S.F. singer/songwriter Nicki Bluhm visits Chico with her band The Gramblers
“I’d be pretty intimidated playing with anyone else,” says Nicki Bluhm, speaking in a laid-back timbre that conjures up an image of a woman who spends her days sizing up waves on the sun-kissed California coastline.
The striking vocalist/guitarist is still taking in the whole idea of fronting her own band. After all, it wasn’t long ago that Bluhm seemed destined to belt out songs within the collective earshot of only a few close friends.
But it’s easy to understand why the 30-year-old Bay Area native is comfortable playing with The Gramblers. The five-piece includes guitarist and childhood friend Daren Ney, whose musical road has run a relatively stable parallel to Bluhm’s—right down to the two picking up instruments around the same time and eventually going on to play in the same band.
“We’ve been growing together with this project,” Bluhm says. “We’re new at this, and we’re lucky to be playing with these old pros.”
One of the “old pros” Bluhm speaks of is her husband, Tim, whom most Chicoans know as the guy who’s fronted The Mother Hips for the better part of two decades, and sings and plays guitar in The Gramblers (and who will join her along with the rest of the band for tonight’s—Oct. 22—Café Coda show).
The two struck up a friendship in 2005 after meeting at a Hips show. It was Tim who encouraged Nicki to start performing at open-mics, and brought up the idea of recording together. Nicki had already built up a steady repertoire of covers—the Allman Brothers’ “Statesboro Blues,” Zeppelin’s “Hey, Hey What Can I Do?” and “Stuck In the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel—but had never written any of her own songs.
In true country-music tradition, the first song she penned was a loving ode to her dog called “Toby’s Song,” which ended up becoming the title of her 2008 debut after her longtime companion passed away during the recording of the album. It’s a warm and plucky song that gives as equally loving a nod to crackling 45s as it does to Waylon Jennings and Bonnie Raitt.
The entire record—produced by Tim at his San Francisco studio—is a collection of Nicki Bluhm originals as well as a few choice covers, including a version of the Kenny Loggins classic “Danny’s Song.” The Bluhms share vocal duties on several tracks, while some familiar names (Mother Hips drummer John Hofer, Jackie Greene) lend a hand throughout.
There is a certain exuberance and looseness to Toby’s Song, as most of the songs were written in the studio (“For the first record there wasn’t a theme or a whole lot of structure”). And Tim Bluhm—who’s become an old hand manning the boards for his own projects—adds just enough layers, no doubt a result of his love for the glistening sheen found on early Bee Gees and Everly Brothers records.
The centerpiece is Nicki Bluhm’s impressive set of pipes, which could easily stand on their own with only an old acoustic. Then again you don’t want to leave a band like The Gramblers in the studio. Wanting to replicate the sound of the album, Bluhm has taken the band with her on the road. Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers continue to play handfuls of California dates and plan to head back into the studio at the end of the year to begin work on the follow-up to Toby’s Song.
Bluhm says the new record will focus more on harmonies (again with those Everly Brothers and Bee Gees influences). As for the songwriting process … well, it doesn’t sound like much of a process for the young songwriter.
“I don’t force it; I’ve tried and find it just doesn’t work,” she says. “My best songs typically come quickly and as a pleasant surprise.”