Music is headed in such a different direction now a days with the combination of computers, made up sounds, massive light productions, and just plan technology. I guess this is kind of the way of the world now a day with smart phones, iPads, portable 3D flat screens, and everything else that takes people away from enjoying what is out there and what used to be. Don’t worry Missoula, MT this is not directed at you at all or even any of Western Montana for that part, I still think we have found the perfect combination of keeping it old school with a little bit of new school, but we understand how it used to be and how great and personal things were back in the day and one band that has that same perspective is Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers. This is why last Thursday (Jan 26th) at the amazingly old school Top Hat Lounge you felt like Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers were feeling right at home.
The set started with Nicki’s original hit “Keep it Loose” off of her debut album Toby’s Song. You could see the energy was going to be there from the get go with smiles all around and Nicki doing a little bit of mountain grooving on stage. Her vocals are what catch you instantly, which remind me of a reincarnation of a more folk like Stevie Nicks. Next was a song off the new album Driftwood called “Stick With Me”. This is where I realized a band such as the Infamous Stringdusters would want this band to open for them. It has a country bluegrass start to it that gets you moving and country swaying along with seeing and hearing the combination of perfect matching vocals by Nicki and her husband and bass player Tim Bluhm. They sing the song in a way that was introduced back in the day where each artist sings the song in story telling version as if they are having a conversation with each other, and it was great to see the intimacy the two have for each other during the song as if they are truly convincing each other to trust me and “Stick With Me”. The transition was made and before you knew it and they were instantly into what may be my favorite song of theirs called “Before You Loved Me”. This is the song were I think the band blossoms. It has a slow intimate start and Nicki gets the attention of the crowd with her vocals and heartfelt lyrics. They did what I anticipated and put me into a musical calm daze until the chorus comes over you like an overwhelming musical tsunami where the band explodes as one and pure rock n roll is created. Deren Ney & Dave Mulligan step up in this song playing the acoustic guitars with Deren showing his calm lead guitar shredding power. The energy was built and the band took advantage of playing a game to make everyone step closer to the stage and making everyone feel way more comfortable (Great Move). A song about their home state California was played in bluegrass form as well as “Sante Fe Runaway”, which I personally had never heard before and it impressed me in every way, and it may have taken the gold medal for song of the night. It was upbeat had avenues for the band to jam out and really got the crowd feeling good and warmed up. Deren once again showed off his jam skills and the whole band gave you that 60’s-70’s jam rock /rock n roll feeling that we all love. It all finally clicked during this song for me that the band had made quite the musical adjustment for this mini tour with Infamous Stringdusters, they showed how versatile of a band they are and took all their songs and twanged them up and gave them a more bluegrass feeling. That alone is impressive as it gets for a live band, to be that talented and that open to making some changes; it just shows how much they purely love the music and playing for whomever, wherever, and whenever. Right after having all this go through my fast paced mind Nicki & The Gramblers jumped right into another bluegrass type song that got the crowd moving, jumping, and of course taking down more PBR. Another favorite of mine “Squeaky Wheel” written by Tim Bluhm was played and once again the combo vocals highlighted this song as well as just getting down. They even sprinkled a little funk on to this song with Tim rocking the bass a bit more and Dave holding it all together with the acoustic rhythm, and when you thought this had to be the last song Nicki made sure you did not forget how amazing her vocals and range is with one last slower song called “Rose”. A buddy of mine instantly after this song looked at me and said Sheryl Crow 2.0? It was a perfect ending to a very complete set. You got the last impression in your mind of Nicki can sing and those Gramblers can play.
After watching this show I came to the full realization of why Nicki has performed with such greats as Jackie Green, Josh Ritter, and oh yeah Bob Weir & Phil Lesh. Her vocals, style, attitude, and energy all mix perfectly with those guys, were like I said before it’s all about the music and keeping it old school in a new fast pace changing world. Watching Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers is like watching the West Coast version of Grace Potter & The Nocturnals. They have their musical similarities but both play the music that goes hand in hand from where they are from, power to the West Coast even though Vermont should move over to the West with us – it just seems like a better fit. Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers show no sign of slowing down and will only get bigger. Musically they are what more people need in their lives, something you can sit down to and actually listen, break down, and truly hear what is going on. Thank you for keeping it vintage for vintage Missoula, and I will tell you one thing Missoula wants them back ASAP, can you say summer festival? Oh one last thing do come back to Burgers & Beer as well (Missoula Club) Well Played Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers, well played.