Later Days saint

Former Mother Hips frontman Tim Bluhm gets intimate with his listeners

Tim Bluhm, revving it up on a Gibson hollow-body.

Tim Bluhm, revving it up on a Gibson hollow-body.

It can be a strange and staggering thing to watch Tim Bluhm take the stage these days. A man who fronted the Mother Hips for a decade, Bluhm helped build one of the area’s most successful regional acts. Yet, now there is no wall of sound blasting out from behind him, no wail of guitars and drums, no slow burn of psychedelic Gram Parsons freakout that was the Hips in their prime.

Instead, what appears on the stage is more akin to a homeless Wizard of Oz scarecrow: a tall, gangly man who folds himself onto a barstool with an acoustic guitar and begins to sing. There is no pretense and no call to order, but the audience falls immediately silent. One senses that this is a man who has been into the mouth of the lion and has come back to tell everyone about it.

Bluhm has indeed been on a wild ride, but in listening to his new solo release, The Soft Adventure, it becomes immediately clear that rather than bring back despair from his journey, he brought back an indeterminate sense of hope. “I just did those recordings because I was feeling a little crazy,” Bluhm explained. “They made me feel more normal. Kind of like writing down the things that are bothering you so you can really look at them outside of your head and sort them out.”

It is this sorting process that may have inspired Bluhm to flesh out the six new recordings with a re-release of his 1995-1996 solo project, Colts. Combined on the same CD, the result is like a retrospective of Bluhm’s approach to songwriting. The first track is particularly effective, both in terms of setting the mood and in introducing a philosophical model for understanding Bluhm’s songs. Titled “Tear It Down,” the piece is a contemporary, California-flavored version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Bluhm sings of masses of people, confusion and his current sadness at the state of the world, ending with the line “It hurts my heart and mind to say I have to tear it all down.” The replacement: a sort of hallucinatory world where the singer flies over oyster beds and rides through mermaid hair. The moral: Change is possible if we have the patience to get there.

It’s just this kind of fine line between the mundane and psychedelic with which Bluhm works so effectively in his solo work, and the relatively quiet instrumentation employed on his new CD and at a recent solo show at Old Ironsides brings to the forefront both the songs and a sense of subtlety. “Playing solo is pretty neat if I am in the right setting,” Bluhm said. “I like not having to concern myself with anybody else. I don’t have to rehearse the song. I don’t have to match up phrasing or tuning or dynamics. There is great freedom in that. And my ears don’t ring when I go to sleep.”

On the other hand, don’t think for a moment that Bluhm has gone from fronting the Mother Hips to becoming another sensitive singer-songwriter; Bluhm’s current tour features established psychedelic folk-rock act 5Foot Tuesday as his backing band. A far cry from the quiet singer-songwriter represented on The Soft Adventure, Bluhm’s live work with 5Foot Tuesday is the sort of incendiary psychedelic folk rock that the Mother Hips were famous for.

Whether Bluhm’s first proper solo release, due out in February 2004, will be similarly flavored remains to be seen. Engineered by Scott Solter (of John Vanderslice and the Court & Spark), and featuring multi-instrumentalist Paul Hoaglin and members of 5Foot Tuesday, the album promises to be the first extended take on post-Hips Bluhm. We’ll just have to be patient to find out what exactly that means.

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