number of Big Room shows, where much of the drama is in guessing which member of the band will take their noodly two-minute solo next, the Gramblers stayed refreshingly on point, armed as they were with whistle-worthy tunes that stuck with me. For instance, “Little Too Late” (released as a digital single on the band’s website) with its refrain of “It’s a little too late to die young,” is a catchy, memorable and well-structured roots-rock song.
Another standout was “Ravenous” (the B-side for “Little to Late”) in which Nicki’s vocals are reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt’s sultry delivery and the Gramblers provide repetitive, driving bass and keyboard phrases for support.
Throughout the set, the band’s live chops came through as the dynamics of tension and release were exploited impeccably; vamping sections reached a crescendo either via Nicki’s rising voice or lead guitarist Deren Ney’s fiery, exhilarating rock licks (see the latter half of “Ravenous”). And Ney came to the fore on “Little Too Late” as well, augmenting his guitar solo with a monstrous octave effect, showing an admirable willingness to introduce interesting tones to a fairly straightforward rock song.
Hearing Nicki sing was well worth the wait, and Chico’s devotion to her is now quite understandable; she is a captivating stage presence and an inarguably great vocalist and songwriter.
My only question: What the hell is a grambler?