By guest blogger Adam Kukic. Back in 2012, a little known group of vagabonds hit the road, recording song covers in their van as they drove from city to city. The group was Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers, and the result of their musical odyssey was a series of videos that became known as the “Van Sessions.” They taped themselves singing versions of songs ranging from “Here Comes the Sun” to “The Lido Shuffle,” posting a few on YouTube and hoping they’d pique the interest of a handful of viewers. Little did they foresee the massive audience they’d attract, and the success these covers would garner. As of today, their version of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” has had almost two and a half million views. In fact, Hall & Oates themselves are fans of the cover!
Hailing from the San Francisco area, Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers are a bluesy six piece band that quickly progressed from making music in a van to recording in a studio. Their self-titled debut release makes the listener yearn for hot, humid summer nights and cheap beer.
Ms. Bluhm is a vocal chameleon of sorts (which makes sense when looking at those she’s covered). She’s performed with the likes of Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes, Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule, and Phil Lesh and Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead. All of these artists have clearly influenced Nicki and The Gramblers, bringing an immediate sense of familiarity to the album.
Bluhm’s talent clearly equals that of her peers, Shannon McNally, Brandi Carlile and Grace Potter (with whom she’s performed). While this may come across as excessive praise, I feel it’s well deserved. Bluhm can clearly hold her own; however, it’s also possible to get lost in the shadow of these other artists. The album’s songs that initially grabbed my attention stood out because of the similarities to her fellow singers and other musical influences.
The best example of this is “Ravenous,” an almost spot-on channeling of Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, circa 1975 — in particular, their performance of the iconic “Rhiannon.” In fact, “Ravenous” would be a perfect song for Nicks to record on a future album, as it fits her voice and style to a T. (And, given the singer’s resurgent popularity via her appearances in American Horror Story: Coven, the idea of a new Nicks album would be warmly received!)
Several tracks on the album complement the vibe of groups that draw on the energy of summer. While this album was a late August 2013 release, it seems to be picking up traction and could easily show up on summer 2014 playlists, especially the lead single “Little Too Late,” as well as “Go Go Go”.
On this album the band has clearly moved beyond the cover songs that initially brought them fame. Bluhm and company wrote all of the disc’s tracks, with the exception of the R&B soaked “Check Your Head,” which singer/songwriter Steve Poltz penned for the band (he’s probably best known for his collaborations with Jewel Kilcher on her debut album).
“Till I’m Blue” and “Always Come Back” are duets performed by Nicki and her bandmate/husband Tim Bluhm (the couple released an album in 2011, appropriately titled “Duets”). “Always Come Back” serves as a love letter to their home state of California, while the album’s closer, “Willow Tree,” is an even gentler track that evokes the feel of the perfect morning (sleeping in, drinking coffee, writing songs).
While the Van Sessions was a fabulous road-trip “cover song” concept that put the band on the musical map, Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers have lots more to offer. Let’s hope their fans come to embrace the group’s original songs and sounds with the same enthusiasm.
Here’s Nicki and the boys recording “I Can’t Go For That” in the van. Click here to visit the band’s website.
© Adam Kukic, March 11, 2014
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