Words by: Dennis Cook | Images: by: Josh Miller
Surprise Me Mr. Davis/The Mother Hips :: 12.08.07 :: Moe's Alley :: Santa Cruz, CA
A new mutual appreciation society was born in Santa Cruz this past weekend. In retrospect, the pairing of Surprise Me Mr. Davis and The Mother Hips seems a ridiculously natural fit but it took the far-seeing lads at reapandsow to actually put the peanut butter on the jelly. At a two-night engagement at one of the best West Coast sonic clubhouses, Moe's Alley, you could see the naked admiration and flat out pleasure in the musicians' eyes. After their Friday night performance one found Brad Barr (Mr. Davis/The Slip) extolling the guitar playing greatness of the Hips' Greg Loiacono, who in turn offered his own genuine admiration for Barr's six-string acrobatics. Drinks in hand, post show cigarettes burning down as our breath steamed the Pacific Coast night air, you would have been hard pressed to find eight more talented, savagely switched-on players anywhere. While none of them makes a big noise about it, I've never known musicians more in love with music, more dazed and confused by wrangling ideas into sounds and syllables.
| Surprise Me Mr. Davis w/ Tim Bluhm :: 12.08.07|
So, those of us who'd missed out on Friday's festivities were not alone in looking forward to Saturday's concert. The bands were equally enthusiastic about watching one another, and that communal synergy put a rather happy zap on Moe's. When everyone is smiling and anxious to be exactly where they are it's pretty powerful. Watching Mr. Davis pour themselves into wrinkled suits, straightening crooked ties and slicking down road tossled hair, one felt they were at a show in the old fashioned sense. That the Surprise Me boys dabbled in prestidigitation didn't hurt the feeling that bearded ladies and sword swallowers might emerge from the wings at any moment. Whether they know it or not, SMMD and The Mother Hips exude the energy of Dylan's wild bunch in the Rolling Thunder Revue days. They may not have the white face paint but there's gypsy ragtime energy to these boys that not a few of us are pleased to siphon off whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Watching both scruffy, rumpled bands onstage I was struck by how wonderfully rock & roll they are. They are just what Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Jerry Garcia would have wanted as descendents and keepers of the basic four-four flame. They look exactly the way I imagine rock bands should – roughly handsome and compelling in their own peculiar ways, possessing a cool they're neither too aware of nor completely oblivious to. They understand the unspoken power of playing music for the masses, and used that force for good in Santa Cruz.
| Moore & Barr - Surprise Me Mr. Davis :: 12.08.07|
Surprise Me Mr. Davis was up first and came in through the front entrance banging tambourines and singing about wanting to get to heaven before they die, a spiritual for pleasure seekers out on the town. To the surprise (no pun intended) of many, drummer Andrew Barr was M.I.A. In his stead, Ezra Lipp, who's studied with Andrew, filled the drum seat more than admirably, goosing things with a slightly quicker than normal pulse and splashing his obvious excitement all over Brad Barr, Nathan Moore (ThaMuseMeant, Mr. Davis) and Marc Friedman (The Slip, Mr. Davis).
According to Moore later in the show, Andrew was in Venezuela attempting to meet their Godot, Mr. Davis himself. While all their previous efforts at a face-to-face with Davis had failed, they were guardedly hopeful Andrew would succeed. Moore whipped out his cell phone and rang Andrew. Getting his voicemail, he inquired about the mission, ending with a sweet, "We love you, 'Drew."
In no time, they had us walking down the road with the Holy Ghost, singing about how we hate love (but really we don't at all...). By turns, they suggested either the greatest unheard Soft Boys songs or the finest b-sides from Muswell Hillbillies. In fact, if there's a through-line for the two bands on this bill it's '70s Kinks. Starting with Lola vs. the Powerman & the Money-Go-Round (1970) and ending with the unjustly overlooked Low Budget (1979), The Kinks made one slightly bent, terrifically entertaining album after another, touching on jukebox ditties, country shufflers and everything in between - a highly personal kind of pop music that's still capable of connecting with many folks. Despite a few brotherly blows, they also put on firehouse hot concerts and made music with undisguised fervor. All the same can be said for both The Mother Hips and Surprise Me. Just change the dates and titles but the spirit remains congruent.
| Surprise Me Mr. Davis w/ Tim Bluhm :: 12.08.07|
At one point, Moore said, "Sometimes I think getting into this business is the smartest thing I could ever do, and sometimes I feel like the biggest idiot." It served as the intro to the living sigh of "How Stupid I Am" but it also reflected the genuine ambiguity these guys feel. None are stadium fillers and it's not an easy life roaming from honky tonk to juke joint, getting by on drink tickets, per diems and the good will of strangers (or merely the strange). They balance their jaundiced pieces with exultations you can believe in (even if only for a moment) like "Love's been looking for you!"
Towards the end of the set, the Hips' Tim Bluhm joined them for a sloppy, highly spirited cover of the Stones' immortal salute to freaking out, "19th Nervous Breakdown."
The Mother Hips picked up the trailing energy of their compatriots with an opening guitar cry worthy of The Clash's "London Calling." "Mission In Vain" from their fab 2007 release, Kiss The Crystal Flake, started a set that dipped fairly deeply into their back catalog while using their new album as a backbone. "Mission" and much of what followed had the kind of depth and interesting angles most songwriters would kill for. What's distinctive about the newer material is how the builds feel more fleshed out. The slow rises in the past sometimes rambled a bit, allowed off the leash a little too readily, but these days when the Hips gather there's a quiet focus to things. This particular show was looser than most recent gigs, mayhap inspired by a lazy day in Santa Cruz, but even so the forward momentum was never lost no matter how far afield they wandered.
| John Hofer - The Mother Hips :: 12.08|
Like Mr. Davis before them, the stage cast just as potent a spell on the performers as it did on the audience. That slightly raised platform is a makeshift altar in pagan times, and while we're not slaughtering livestock and offering up baskets from the harvest, we do subconsciously enact a simple ritual when we imbibe and spin and offer our energies to a band. And The Mother Hips seemed to be feeling it. You heard it in the yelps and growls of Bluhm and Loiacono, the punishing bass runs of Paul Hoaglin (whose hard fingering seemed likely to either injure himself or his instrument at times) and the steel-eyed drumming of John Hofer, who picks up this writer's MVP award for the evening. Not many alive can conjure up both Charlie Watts and Jim Gordon in their stick work but Hofer sure did.
Other Hips pleasures included a sublime (if slightly rough) cover of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," the chilled reverberations of "Wicked Tree," an "ow ow ow" fueled assault on "White Hills" and the strange corridors of "Tehachapi Bloodline," especially when played in a place where girls often do have jeans under their dresses. A particularly fine one-two punch was "Single Spoon," which is a hit for Marty Stuart waiting to happen, into Merle Haggard's "Workin' Man Blues." "Spoon" is a fine country wink from 1996's Shootout and a reminder of their preternatural talent from the very start.
Maybe the best part of The Mother Hips portion of the night wasn't any one song but a wonderful willingness to descend into thickness, delightful murkiness, slowness, the slightly bent but still true. This particular night, the Hips reminded one of an Avalon Ballroom or Fillmore great from bygone days. Immersed in their guitar stroked clouds, one felt they might just break on through to the other side. Where that would leave us – on the other end of the looking glass or upside down in our own backyard – was entirely unclear. And I doubt anyone gave a damn about being certain.
JamBase | Santa Cruz
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