In the middle of her set at the Independent in San Francisco, Thursday night, Nicki Bluhm removed the green sweater she was wearing over a black backless shirt and began to belt out Linda Ronstadt’s country hit “You’re No Good” from when Ms. Ronstadt was a country artist. It wasn’t Linda Ronstadt that I thought of though. I mean, sure the hair is similar, she has the singing chops, hell the vocals may be even better than Ronstadt’s, but it was someone else with more of an edge that came to mind. When Nicki Bluhm was writhing on stage while Dave Mulligan dutifully strummed the acoustic guitar and Deren Ney shredded the electric, it was Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders that came to mind.
Nicki Bluhm is an artist that has become an Internet phenomenon with her “Van Sessions” cover songs used to pass the time while on the road. It was a brilliant idea, but on Thursday she showed she was more than that. She performed songs from her debut album, Toby’s Song, and her sophomore effort,Driftwood, (set to be re-released in July) and the Gramblers, her backing band, were so in sync with her that you’d think they’d been together for 10 years instead of the measly three they’ve been.
It’s hard to categorize the singer and that’s to her advantage. When you think she’s a country artist, she’ll sing a song like “Burnt” off her debut album, a soulful Regina Spektor style track. Bluhm gets on stage and belts out tunes with so much style and charisma that it’s a wonder that it took YouTube to really put this artist on everyone’s radar. When Mulligan and Bluhm started into “Santa Fe Runaway” off of his six song EP, Runaway Blues, the energy was off the charts while Bluhm slithered around the stage with a tambourine and Mulligan showed John Sebastian style smoothness to his voice.
When they played what I consider to be their best song, “Jetplane,” the patrons swayed in unison and the ease with which the vocals emitted from her with such emotion and precision was unlike anything I’d seen before. It is rare to see an artist with such confidence in themselves without making it seem arrogant or phony, but Bluhm is so natural on stage. The song has a ‘70s country kind of feel to it. It’s laid back, comfortable and when Bluhm sings, with her effervescent charm, the audience listens intently to the lyrics, “I don’t know my brother, I don’t know their pain. Each one will tell you the same damn thing, life is like a jet plane.”
In the world of Nicki Bluhm, things are going nowhere but up. Internet phenom, be damned, this is an musician that conjures up images of artists with staying power, star power and the ability to turn an otherwise indifferent audience into a whooping, hollering group of maniacs. What she does is remove any suspicion that she is a gimmick. Nicki Bluhm captures the hearts and souls of people who have long forgotten they had such things.