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  • Rich Kassirer

That '70s sound

Nickie Bluhm and the Gramblers jamming in the van.
Nickie Bluhm and the Gramblers jamming in the van.

Not long ago I wrote of my quest to find a new sound, to get outside the now-overcrowded genre of “Americana” – acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle. While I still love the music played by some of the bands in the genre, it is so oversaturated that it is getting impossible to distinguish one from another. Worse, is that many are poor or soulless versions of a more distinctive band. This is much the way I felt when, a few years ago, it similarly happened to the singer-songwriter genre. Time to step away and look for something different. This time I want to rock. I want electric guitars and ear-filling sound.

A couple weeks back I stumbled upon a YouTube video of the California band Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers. The video was shot in their van as they traveled to a gig. They were playing a cover of Wings’ “Band on the Run.” At first I thought it was some kind of joke or parody, but they certainly weren’t playing it that way. They were actually performing on instruments in their van as they drove. It was pretty cool. It turns out the group has done a bunch of these videos, called the Van Sessions, covering everyone from Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, the Allman Brothers, and more.

The videos intrigued me enough to check out the band’s own music, and eventually to see them when they came to the Brighton Music Hall last week.

Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a mind-blowing experience or the new “Best Band Ever,” but after feeling like I just couldn’t take another mandolin solo from Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, it was liberating.

Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers — a six-piece of acoustic and electric guitar, keyboards, bass, drums and singer — carry the torch for that ‘70s California sound, from early Linda Ronstadt to mid-career Fleetwood Mac to Bakersfield country rock.

Nicki Bluhm, tall and skinny with straight black hair, holds down most of the lead vocals, and while not as powerful a singer as Ronstadt, can let loose. The mix at the show, in my opinion, didn’t do her justice. Her husband, Tim Bluhm, also plays in the popular California band Mother Hips. Here he plays keys and acoustic guitar, and is really the strongest singer in the band. He’s got a deep voice that is quite expressive. Electric guitarist Deren Ney has the tough task of being versatile enough to cover the many facets of the band, which he does with ease, moving from long-lost ‘70s-style guitar solos to chugging country grooves.

When the band broke into Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” (also done in one of the Van Session videos), it all made perfect sense.

This is a band that should be heard live, and for those of you who are attending the Newport Folk Festival this year, you will get your chance.

Heed my advice and go hear them. It may open you up to something new to listen to.

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