Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers (Clearwater, FL – Sept 30, 2014)
Even though the calendar says autumn, Florida is still hot in late September. The sun-bleached shores haven’t succumbed to the cooler temperatures of the season yet. California’s Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers are rolling through the sunshine state on a fall concert tour in support of their now year-old self-titled album and a rumbling, soulful song-of-the-road single, “Another Rolling Stone,” released this summer. This dusky evening finds them at Clearwater’s recently renovated, historic Capitol Theater.
An opening set of sludgy blues and psych-drenched swamp rock from Jacksonville’s Daryl Hance brings some of the sub-tropical humidity inside before a short intermission gives way to a darkened auditorium and a dimly blue-lit stage. As Brewer & Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line” is piped through the sound system, the Gramblers amble on, launching into “Deep Water.” Nicki Bluhm joins them, a 1970’s Southern California singer-songwriter’s angel dream in flowing white shirt, long hair in her eyes.
The opening batch of songs, including the ebullient “Hey Stranger” and a barnstorming “Another Rolling Stone,” pack a wallop and after the last chord of the fourth song, “Check Your Head”, reverberates, the band and Bluhm earn an early standing ovation.
Tim Bluhm is the Swiss army knife of the operation, handling vocals, acoustic and electric guitar, as well as organ. He shares the spotlight with his wife on two good time fast-picking country songs, “Till I’m Blue” and “Squeaky Wheel.” Proving themselves the heirs apparent to fabled singing partnerships such as Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris, the couple also do the sweet love song “Think About the Two of Us” from their unassuming 2012 Duets album.
Not ones to hide from their 1970’s influences (there are retro leather bracelets available at the merch table, after all), Nicki Bluhm channels her inner Linda Ronstadt on a cover of that artist’s “You’re No Good,” her band accompanying her with powerful swirls of organ and deep blue guitar . As the show continues, it’s apparent that the Gramblers’ not-so-secret weapon is guitarist Deren Ney. Whether playing crisp fast melody lines, Duane Allman-esque slide, or funky rhythmic backing, he brings a many layered richness to the overall sound and dynamic.
It’s a great band, but the focus is always on Nicki Bluhm. As the line in “Deep Water” goes, she’s “cool as a cactus” – possessed of a natural stage presence and range that carries hard rockers like Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” as well as dark, moody, intense burners like the group’s own “Ravenous.”
The show ends with things brought back to an intimate level, as the band gathers with acoustic instruments around one mic for a lighthearted sing-a-long of the 1962 Bruce Channel chestnut “Hey Baby.” After a fiery encore of “Kill You to Call,” we’re sent back out into the quiet Florida night, ears still ringing, smiles on our faces.