Sunday night, in an intimate KC Turner House Concert set at the doorstep of the grand Pacific, Tim & Nicki Bluhm along with friend Scott Law filled about fifty people with true blue delight. The show was not mystical, not heavy, not wound up in too many emotions. It was the lighter side of Americana — a good time, a couple of acoustic guitars, crazy tight and beautiful harmonies, and unfalteringly great musicianship as the trio wandered through a setlist drawing not only their own tunes but some well-placed covers as well. File under: Americana, blues, bluegrass, renegade or classic country, with hints of CSNY-styled classic rock.
There was also free beer. Thanks to Sierra Nevada, two coolers full of Pale Ale cans were nestled in the kitchen waiting for us all. “Lotta problems go away with free beer,” said Tim. “Lotta problems start with free beer,” said Nicki.
Tim Bluhm is a known name around these parts, or if you don’t know it, it’s because you know his band The Mother Hips instead of him. While this was my first opportunity to see him perform, it was clear that this is a man who has honed a raw talent across decades. He gives the impression of wisdom borne of sadness and grief, held at bay by the music. The opening song, “Later Days,” a Mother Hips tune from their album of the same name, turned me on to this feeling — “And the sunny field is darkened by / the shadows I am harkened by / Could you hold me tight through these later days?” But lyrics like this seemed as deep as they would dip into darker emotions in this set, and they didn’t dip as deep as Tim’s velvety rich baritone.
To his right, his wife, Nicki Bluhm. She’s been getting increasingly more buzz (with her Gramblers) and for great reason. In complement to Tim’s old soul voice, Nicki’s feels young and free-spirited. There’s an effortlessness in it that is endlessly attractive. At the same time, lingering at the edge of her voice is that smokey old soul. Her control and dynamics could roar into the quietest chorus you’ve ever heard. Not one shrill note, not one note out of place or out of step with her bandmates. She won our hearts with the harmonies, wowed us with her songwriting, and left us clamoring with covers like Sippie Wallace‘s “Women Be Wise,” and the bittersweet Tammy Wynette and George Jones duet “Golden Ring.”
Scott Law was new to me, but with slightly overgrown hair, stubble on his chin, and a warm smile, he was instantly likable. He led out the second song, the Danny Barnes tune “Get It While You Can,” with a bluesy riff singing about coming home to find his “pick up truck’s on blocks and the landlord changed the locks.” His voice evoked great bluegrass and old time voices like Dan Tyminski, and his guitar solos carried that same quiet fire with which the whole evening was ripe.
The fourth player in this trio was Harmony. It was of such a caliber that it deserves its own paragraph. It was of such a caliber that if I heard a recording of it I would guess that surely it had been produced after the fact. The duetting harmonies of Tim & Nicki sounded like an Americana fairytale, the sound of a love story replete with kindness and generosity. The triple harmonies were visceral; they carved intricate lattice work into the face of a mountain. Matching vibrato, texture, volume, timbre always. Sometimes they switched positions mid-lyric and Tim took the high parts and Nicki dipped baritone. Perfection is too simple a word, but it’ll have to do.
It might have been the free beer, but the applause was louder after each song. (Hopefully not disturbing the youngest of the home’s residents whose only trace was an infinitesimally small pair of bowed Mary Janes tucked in a corner.) And the crowd, though clearly devoted and hushing one another (sometimes in jest) as songs began, was high and happy. It was also an older crowd. Not old. Just a little bit older than your average, which brought a particularly charming joy to the choruses of “It’s a Little Too Late To Die Young,” from Nicki’s eponymous 2013 album. We all sang along on that one.
Photos by Meryl T. Press