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Country We Can Use: Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers at Taste of Randolph Street

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 Rob Samuelson

Modern country music -- the Blake Sheltons and Miranda Lamberts of the world -- has a focus grouped, homogenized misunderstanding of the importance of form over function. They look the part with their cowboy hats and boots. Lyrically, they employ the same, tired "You and Me" love and breakup songs to suggest the blandly personal is universal. They use the same market tested chord structures and glossy production tools in every song to assure the largest possible audience with none of the connection people have with artists who tinker and mess around.

Enter San Francisco's Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, who played the closing night of the Taste of Randolph Street. They are a country band interested in putting in the work to create a groove and build atmosphere, taking as much inspiration from the Grateful Dead and Fleetwood Mac as Loretta Lynn. In this way, they're country how the White Stripes could be at times. To them, function is infinitely more important than form. Claiming “authenticity” is a difficult, sometimes foolish thing to do, but this band has it.

The Gramblers' songs work, with classic, almost elemental structures and lyrical content that takes a sociologist's view of the world. Other people are more important to Bluhm than herself. Her songs tell stories about bar patrons on the road, sad couples, those barely clinging to their marital fidelity. It's more Nashville the 1975 Robert Altman movie than Nashville the TV show. The storytelling at times feels like an episode of NPR's This American Life set to music in its ability to find the sublime in the mundane.

It's that curiosity for life and people that makes an audience care, not a song about a nameless, personality-free person who broke the singer's heart. Details are everywhere in Bluhm's songs, and they're stronger for it.

On stage, Bluhm and her band are a jovially relaxed bunch. She shambles around, holding a tambourine like an extension of her arm. Smiles can be seen on all the members' faces. They enjoy what they do, but they don't push the audience with desperate, “we're putting on a show so please love us” vibe of other modern country outfits. They understand the need for form, too. They adorn their microphone stands with bouquets of wild flowers, flannels are everywhere, and Bluhm dressed in a high-waisted pair of jeans and a tank top with “Lover” scrawled across it. But the presentation is not a distraction, nor is it as important to them as the songs.

Bluhm's voice has a rasp to it, which she ramped up for a cover of Janis Joplin's “Piece of My Heart” in order to “bring a little San Francisco to [Chicago].” But because she has enough syrup to her vocal cords to counteract the rasp, she sounds better than Joplin's fire breathing whiskey dragon ever did. Her voice is more of the Stevie Nicks school, smoother and dexterous, with a lower register most of the time and the ability to hit the higher notes when necessary; though, importantly, she does not have the same style of witch clothes. The Gramblers, including Bluhm's multi-instrumentalist husband Tim, take their cues from the Allman Brothers and Creedence Clearwater Revival at their twangiest. They have a sonic fuzziness, with plenty of distortion pedals. They take the right amount of classic rock – hand claps! – and incorporate it into their country.

Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers are on tour through October, with a show at Milwaukee's Shank Hall tonight, and they'll be back in Illinois at Danville's Phases of the Moon Festival from September 11 through the 14.  

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