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Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers refresh San Francisco Bay area rock'n'soul

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What is going on in Northern California? The region that gave so much to the history of rock'n'roll, from Janis Joplin to Jefferson Airplane to the Grateful Dead, has fallen into the flood and fire season of mass-marketed globalism, with hip-hop driving the big cars, and now something called "California soul" is called, by at least one music scribe, a "sub-genre."
Fortunately, a corner of the San Francisco music scene is holding out, where the vintage sounds remain true, and you can still create music cast to the sea breezes and rogue waves of the Big Sur.
That society includes Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, a relatively new group with an old sound. Leader of a pretty liberated endeavor, Bluhm fronts five male backing musicians with deep resumes of their own and a knack for classic rock, R&B and folksy blues roots older than she is. But her tastes flow that way anyway, she says. With the band consisting of her husband, Tim, on the keyboards and guitars, Deren Ney and David Mulligan on guitars, Steve Adams on bass and Mike Curry on drums, they are now ambassadors of "California soul." Which is, actually, mixed nuggets of a lot of stuff, leaning to the left.
Just the other day, Bluhm says, she was listening to J.J. Cale as well as Joni Mitchell's album, "Court and Spark." And as far as leading a band that makes one think of Bonnie Raitt's cover of the Nick Lowe classic, "Me and the Boys," Bluhm is road-tested and tough. "I think it's hard, challenging to be a strong woman," she says. "But I don't think it's that much different than the software industry or acting ... On the music side of it, if you are good, you are good. But on the business side of it, that's where I see the rub."
On this day, just a week or so before the start of a new tour, the members of the band are more or less scattered to the western winds. Nicki Bluhm is in a van somewhere between Chico, Calif., and the Pacific Ocean; her husband, Tim Bluhm, is preparing to perform in Denver with his own 20-year-old band, the Mother Hips (coming out with a new album, "Chronicle Man," July 15); and another guitarist, Dave Mulligan, is near some beach in Maui, waiting for the call to come in.
Nicki Bluhm says, over the choppy link of a cell phone call from somewhere in Northern California, that the tour will take the band to Chicago, New York and all over the West, especially Colorado, where the mountain hippie ethos reigns supreme. The Gramblers have made good use of the summer festival circuit, and this year they will be playing in the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June.
Asked about the health of the Bay Area music scene, she tries to be helpful. "It depends," she says. Suddenly asked to be a musicologist, you can hear the curves and hazards of the road in her voice. "There's a lot of different styles, and it's pretty healthy with the number of musicians, but I'm not sure what we are doing is exceedingly popular right now. There are a healthy number of musicians, but there are a lot of kids who are into bigger sounds, bigger beats. I tend to draw further back, people like Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and Linda Ronstadt."
In fact, two of the songs the band covers includes Ronstadt's "You're No Good" and Roy Orbison's, "Blue Bayou," which Rondstadt made into a hit. Bluhm is a fan of the Grateful Dead, since her brothers were into that band when they were growing up in the Bay Area in the 1980s and 1990s.
"We all have different reasons for knowing that music," she says. "We all have a little touch of grey in us."
With an album that indicates an eclectic mix of styles, from rhythmn-and-blues, to rock'n'roll with a kind of early 1970s sentiment to perhaps a dose of Stevie Nicks, the band includes four songwriters, which creates a lot of variety. Many more songs are on the way for a new album.
"We just did some pre-production for the next record," she says. "It was exciting to do the new material and it's nice to have multiple writers."
Bluhm began recording songs with husband Tim Bluhm seven years ago and another Dead-head friend, Deren Ney, an acquaintance going back to childhood. The elements of the Gramblers began to form up a year later. The band played with her husband on the keyboards a year ago. But at that point, according to Mulligan, the band had only been playing together for a little more than a year. The self-titled "Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers" album is the production of a musical association, group-wise, of a fairly short amount of time.
"We have a lot more shows under our belt now," says Mulligan, who is from Arizona and has friends and family in Flagstaff. "At the time we had put the album out, we had only been touring for a year. Since then we have learned what works live, and that has informed the energy between us."
Mulligan says if there's one element that has brought the band together, it's a love for Mr. Bluhm's band, the Mother Hips.
"We have all been seeing the Mother Hips shows since we were 18 years old or younger," he says. "It's that 1970s folk; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Everly Brothers, the early Beegees, that West Coast vocal style. Tim's production style takes a unique approach with the vocals and the harmonies. In the time since we started playing together, with the harmonies, once we got that clicking, we got addicted to exploring the possiblities with the vocals."
Compared to the way the opening track to the CD was recorded, "Little Too Late," with the wonderful Tim Bluhm-penned chorus, "It's a little too late to die young," one can see the progress the band has made in the live performances. On the late-night show with Conan O'brien in November, Mrs. Bluhm, with the tambourine in her hands and cowboy boots on her feet, just seems to float soulfully and seductively on the subtle country-rock wings created by the band. Other web searches reveal both the Gramblers and the Mother Hips as a diversified collective of musicians with some pretty big-name connections: Tom Petty, the Black Crows, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir.
Nicki Bluhm credits her husband for making it all happen, and the music they make is now referred to as that sub-genre, "California soul."
"It was a very organic progression," she says of their relationship. "I was doing some teaching and taking care of houses. When I met my husband, he encouraged me to do open mics and I gradually became more confident." She realized she was a professional musician "when you look at your schedule and you realize you don't have time for anything else."
The Bluhms started making records together after the Mother Hips had experienced a rebirth, recording two albums as a duo and contributing to a country music project called "Brokedown in Bakersfield." The Gramblers got a tremendous boost in popularity when they put a series of videos called the "Van Sessions" on Youtube.com. At the point, the self-taught frontwoman appeared to have the charisma and charm of an onstage natural. Yes, California soulman Mr. Bluhm has some eye for talent.
"Tim was with the Mother Hips and he took a chance with me," she says. "I got lucky that he did."
Fortunately, in the biz, good fortune follows a catchy tune, and great optics and a big 'ol voice don't hurt. With a persistent backdrop called the "Golden Gate Bridge" and a songwriting style of country-rock'n'soul with burbling Hammond B3 organ, '70s style electric piano, vintage Gibsons and Fender amps, and a fresh singer who reminds you of a lot of people, when things take off at each bridge to the tune, followed by some pretty impertinent and bluesy folk rock riffs, you get the sense that, damn, this all must sound great live.

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