OMG this is really happening

Tim Bluhm

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2014 is shaping up to be a productive year for the Hips, with the recent download release of the band’s fan-fucking-tastic second Ultimate Setlist Show, the forthcoming archival release Chronicle Man, the sixth annual Hipnic Festival in Big Sur next month, and choice live dates throughout spring and summer including the group’s happy return to High Sierra Music Festival in July. The Impound will be dishing out fresh Hips content throughout the year, including a lengthy chat with bassist Scott Thunes and an advance review of Chronicle Man in the not-too-distant future.

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

A fine gauge of an artist’s merit is how well regarded they are by their peers. Yes, one wants to please their fans and awards & rewards are swell, but respect, admiration, and influence carry a price above rubies and applause. There are few modern rock singer-songwriters more widely cherished and valued by his peers than Tim Bluhm of Bay Area champs The Mother Hips. His songs are gorgeously etched, an engaging interplay between dead solid fundamentals and clever, unexpected twists, and the way he delivers them – a voice filled with curiously curved emotion and unmistakable intelligence riding melodic waves and rushes of guitar goodness – further draws one in.

Other musicians, if they have half a brain, recognize that there are valuable things to be learned from Bluhm, and those fortunate enough to work directly with him categorically say he brings out the best in them, helping reveal what works in their music and helping them jigger what’s not. Put more simply, Tim Bluhm is a resoundingly great all-around musician who has proven ceaselessly interesting since he first emerged in the 1990s. Those that know his music understand that Bluhm is a cut above the vast majority of rock in 2014, and it’s only the general injustice of the universe that he isn’t rich as a sultan and as revered as Conor Oberst, Jim James, and Ryan Adams.

The Impound thought it would be fun to peel back a few layers of Bluhm’s musical mind so we asked him about the latest Mother Hips album, his thoughts on the Grateful Dead, working with David Simon-Baker, and more. As one might suspect, Tim had insights and off-handed wisdom to spare in his responses.

It’s not as if you’ve ever shied away from philosophical subject matter but Behind Beyond dives directly into some heady ontological waters – you send us back into the ocean by the first chorus, evolution in reverse. What prompted the exploration of big ideas in your tunes this time around? Was there some underlying “thing” you were trying to work out, get at, etc?

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

I suppose as we get older our experiences start showing us that life is fragile, that “safety” is a superstition. And that is a sobering thought. I had an experience that is addressed in the song “Behind Beyond” involving my dad and me. We had met up in the backcountry for a day and night. When we parted he was simply walking away from me down a ridge, turning and waving every so often. Due to the open terrain I was able to watch him for quite a while, growing smaller and smaller, disappearing into the vast alpine landscape. When he was finally out of sight I found myself alone in the silence, crying uncontrollably for a long time. I tried to write the song for months before I figured out how to make it work. You can’t just tell the story. It needs to operate on a deeper level because it’s dealing with some archetypal stuff.

Both you and Greg have matured a lot as songwriters over the decades, a fact resoundingly clear on the new album where you both move with confidence into interesting spaces that still rock. 20 years into this collaboration what traits do you think stand out in your songwriting and what stands out for you in Greg’s writing?

Greg Loiacono by Jay Blakesberg

Greg Loiacono by Jay Blakesberg

I suppose our most outstanding trait is originality. I feel like Greg and I have, for the most part, consistently challenged the clichés of rock. It hasn’t always been graceful or successful, but it has worked for us much of the time and it has protected us from the largely unsavory arena of commodifying one’s art. You’re not going to hear a lot of bands covering the Hips because the song forms and the guitar voices and the vocal arrangements are intentionally “encoded.” That is not because we want to prevent other people from playing our songs but just because that was how we strived to be innovative when we started out as songwriters. Lyrically, too, Greg and I both choose content and/or topics that we deem to be relatively untapped.

For myself I have noticed that, while still writing about personal subjects and experiences, I have tended to submerge them into contexts that are fictional or historical or abstract. I still want to expose and explore the human experience, but long ago I grew bored of always singing about “me.”

Tell me a bit about working with Dave Simon-Baker. You two collaborate a fair bit and this creative relationship is a bit different than what you share with the Hips because it plays to your ever-developing producer side. To my ear, what you guys do together is weave a sound a lot of modern producers and engineers have a hard time getting on tape (or digital storage format), which is an immediacy that’s redolent of a live performance but with greater separation for the instruments and punch & clarity in the vocals. It has a feel that’s wise to the ways of musicians rather than layering something over what a band has laid down.

David Simon-Baker

David Simon-Baker

Dave and I made a lot of records together at Mission Bells and we learned plenty about all the bands we worked with and we learned plenty about recording in general. With the Hips we had the chance to do two records back-to-back, which gave us the opportunity to learn exponentially more about how the band could work best in the space we had. Playing to the strengths of the Hips, we all decided we’d do as much live performance as we could and then resist the powerful temptation to do a lot of digital editing afterward. Of course, we over-dubbed a bit of guitar and voice and keyboard on most songs, but we staunchly preserved the original performances. That is the easiest way to make a recording have “an immediacy that’s redolent of a live performance.” But the band has to be able to play well in the studio setting or that approach won’t work. As for the pleasing sonic qualities, that is attributed to Dave’s talent, experience and hard work.

“Jefferson Army” may be the prickliest tune you’ve ever penned, but it’s also become a fast fan favorite from the new crop. Where’d this one come from? Were you conscious of the Tea Party overtones? Is it okay that I chuckle every time I hear the line about Red Dawn? Are you championing the idea of secession? Are you feeling ornery these days, what with the lead flying in “Jefferson Army” and the fistfuls of whoop-ass on “Creation Smiles”?

OMG_Tim_Jefferson

I read Jack London’s The Iron Heel and it really felt like it was set in and around the Bay Area. The novel is a kind of future history, a fantasy that has its roots in actual events. It reminded me of the State of Jefferson secession movement. I thought it’d be a worthwhile thing to kind of extend the State of Jefferson concept into a dramatic future history. I am not real up on the Tea Party line, unless we’re talking about the Boston Tea Party. Because of that I’m not concerned with any political slant within the song. I don’t like that. It’s just a narrator that we’re listening to who is a soldier in his self-proclaimed “Jefferson Army.” Those guys say some crazy shit but I find it very interesting.

I would say I’ve always been a bit ornery, no more now than ever before. There’s plenty of good vibes on this record, too, for what it’s worth.

What are your thoughts on the Grateful Dead and any influence/overlap they have with The Mother Hips today and in the past?

OMG_Tim_Grateful

The Grateful Dead is a part of the psychic landscape of California. I came to their music late and it’s been so enjoyable to hear it and learn some of it. Theirs is such an appealing legacy, too, because it encompasses more than just music. They played a key role in the birth of a significant social and cultural movement that continues to be hugely influential. Not many groups can claim that. The fact that most of them are still around and are still making things happen is great. That many of us next-generation Bay Area musicians have had opportunities to make music with them is so fortunate. It’s a special time to live in the Bay Area.

The Hips had always intentionally tacked away from the Dead’s influence. But then we stopped doing that. Behind Beyond has a number of deliberate Grateful Dead references.

What makes a good song? When you first began writing your own songs what sparked you in other’s writing? What sparks your imagination now as you draw inspiration from other craftsmen?

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

Because I’ve been playing so many live shows in the last few years I have mostly been experiencing other people’s songwriting in a live setting. Perceiving what is happening to the audience as well as to myself is something my performer-brain is always doing. If I am getting touched by a song I can’t help looking around and seeing how other people are reacting.

If I get moved by a song, then it’s a good song. If I don’t get moved, I guess it could still be a good song. Who knows? There are different ways to look at the thing.

I grew up listening to old rock music – Buddy Holly, Little Richard, the Beach Boys. Most of it was pretty straightforward lyrically. Later, of course, I got into Zeppelin and Sabbath and the Stooges but that didn’t make me think about songwriting. That was about power and strut.

When I first heard Neil Young’s early solo stuff I had a shift inside. His strange, high, pretty voice was saying some words that expressed stuff that wasn’t straightforward. It was self-reflective but it was also innocently mystical, almost childlike, a strange foreigner. Musically, he was using familiar forms but he was tweaking them a little so you couldn’t quite recognize them or predict them. I internalized those things and they became important to my songwriting.

These days I read a lot of books, searching for a voice that makes me put the book down and start writing.

Just as I’m sure you’re the only rock songwriter to ever use the word “egress,” I’m also sure you’re the only rock ‘n’ roller referencing history like Richard Henry Dana and his grizzly bear observations. What’s the allure of going deep and specific about history in the song format?

I came to songwriting from studying and trying to write poetry in college. The lyrical content has always come first for me. Since I was interested in history as well it is only natural that I would write songs that contain historical references. Rock songs don’t have to be always be about love, angst, drugs, touring, and Lord of the Rings. They can be about whatever you want them to be about as long as the voice is believable.

More than a few folks have commented to me recently that your guitar playing of late is particularly fiery, tasty and other complimentary adjectives. How do you think you’ve developed as a guitarist? How does what you do on the instrument dovetail with Greg?

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

Since I never learned anything formal about guitar I have always felt a little like an outsider when playing with other guitarists, with the exception of Greg. He and I value the same things in guitar expressions. Many times those values do not “compete” with chops that most experienced guitar players use frequently to express themselves. I have had to come up with my own way of getting to where I want my guitar parts to go, and to overcome insecurities related to that. It has taken a long time, and it is still a work in progress, of course. It helps me to have consistency of tone. Over the last few years I have worked really hard on getting the right sound to come out of my equipment. It has taken patience and the help of many people smarter than me. That makes a huge difference in how well I can perform and do what I feel like doing with the guitar.

Have The Mother Hips ever considered crafting an epic studio work akin to The Who’s Quadrophenia or even a thematically linked album like The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow? Your albums hang together well but it doesn’t seem you’ve ever tried to impose an overarching theme or contiguous storyline. Any interest in such bold creative statements?

We’ve definitely considered doing a concept album. It is a very ambitious thing, and I think it is often the result of one of the band members kind of taking over the creative vision, a creative coup, and not necessarily a blood-less one. That isn’t gonna happen in the Hips. But who knows? Maybe someday Greg and I will put our heads together and come up with a concept.

A fair amount of Mother Hips fans still gravitate to the early material, especially the first three albums and live rarities from those days. What do these songs mean to you now, and any theories about why this music has remained so relevant for many fans? Is there anything you’re tired of playing that you simply can’t take out of the rotation because it would upset folks too much? The drummer from Journey has told me about the “Dirty Dozen” they have to build every setlist around or they’ll get lynched by the audience.

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

We sort of have the “dirty dozen” I guess, but not like bands that have had hits. The Hips only have favorites. People will argue about which are the best Hips songs but there are no charts to back anyone up. It’s kind of nice, really.

As the older songs get older and their inceptions recede into the good old days, I find it easier to enjoy them objectively, taking no responsibility for them, just checking them out and letting them work on my emotions like any other song I’d hear. But there is a satisfaction with seeing all of them build up and not disappear. After all, the hope is that one’s body of work will outlast one’s body.

As far as getting tired of playing any one song too often, of course that happens. There’s an easy fix for it though, and like I said, none of our songs could ever be called a hit, and therefore none is essential for any given setlist. I’ll just refuse to play a song I’m sick of until I’m not sick of it anymore.

Tell us a bit about playing with John Hofer. His swing and style have become marbled into the Hips’ sound since he joined but he’s a lot different than Wofchuck. How is it different to ride the rhythm of these two dudes?

John Hofer by John Margaretten

John Hofer by John Margaretten

When John joined the band, Greg, Ike and I quickly realized that we had developed a very odd collective sense of tempo. With Wofchuck on drums, the whole band would unconsciously do these very pronounced tempo shifts. John started playing the songs with us and we would get to a chorus, and he would keep playing the same tempo and we would slow down about 8 BPMs and the song would train wreck. Hofe would look at us and say, “What the fuck are you guys doing?” And we’d say, “What do you mean? You fell off the horse.” But we soon realized it was us that had never even learned to ride a horse. We fixed that after a time, but then we started reintroducing it on purpose because it has a tremendous power to it. The exaggerated tempo shifts are kind of a Hips trademark. Hofer is such solid drummer that the listener just believes the story that he’s telling, even when it involves a surreal element.

What do you think the biggest misconceptions about The Mother Hips are? What is on the money and what is off the mark in the Hips’ general impression/pop culture soundbite? Perhaps the real question here is what are the Hips about at their core?

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

Tim Bluhm by Andrew Quist

The Mother Hips are about amalgamating the obscure sounds and ideas that we were exposed to in our collective formative years as youngsters, musicians and songwriters. There is a distinct landscape that was created all those years ago, and the possibilities that we can extract from it, when we can connect to it, are limitless and will certainly outlive all of us. It was created when we were young and music was always pure magic. We brought our childhood influences and impressions together with some old but new-to-us music and had the time and the innocence to be a part of creating a unique little world.

Sometimes I hear someone say that the name is the worst they’ve ever heard, that it scared them off for years until they finally, accidentally, heard the music. That is unfortunate, but I can relate to that kind of judgment. The band was named so long ago that I can neither defend nor condemn the naming of it. It is what it is. People have to get to the music however they need to, and some people just won’t. It’s not for everyone.

For whatever reason, I think the way we were perceived, especially early on, was as a jam band or a hippie band (back when hippies were not very cool), which is ironic because no one hated that genre and that label as much as the Mother Hips. How that label was bestowed upon us I will never know. But it just drove us deeper into a place where we simply didn’t give a shit what other people thought or wrote about our music. We recoiled into our own world instead of actively trying to re-brand ourselves with an image that was more agreeable to us. That reaction served the music very well, but it probably hurt our commercial prospects at a time when we had some legitimate opportunities. I don’t regret it, honestly. We’re still here, and nothing external has ever changed us or our artistic vision.

Baby, You're A Star!

new artists to notice

The Humidors

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There are many more ways to get funk wrong than there are ways to get it right. Funk is seemingly simple but in reality it’s a complex dance of contradictions. Like any tributary that flows from jazz, it requires chops BUT it simultaneously demands organic looseness, ass-activating swing AND clear-eyed discipline measured out with intuition and crowd-reading sensitivity. Funk is often best served up on stages, fueled by the heat of bodies and the sweat a band wrings from the audience BUT the best purveyors of funky stuff know how to deliver the goods in the studio as well (see just about every 60s/70s James Brown album as proof). Funk also asks musicians to blur genre lines in a most conversational way, groove being the underlying unifier but growling rock, saucy Latinismo, belly fire blues and more tilt the music in all sorts of directions. It requires players to straddle several realms simultaneously AND still make folks move, and similarly, the lyrical content of good funk needs to be both streetwise-philosophical AND nuanced to accentuate hip grinding movements.

Debut Album

Debut Album

So, with so many moving parts and so many places to slip up, it’s a real pleasure to come across a funk-soul debut like the self-titled inaugural release from San Francisco’s The Humidors. This young, hungry band just gets funk right. Things are tight when they need to be and voluptuously flexible when that’s the right thing. The Humidors play as a unit, and even as single instruments float into foreground – the solos are lean models of how to do this shit without wasting time or showboating – it’s the overall group feel that ensnares one.

From the first rushing notes of “Fat Cakes” – there’s something pleasantly old school about their song titles – it’s nakedly obvious this band is after “it” – the big groove, some truth, a good time, etc. – and they pursue their goals with breathless, focused intensity. Sharpened in Bay Area night spots, this is the refined version of The Humidors’ hopping, downright humid live shows. “Gospel of Funk” and “Funk You to Death” are suitably scorchers, and they show some darker hues on “Filthy Laundry” and “Treason” as well as Latin swerve on “Feel Me Now” and an Ethiopian pop feel permeates“Lust For Life.” Unlike a lot of their soul-minded peers, this band writes memorable tunes with enough flexibility to continue to evolve in concert. It’s one thing to play well – and they do – but to put one’s talents to work on worthwhile material is so much better.

The Humidors

The Humidors

They know their funk history and there are juicy echoes of early Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, 60s Blue Note Records, Tower of Power, and Gary Bartz Ntu Troop. Lead singer Joseph Carter offers a highly appealing mixture of authority and panty-dropping smoothness, and the rhythm team of Eric Podolsky (bass), Junichiro Shimamura (drums) and Justin Abee (congas, bongas, percussion) are an ideal funk line – always where they need to be, riding in the music’s muscles but peppering things with interesting touches that reward the listener for tuning into individual elements. The front line of Bryan Weinberg (guitar) and Benjamin Carrie (keys, Hammond) sting mightily, and the horns are both a strong presence felt and just the right amount of brass interjection. Flow and variety are the hallmarks of the album, and like the best first offerings, it gives one the sense that this band is going to continue to evolve and sharpen their game with enjoyable steadiness.

Though a fairly new group, The Humidors, based on the evidence of this debut and their strong live presence in the SF area, are comers, a band capable of holding their own against established touring circuit/festival acts like Pimps of Joytime and The Monophonics, and it’s to be hoped that forward minded bookers snap them up as a surprise as the band begins to expand beyond its home base this year.

We'll Do It Live

Dylan Fest

11.20.13 | San Francisco, CA

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DylanFest_Logo2

As any serious aficionado knows, Bob Dylan is a virus that gets into the bloodstream. Given sway, Dylan’s music haunts and lingers, a fever that fades and returns at different times in a life, various strains from different eras seizing one from time to time, a Blood On The Tracks September giving way to a New Morning spring and a Freewheelin’ fall. Unlike a great many living myths, Dylan’s actual craftwork, the music, delivers legendarily, filled with surprising melodies, gut punch truths, and scalpels for slicing away false faces. He can be fun but rarely without still pricking us in sore spots.

Despite wide dissemination in popular culture, Dylan’s songs feel personal, his eerily accurate divining rod guiding our specific steps despite the many fellow travelers with us on the path. It’s this quality – the resounding sense of private ownership one can feel about his work – that lends Dylan’s catalog so well to interpretation. To be fair, there are far more terrible, miss-the-mark versions of Bob’s ditties than there are keepers, which just speaks the idiosyncratic nature of his music. But, there wasn’t a dud rendition to be had at Dylan Fest in San Francisco. The several-year-running NYC Best Fests are making their way to the City by the Bay, and this utterly winning homage to the man born Zimmerman was a straight up joy to behold, a real gift to any Dylan fan, and a demonstration of what gifted, dedicated players can do when they pool their talents and enthusiasms.

Backed by The Cabin Down Below Band – as fine a house band as the Impound has ever encountered – a pleasing array of national and local musicians took their turn in the guest spotlight to perform one or two Dylan songs. It’s a cutting contest format with everyone on point to shine and possibly even outshine the previous guests. This makes for some healthy competition, and the whole thing rolls along seamlessly despite the diversity because of the great skill, think-on-their-feet instincts, and just plain old chops of The Cabin Down Below guys – Alex Levy (guitar, vocals), Austin Scaggs (bass, vocals) and Matt Romano (drums). Taking their name from a deep cut on Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, the band, aided by Josh Lattanzi (The Candles / The Norah Jones Band) [Guitar], Pete Remm (Invisible Man / The Norah Jones Band) [Organ] and Dave “Moose” Sherman [Piano], on many selections, showed the value of having fundamentally solid foundations for every choice. This allowed the guests to trot up and do their thing without worry that the basics were well in hand, prompting many to cut loose or dig into their recesses for impassioned turns.

Alex Levy

Alex Levy

San Francisco hosted a tasty array of special guests including Lukas Nelson, The Coup’s Boots Riley, local rock ‘n’ roll ironman Chuck Prophet, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn & Tad Kubler, Grace Potter, Doyle Bramhall II, awesome real rockers The Whigs, and more. But the point of Dylan Fest, at least to my sensibilities, is joyful engagement with the music of a master that’s equal parts homage and kick-out-the-jams shindig. Face it, few of us were at the closing of Winterland with The Band and other iconic, guest studded gatherings in rock’s storied past, but we can experience something akin to those heady gatherings at Dylan Fest, and, one suspects, at Petty Fest and Stones Fest, the other two occasional concert group gropes curated by The Cabin Down Below Band, who it’s worth noting are the very rare exception to the general rule that bands comprised of industry veterans usually suck out loud. It didn’t hurt matters that this show took place at a bona fide classic rock palace, Great American Music Hall, which hums with history from its bawdy Gold Rush days right through countless powerhouse concerts through the decades. Cabin Below Band’s Alex Levy seemed a natural in this setting, working backstage pre-show, taking different musicians aside and working up loose game plans, stoking their excitement, rhapsodizing about Dylan, and bolstering collective confidence. As a corner man, in the parlance of boxing, one would be hard pressed to find better than Levy.

Dylan Fest SF - Neal Casal w/ Cabin Down Below Band by Drew Johnson

Dylan Fest SF – Neal Casal w/ Cabin Down Below Band by Drew Johnson

Yes, there were highlights but each person’s picks, like one’s preferences in Dylan’s catalog, will vary wildly. For my own part, I was blown away early by Neal Casal’s blistering attack on “Isis,” which channeled some of the percolating Rolling Thunder Revue wildness and muscle. Tim and Nicki Bluhm were the model of stage sweethearts on “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” and Chuck Prophet brought the walls down with aplomb on “Tweeter & The Monkey Man.” Ruby Amanfu was a real treat every time she stepped up, a singer vibrating with feeling one can really feel in their bones. And what’s not to dig about The Doobie Brothers’ Tom Johnston growling through “All Along The Watchtower”? But again, it’s the whole of the thing that’s really impressive, the flow and spark of it all, and how no one, despite their commercial popularity, is given greater sway or spotlight.

Dylan was the star of the night, and it was apparent that each guest had handpicked their selection so each turn offered reverence and private connection for the artists, the performances serving as a love offering to Dylan’s creations that all can easily enjoy. A line from “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” popped into my head late in the evening: “Alive with fiery breath.” Ultimately, this is what Dylan Fest and its curators have done – blow upon the still-glowing embers of a great American songbook in ways that make the music stand up and dance.

This event was also a benefit for Sweet Relief, which provides financial assistance to all types of career musicians who are struggling to make ends meet while facing illness, disability, or age-related problems. It’s as worthy a cause as DI can think of so if you can donate pop over here. The evening was sponsored by one of the Impound’s favorite whiskies, Jameson (which allows 100% of proceeds to go to charity), and we gotta say we really dug the limited edition Black Barrel variety that flowed backstage. We take our whiskey seriously around the Impound. Count on that.

Setlist with Guest Musicians

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (Alex Levy), Don’t Think Twice (Ruby Amanfu), Positively 4th St. (Erika Wennerstrom), Isis (Neal Casal), Every Grain of Sand (Victoria Williams w/ Lee Gallagher), Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (Chuck Prophet), It Takes A Lot To Laugh (Kelley Stoltz), Most Likely You Go Your Way (Tim & Nicki Bluhm), As I Went Out One Morning (Elvis Perkins), Motorpsycho Nightmare (Elvis Perkins w/ Jesse Lauter), Make You Feel My Love (Lara Johnston), It’s A Hard Rain (Rayland Baxter), Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window? (Boots Riley w/ Jason Roberts), I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Chase Cohl), All Along The Watchtower (Tom Johnston), I Want You (The Whigs), I Wanna Be Your Lover (The Whigs), Simple Twist of Fate (Lukas Nelson), It’s Alright Ma (Lukas Nelson), Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (Grace Potter), License To Kill (Craig Finn & Tad Kubler), Where Are You Tonight? (Craig Finn & Tad Kubler), Lay Lady Lay (Midlakes’s Eric Pulido & Joey McClellen), Tweeter & The Monkey Man (Chuck Prophet), You Ain’t Going Nowhere (Erika Wennerstrom), Not Dark Yet (Ruby Amanfu), I Shall Be Released (Doyle Bramhall II w/ Ruby Amanfu), Maggie’s Farm (Doyle Bramhall II w/ Ruby Amanfu), Knocking On Heaven’s Door (finale with lots of folks).

Some clips from Dylan Fest in NYC a few days earlier

Baby, You're A Star!

new artists to notice

Animal Party

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Baby_Animal_Album

Sometimes things that are really good announce themselves without much fanfare, sidling up with an extended hand and a quiet smile, to whisper, “Howdy, I’m some of that good shit you’ve been looking for and didn’t even know it.” This is how charm operates, particularly in the musical realm, where a careful balance of newness and well-established winning moves is required to leap over the hurdles of familiarity and rote and still hit a communal sweet spot. San Francisco’s Animal Party makes that leap with dexterous grace, sure footed through some of the most charming pop splashed rock to emerge this year.

The band’s recently released debut album, Walk On Stars, flows from crunchy, high energy rockers through old school love songs and more, an assured, hungry trio – Kiyoshi Foster (vocals, guitar, songwriting, keys), Mark Calderon (bass) and Evan Bautista (drums) – putting their shoulders into it. There’s the feel of prime 70s killers given a contemporary polish, the direct, muscular sound and general vibe akin to Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight, Peter Frampton’s marvelous 1975 self-titled record, or Aerosmith’sRocks, where the full-throated powerhouse singing, consistently strong songs and studio-elevated but live-on-the-floor feel actively scoop one up – music of great embrace and no shortage of grip once it gets a hold of you.

Baby_Animal_Band

The guitar work is sexy as hell with Foster getting a skilled hand from DI fave Sean Leahy on four tracks where the pair run their fingers through your hair and rifle through your pockets. In short, you feel it when these two lay it down. Other guests include Turi McClain (violin), Tea Leaf’s Trevor Garrod (piano), Forrest Day (sax) and more, each turn smartly placed, each a flavor that accentuates the positive by serving the songs in appealingly focused ways. A chunk of the album’s sonic success goes to co-producer Jeremy Black, who once again exhibits his ability to pull out the best in artists without leaving undue fingerprints. Everyone blowing their kid’s college funds on Jacquire King and Ethan Johns needs to get hip to Black and his cool Oakland lair Coyote Hearing Studio.

Animal Party proves adept at forceful, pleasantly snarling rockers (“The Sun Will Rise” has a grinning, rowdy bite worthy of Arctic Monkeys), bouncing pop-rock (the song “Animal Party” could be the greatest Split Enz tune not written by a Finn brother), soaring, gently exploratory anthems (the title cut and “Easy Wave” are genuinely transporting listening experiences), and further widens their scope in the album’s second half with the vintage Motown skip of “One Soft Kiss” and radio-ready “Your Heart (Needs To Be Free),” which is kind of the ballad Jack Johnson has been trying to pull off his whole career but not nearly as successfully – seriously, Foster completely sells a line like, “Sweet is the fairy of the summer on my tongue” with loverman skill. More than any specifics, it’s the overall feel of Walk On Stars that works at casting a spell that draws one out – out of their head, out of a bad day, out of the shadows. It’s a charmer through and through and as pleasing a first outing as the Impound has encountered in recent years.

OMG this is really happening

The Mother Hips’ Greg Loiacono (Part One)

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The Hips play next on Friday, September 27 at The Belly Up in Solano Beach, CA, and on Saturday, September 28, at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, CA with select shows throughout the fall. See full schedule here. Greg Loiacono’s ace power trio Sensations, where he’s joined by ALO’s Dave Brogan (drums) and Tea Leaf Green’s Reed Mathis (bass), plays a pair of rare shows at San Francisco’s The Chapel (Thur 10/17) and Santa Cruz’s Crepe Place (Fri 10/18).

The Mother Hips by Jay Blakesberg

The Mother Hips by Jay Blakesberg

The striking contrasts and strong personalities in The Mother Hips are key ingredients in their long-standing appeal. Press play and it’s abundantly obvious one is dealing with heavyweights. What’s occurred over their two decade evolution is a clearer delineation of the band’s two driving songwriting forces, Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono, where their own individual strengths are easier to pick up on as well as the increasingly nuanced commingling that occurs when these two colorful, weirdly wise tunesmiths share a sandbox. 20 years of hindsight reveals some striking similarities to another SF Bay Area singer-songwriter-guitarist pair, namely the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir.

It’s a comparison the Hips have dodged since their earliest days, and frankly, it didn’t fit them well until recent years. But Garcia/Weir’s blend of smoothness and sparks does seem a fairly apt touchstone for today’s Mother Hips, particularly as evidenced by their latest long-player, Behind Beyond, which continues their complex creative dance and doesn’t shrink from stepping into Dead territory. The Impound attempted to explain this dynamic in its rave review of the new record, but we know there’s no better source of real information and insight than speaking to the parties involved. Hence, this lengthy chat with Mr. Loiacono, where the band’s changing relationship to the Grateful Dead is discussed amongst other useful tidbits, offered in two segments (Part Two will hit in two weeks).

It seems like you guys came at this album actively seeking something new to do together as composers and as a band. Is that an accurate impression?

Tim Bluhm with The Rhythm Devils by Suzy Perler

Tim Bluhm with The Rhythm Devils by Suzy Perler

Yeah, but it’s a tricky situation. It’s been awhile. We started this album in 2011, and we even went in around November of 2010 to work on demos and show each other the bits and pieces we had. [Paul] Hoaglin was still in full band-age at that point, too. We definitely had this mindset of stretching out and not having too many instrumental parts, be it solos or spacey bridges. Hof [drummer John Hofer], in particular, was really excited. Tim had just done the Mickey Hart thing [The Rhythm Devils], and I’d had a profound experience with American Beauty. That was all happening around the beginning of 2010. So, by the time we were recording we thought, “Well, we’re this freaky, kind of psychedelic San Francisco band.” We didn’t want to make a live record but we wanted to capture some of that live vibe on a record.

OMG_Greg_BehindBeyond

Face it we’re not going to have a pop hit anytime soon. We’re certainly not going to be able to force one, and one coming out of us organically at this point would be an anomaly. It’s not even an idea, so it would be a coincidence. At this point, we’re really writing music we want to play and hear. We always have, but it makes even more sense now to do what we want artistically and musically. When we play live that’s what we do. There aren’t a whole lot of limitations going on. Anything goes, and we’ll do it the way we want to do it that night. I think that’s part of what makes the people who like us like us as vigorously as they do. So, it wasn’t super intentional but we decided to make this record just the way we wanted to.

Sometimes it’s best to do things yourself without the input or consideration of anyone else.

At the time we made this decision I remember hearing the song “Behind Beyond,” and I sort of stayed out of the way of it because I didn’t know what I could do. The modulations just kept coming – “Okay, let’s see how many times we can modulate the key!” Paul, Hof and Jim were working really closely on that one, and I told them, “Just let me know when you’re done.” It wasn’t until I sat down with DSB [co-producer David Simon-Baker] and really figured out how to fit my guitar part into what this was, not just mail it in but really lock into a ‘thing’. I didn’t want to be a hindrance to the basic recording process.

There’s wisdom to hanging back. A lot of musicians, particularly as they get older, realize that NOT saying something is exactly what the music needs.

David Simon-Baker

David Simon-Baker

I love working with DSB. I think a lot of musicians do, and I’m not saying something new. 90-percent of people would say the same thing when they’re being supported by him as a recordist. You feel very safe and creative. So, I remember sitting with him and going, “Ah! Now I know where I’m going to go with this!” And it had been almost a year since the other guys had done their stuff [laughs]. Now, it’s one of my favorite tracks on the record. I can listen to it over and over again on a loop.

It’s awesome, and part of that is how it accomplishes so much in such a succinct way. It doesn’t overstay its welcome even though there’s strong potential to do so. That’s a trait I picked up on all over this record – every song is just as long or short as it needs to be. You found the forms these songs wanted to have.

It’s interesting because there are some long fucking songs on there [laughs]. There are only two songs under four-minutes.

But they don’t feel like long songs. There’s an organic quality to their shapes. I’ve sometimes wondered how you balance the stretchiness of a tune’s live potential and the more compact, fixed requirements of the studio?

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist

I guess I first approach this technically – the process of deciding how far we should take things or what direction we should take them in terms of length of songs or what songs stay and what don’t. You come in with an idea and what actually happens is far different. We were making Green Hills of Earth and we went in thinking it would be a ROCK record and it is but not in the hard rock way we thought it would be with songs like “Smoke” and “Singing Seems To Please Me.” Towards the end, Tim says, “You know how The Beach Boys’ Friends starts with an intro? We need one to invite people into the music.” That’s so un-rock!

I think Hof, in particular, wanted to make a San Francisco psychedelic rock sounds record [with Behind Beyond]. He kept saying, “The fans are gonna love this!” And it stayed truer to that intention than most of our attempts to make an experimental, hard rock, etc record in the past. We were even thinking the next record after Pacific Dust should be a Later Days partner. And there’s things on here that could – “Freed From A Prison” and “Song For J.B.” – but it’s just not that partner. You come up with these ideas beforehand and those are just jumping off points, a place to start, a doodle. You really have no idea how it’s going to come out.

[Behind Beyond] is a broader, wider record. There’s way more guitar on this record than our earlier records in terms of solos and guitar parts. There’s always riffs and lots of guitar. “The Isle Not Of Man” probably has the longest Mother Hips guitar solo ever AND there’s two guitar solos on that song – the spacey one at the beginning between the first chorus and the second verse and there’s the stretched out one.

There’s also a lot of open space on this album. I swear to you Phil Lesh is going to latch onto some of this before too long, especially “Isle Not Of Man” where the tail section seems almost like a baited hook for Phil [Loiacono laughs]. It’s not a bad thing to be associated with the Dead.

Not at all!

To my thinking, an association with the Grateful Dead amongst musicians usually speaks to players who want to explore depth, variety, technically challenging but still audience stimulating music. When you really look at the songwriting, the musicianship, and the many achievements of that band it’s hard to impeach them despite the somewhat unappealing traveling circus that’s surrounded them for decades.

John Hofer & Greg Loiacono by Andrew Quist

John Hofer & Greg Loiacono by Andrew Quist

I absolutely love the Grateful Dead. So, I made a demo of “Freed From a Prison” and Tim and Hof loved it. We went in to record it and I was having a hard time singing it without going into a melody that was reminding us of some other music. There was something going on, and in a moment of frustration, knowing those guys really liked the song and wanted me to get it, I said, “Tim, why don’t you take this home and come back and try to sing it.” It was really hard to hear that at first because it was so stuck in my head in a certain way. But when the other guys heard it they really liked it. Hof said, “This is cool because Tim is singing the melody and you can just sing your harmony all the way through and you’ll have the classic Tim & Greg sound.” It was a great team effort, and obviously the sentiment of setting yourself free from traps and old patterns of your own mind and thoughts is expressed in the way it came together in a really neat way.

It generates the truths in the song in the creative process. That’s just proof that the universe has a wry sense of humor.

OMG_Greg_AmericanBeauty

That song started right after we got back from Jam Cruise in 2010, and I went down to Watts Music in Novato, CA. I was in my car that still has a cassette player, and I saw a copy of American Beauty. I grew up in Marin so there was a lot of Grateful Dead happening around me all the time. A friend of my dad would play me Europe ‘72 so I knew all the songs. In high school, he took us to see the Dead at Cal Expo in ’84 or ’85. I was doing a lot of skateboarding, listening to punk, and I’d just been to my first Mabuhay Gardens show right around that time. It was Christ on Parade and Agent Orange headlined. I was starting to play a lot of loud guitar, and [Jimmy] Page was starting to show up as I began to be able to digest his guitar genius. By the time I saw that Grateful Dead show I thought it was a pretty bad show. I think if I saw it now I wouldn’t think it was that bad. I remember Bob Weir giggling through some lyrics he forgot and Jerry was super mellow.

I saw a lot of Grateful Dead shows between 1984-1990 and I always tell folks that about 25-percent were really fantastic, 25-percent were okay, and the other 50-percent they should have given the audience their money back. I have no nostalgia about them at all. Respect sure but not the whitewash afterglow that’s so prevalent amongst Deadheads.

OMG_Greg_DeadheadSticker

I wanted to go see ROCK! I needed that energy. I had a lot of energy! I hadn’t dove into a lot of music yet. It was just freshman year and I was just barely getting into, uh, varied mind states. To me, it was just like this joke. Being a freshman and impressionable, I was hanging out with the more hardcore kids and they hated the Grateful Dead. Around the same time there’s a bunch of BMW’s with Grateful Dead stickers with these trying-to-be-hippies. So, there was a lot of annoying stigma around the Dead for me at that time.

Later in high school, I dated a girl and she and her mom were into the Grateful Dead and took me to see them at Frost Amphitheatre in 1989, where we saw two shows. I was super out, super high, and this time I really liked them. I found the Jer-Bear and thought, “This guy is pretty cool,” but I kept it secret. My girlfriend said, “See! See! You watched that whole show and liked it, right?” And I was like, “It was alright [laughs].”

Not The Grateful Dead

Not The Grateful Dead

Then, I went off to college, and the Hips start doing their thing but we’re not listening to any Grateful Dead. Tim has a shirt when I first meet him with dancing bears on it. I asked him, “So, you’re a Deadhead?” And he said, “No, I don’t ride motorcycles.” He thought Deadheads were a motorcycle gang like the Hells Angels. He’d never heard of the Grateful Dead. I told him they were a hippy band from where I grew up and that the shirt he was wearing was one of their key symbols. He said, “No it isn’t. I got this at a rock climbing event.” We eventually gave up, and I decided I liked this guy because he didn’t know who the Dead were. We went back to his room and he had Grand Funk [Railroad], Deep Purple, and was into frontman old heavy 70s rock.

So, we’re in college and start doing shows and Tim, Mike and Isaac had still never listened to the Grateful Dead but Deadheads are showing up at our shows. When we started putting out records, got management, and really when we played the H.O.R.D.E. Tour, people started saying, “You’re like the Dead. You’re from San Francisco and there’s two guitar players and you both sing. You even sound like the Dead!” And we were like, “No, we don’t!” Then it became a point of contention because people were trying to trap us into something we didn’t know and wasn’t true.

OMG_Greg_Newsweek

You guys ran from the whole jamband label, too, at that time. My thought during that H.O.R.D.E. tour period was, “Thank God there’s some honest rock ‘n’ roll on that stage.”

We were so defiant. Then, when Jerry Garcia died and he was on the cover of Newsweek, inside they had a section about who’s going to be the next Grateful Dead. It was Phish, Santana, maybe Widespread and Blues Traveler, and we were listed with as many stars as Phish. Being the idiots that we were we rejected that. We were trying to carve out our own identity, but there was a moment we could have said, “Oh yeah, come on in. We’re down. We want to be the next Grateful Dead.”

That’s a mature thing to understand. I’m not sure young men are wired for those sort of long horizon judgment calls.

We spent a lot of time being assholes about it and not accepting what could have been a boon to our band.

DI will share Part Two of this interview in two weeks.

In Your Eye

you gotta see this

1971 Week

David Crosby

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DI takes its role as edutainers seriously, and in that spirit we’re spotlighting great albums and choice cuts from 1970-1999 to edify our readers’ musical breadth of knowledge. Each week will focus on a single year and some of the sweetmeat it produced.

“And I thought that I’d found the light/ To guide me through my nights and all this darkness/ I was mistaken, only reflections of a shadow that I saw.”

Year1971_Crosby_MyName

The solo output of the Crosby, Stills & Nash has been a mixed bag – sometimes trapped in the production of a particular era, artistic self-indulgence, or just simply not as hefty as their combined mojo. There are fine moments on every single album these crazy talented musicians have put out but few feel as fully formed and organic as the two albums that will forever form the spine of their catalogues – Déjà Vu and their self-titled 1969 trio debut. However, there is a striking exception to this streak: David Crosby’s stunning 1971 solo debut If I Could Only Remember My Name….

An album lush with mysteries and inspired, intuitive playing, If I Could Only Remember My Name… beautifully bridges the feeling of volcanic 60s promise and the new decade’s rising ennui, sometimes snaring these feelings in pure sound – there’s a cut titled “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)” that’s as lovely and melancholy as any lyrical stab at those same ideas. The juxtapositions are pointed but not as sharp as one might think with pretty, hippy-ish opener “Music Is Love” giving way quite naturally to the gnarly, electric guitar-basted “Cowboy Movie,” which mingles rock’s enduring association with outlaw culture with CSN’s now-legendary personal drama, particularly as regards the bed hopping of various lady friends. But every piece here is drawn in a way that’s open to multiple interpretations, poetic leaps encouraged and possibilities embraced, firm notions skirted and clear lines blurred.

Interior Gatefold Montage

Interior Gatefold Montage

At times, the album lets out a great, collective sigh, be it the druggy late night stroll of “Tamalpais High (At About 3)” or more explicitly the enlightened disappointment of “Laughing,” which is simply one of the greatest tunes Crosby ever wrote and produced, a meeting of many major talents including amazing pedal steel from Jerry Garcia and haunting backing vocals from Joni Mitchell. Luminaries, particularly from the Bay Area scene, are all over this record, including Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, Jack Casady and Grace Slick, Grateful Dead rhythm beasts Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, Santana’s Gregg Rolie and Michael Shrieve, CSNY chum Neil Young and a host of other talented folks. But Crosby, the album’s producer and clear architect, doesn’t dissect things track-by-track so we only know that these varied craftsmen and freaks had some hand in things but specific fingerprints are wiped away. It’s a strangely “Summer of Love” kinda move that speaks to the collective nature of the early 70s rock scene around San Francisco and Marin (and their invited compatriots), the rogues gallery of photos inside the album bespeaking the cool creative environment that birthed this album.

Not Album Shot But You Get The Idea

Not Album Shot But You Get The Idea

However, that group shot is balanced by a picture of a stone-faced, shirtless Crosby, smoking curling around his head, his Old West ready moustache curling downwards, and most strikingly an American flag folded to form a gun which he’s pointed at his head. It’s a loaded image – in several respects – that nicely sums up the 60s counter-culture as it ran headlong into the mainstream of a country still enmeshed in the Vietnam War, major social rights upheaval and other major challenges. On “Traction In The Rain,” Crosby sings, “You know it’s hard for me to find a way to get through another city day without thinking about getting out.” It’s a cold splash on a gently flowing tune but a necessary one, both at that moment and today in the rush-rush-rush 21st century. Without being preachy or programmatic, Crosby distilled a timeless classic in If I Could Only Remember My Name…, where folks with big hearts, wild natures, and oodles of talent went divining for truths that last more than a day or even a year.

Baby, You're A Star!

new artists to notice

Afrolicious

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Afrolicious

Afrolicious

The underlying pulses of soul and feel are what makes music, regardless of genre, ripple with life beyond a numerical exercise and display of skill, and neither can be manufactured – the stink of falseness and premeditation reveals the truth of what’s inside. San Francisco-based Afrolicious drips buckets of feel and soul, a soundwave tsunami that performs the aural equivalent of a confident dancer spinning and dipping one as bass vibrates the hair on your neck and arms, the air suddenly humid as rhythm you sense physically as much as hear make you lean into the twirl.

Truth be told, DI is super duper picky about any modern African influenced music, where so much of it seems like a faded copy of a copy of what Fela, King Sunny Ade and Salif Keita pioneered so crisply. There’s also the inevitable transposition of bringing this music into an American context, which usually only succeeds to varying degrees and often lets the political and social messages override the pure, direct enjoyment factor that is never forgotten by the African originators, who all understand that unless they move folks’ bodies they are never going to move their minds.

Baby_Afrolicious_Cali

In nearly every respect, Afrolicious’ full-length debut album, California Dreaming (pick it up here) skirts these pitfalls, crooning seductively, “I just love how music makes me feel – so real.” This long-player is a modern answer to the heady – intellectually and groove-a-liciously – work of Gary Bartz Ntu Troop, Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes, and other 70s electric jazz innovators, where the dance floor is never out of mind but the conversation, largely focused on the betterment and better enjoyment of the species, isn’t dumbed down.

Born from a weekly party founded in 2006 by brothers Joe and Oz McGuire, aka DJs Pleasuremaker and Señor Oz, this SF collective keeps the conversation deliciously catholic, offering echoes of Nyabinghi, dub flourishes, polished, propulsive soul music, Brazilian flutters, Blaxploitation soundtrack grit, and some of the swankiest horn get down since Prince whipped up a Madhouse. With monikers like Qique Padilla, Diamond Vibes, Billy Magic and Fresh is Life, one knows immediately that this band is ready to get into character for spaceship ride back to the Motherland by way of this Otherland. The winds of Africa surely blow in these tracks but also Michael Jackson at his slamming Off The Wall best (“Revolution”) and Deee-Lite (“Horizons” and the generally sonically rich undertow of the whole enterprise), the latter a major compliment in DI’s book – those that think that band was a one-hit wonder need to spend a lil’ quality time with Dewdrops In The Garden (1994) to see just how ahead of their time Lady Miss Kier and the boys were (taste here).

Afrolicious is THE heat live, but they’ve bettered the competition by crafting a studio incarnation that high kicks and bounces in a wholly alluring way. The production is clean and present but consistently tweaked with fine little touches that one picks up on subsequent spins, the background lushly filling in as much as the central players in the frame over time. The collective just celebrated their sixth anniversary this month, and based on California Dreaming, there’s still plenty in the tank for many miles ahead.

7 Minutes in Heaven

Brad Brooks

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We set the timer and snuggle in with our favorite new bands in the Impound’s version of speed dating with a killer-diller soundtrack.

Brad Brooks is currently on a Southern singer-songwriter tour with Jeff Campbell and Clay Bell that hits Little Rock (4/16), Memphis (4/17), Nashville (4/18), and Atlanta (4/19) running through April 19th. Dates and details here.

Brad Brooks by Mark Kitaoka

Brad Brooks by Mark Kitaoka

The latest exceedingly well put together album from Brad Brooks begins, “Well, I’ve been twisted, misplayed, pissed and dismayed,” and eventually suggests, “Let’s quit our jobs and shit/ Spit out the chomping bit, deal it down/ Sell what we borrowed/ Donate what we stole, leave this town.” A palpable urgency to move on, heal and reflect permeates Harmony of Passing Light, but it’d be easy enough to miss amidst the doggedly catchy pop-rockin’ Brooks’ many big ideas and deeply etched emotions ride inside.

It’s a terrific bit of sleight-of-hand that puts this San Francisco artist in the same fine Bay Area company as chaps like Chuck Prophet and The Mother Hips (not to mention likeminded SoCal great Michael Penn), where the figurative hooks are just as barbed as the musical ones. However, Brooks is a bit like the modern equivalent to Sons of Champlin in this bunch, where he’s still clearly a rocker but there’s a lot of soul – the dance floor variety and the more spiritual sort – in this man and nary a hint of Summer of Love loose-limbed-ness. In fact, it’s Brooks’ facility with darker themes and knotted feelings that gives his finger-snappers staying power and appealing complications, the fruits awaiting those willing to move beyond the surface of his groove thang. There’s kindred strain to Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Elliott Smith with all the same tuneful bloodletting but much less despondency and ugly self-loathing. Brooks is just as real but what Harmony of Passing Light makes clear is there’s reason for hope even in the roughest of seasons.

Brad pulled up a chair for a healthy little chat about inspiration, shedding light on one’s troubles, and other juicy subjects.

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