The Mother Hips pack ’em in for the legendary group’s final Chico performance
The Mother Hips are perhaps the biggest act to come out of Chico.
Sprung out of the dorms by way of LaSalles and various backyard parties, they rose from a debauched party band to a tight professional unit, receiving critical acclaim from the San Francisco Chronicle and Rolling Stone.
Now, after 10-plus years of touring and headlining top venues like the Fillmore and smaller venues all over the country, lead guitarist Greg Loiacano is taking leave from the band, most likely to be with his new family, leaving Tim Bluhm as the sole original member. Reportedly, Tim will continue in the music biz, but it’s officially the end of the Hips’ era.
The Hips’ following in Chico always had a strong social context for 20-somethings through the ’90s. The party scene at their Chestnut Street house was pretty legendary ’til they cleaned up their act on personal and professional levels, trading their funky retro look for a more outdoorsy, athletic demeanor.
The boys were always game for sitting in and playing that old Gram Parsons or Merle Haggard song with anyone capable. I remember Greg sitting in at Duffy’s one night with the Pub Scouts playing with Abe Manuel (fiddle) and Eddie (bass) from Merle Haggard’s band as we went through endless jigs and reels. Tim and Greg would show up at Jimmy Fay gigs and do a whole set of Gram and country standards like “Tennessee Waltz.” It was wonderful for me to play steel with those sweet harmonies. Of course many people in town have similar stories.
When the Hips signed with major label American, it looked like the big time for sure. However, their fine offering Shoot Out didn’t get appropriate backing and was buried under American’s bigger acts like Tom Petty, Danzig and Johnny Cash. Within a year the band was without a label.
After the self-produced Later Days album (my personal favorite) with new drummer John Hofer came the ambitious Green Hills of Earth, with the boys sporting a sci-fi look and sitar and straight-ahead rockers with a few sensitive numbers thrown in. GHOE caused quite a splash in the critical world but not enough to rake in the big bucks or a slot on Letterman.
This brings us to their Nov. 20 appearance at LaSalles and a surprise early appearance at Stormy’s, where the band sang five songs with John Bittle at his open-mic night. Word of mouth had gotten around, and the room was packed.
After warming up with “Long Black Veil,” they launched into a beautiful “Can I Sleep in Your Arms Tonight” (same melody as “Red River Valley"). With the campfire vibe coming on strong, the three-part harmonies were luscious—not perfect, but some incredible vocal chord tricks. By “He Was a Friend of Mine,” tumors were being healed and hearts were softening.
Over at LaSalles, the crowd was ready. I have to say that the intro to the Hips’ first song, “Smoke,” was one of those perfect musical moments of power and precision. The rest of the song and the whole set were equally immaculate.
Some of the standouts for me were “Timesick Son of a Grizzly Bear,” “Red Tandy” and “Two River Blues,” with Matthew Struyf on harmonica. These songs all rocked! It was also great to hear “Back to the Grotto,” one of the Hips’ early ones—great changes and great Byrdsish harmonies. They played it much better than they did 10 years ago.
End of the set was “This Is Where I Belong” (a rocking tune not on any album) that transitioned into “Poison Oak,” a 6/8 rocker.
After the crowd went nuts, egged on by a couple of gals and a guy in a teddy bear suit (?!) who had gotten up onto the stage, the lads came back and played three encores: “Whiskey on a Southbound,” “Roll Another Number for the Road” and “I Can’t Sleep at All,” with an intense raga-rock middle part. I forget sometimes how hard these guys rock live. Their records seem delicate by comparison to their live shows.
It will be interesting to see what the band members do now. A friend and I were reading on The Grotto Web site how all their fans wanted to pitch in to a fund to keep the band together. Then we were rolling on the floor laughing, picturing Tim and Greg in fast-food hats like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. Don’t worry, folks, these guys are very bright, resourceful people. They’ll be just fine.