Words & Images by: Jake Krolick
The Brakes/Jackie Greene/Tim Bluhm :: 04.30.08 :: World Cafe Live :: Philadelphia, PA
As the days grow longer and orange sunsets cast long shadows over the city, two Bay Area heavyweights, Jackie Greene and The Mother Hips, rolled in to Philadelphia for a pair of wonderful spring evenings of music. Playing the part of Philadelphia tour guides were our own laidback local heroes, The Brakes, who strolled through much of their debut full-length album, Tale Of Two Cities.
Along for the ride on both nights was Mother Hips' singer-guitarist Tim Bluhm, a man who wears the California vibe like it's a medal pinned to his chest. Bluhm is a soft-spoken troubadour who's equally suited to riding the waves and peaks of Northern California as he is to performing on the stage. On April 30, Bluhm found himself singing songs off his latest solo release, House of Bluhm, and the older California Way while standing tall on the mahogany of the World Cafe Live stage. Yank J.J. Cale out of Texas, stick a surf board in his hands and give him a strong kiss of California soul and you have good idea of Tim Bluhm solo. After listening to him run through a glassy set that included a wonderful version of "Shiny Leather Shoes," we were left yearning for more of the self-proclaimed "time-sick son of a grizzly bear."
The city is proud of their good sons, The Brakes, who's latest album oozes with Philly soul and crunchy guitar driven power pop. The band tweaked their new songs at will as they showed off their increasing skills to an eager crowd. They played impressively with an understanding of song craft long since forgotten by many young bands today. They interacted during most exchanges as old blues musicians might with slow nods and quick glances to instigate action. Derek Feinberg (guitar/bass) found a wonderful space early on as he harmonized with Zack Djanikian. The two caught fire as they let their melodies dance through "Boat Trip." Djanikian sang and played guitar with the heart of Jackson Browne mixed with some inimitable Buddy Holly quirkiness. His vocal nuances were soothing yet unique as he sang of lovers past, his travels and the effect of money on the human condition. It wasn't just Djanikian's voice that excited fans but also his low-key attitude onstage.
Adam Flicker sat off in the back smiling while rolling the keys. His musicianship was understated in the evening's short set but he got a few moments to shine. His hands and lungs worked their magic on the trumpet during a fine version of "Into The Ground." As Djanikian's impromptu guitar strum reworked the song's tempo, Flicker's trumpet sparingly cried out with sounds of freedom pouring from its golden bell. The Brakes demonstrated incredible agility as they switched speeds and styles within each song. Later in the set, guitarist Matt Kass confirmed this notion with a few well-placed finger dances across his fretboard. It was his back room Chicago blues approach that pulled at the crowd's emotions and sent them reeling with applause during lively versions of "Big Money" and a Levon Helm-like version of "Rain Down Tears."
The Brakes :: 04.30
Sadly, missing from the lineup this time around was their drummer Josh Sack, who was still home recovering from leukemia. In his place was the band's friend Spence Cohen, whose jazzy style and hard hits worked well with the band. Hyena Record's roster of top-notch artists has grown with the addition of The Brakes. Their dedication to creating searing multi-genre music filled with relevant, meaningful lyrics is always impressive. As the band readies for a Midwest tour, their well-orchestrated set would have made the late Joel Dorn extremely proud to be releasing their albums.
After hearing many accolades given to Jackie Greene it was a special treat to actually see him play firsthand. Greene slunk around the venue keeping a low profile. His timid nature only applied to his offstage actions, and even that demeanor slipped away when his next door neighbor, Bluhm, joked with him, saying that he spent more time at his house doing laundry than recording together in their studio. Greene stepped out of the myth and into reality as he dropped a set that lived up to his hype. Don't let those fearful looks fool you. Once onstage and in the moment, Greene was ablaze, playing off his band and the crowd's liveliness. He embodied all that's great about rock & roll. His songs were dark and insightful like a younger Joe Strummer, but he played guitar and organ with growling, Jagger-like energy. Multiple times he dropped to his knees to rip a psychedelic solo in "Farewell, So Long, Goodbye" or to feed from Muddy Waters during "Like a Ball and Chain."
Jackie Greene :: 04.30
His influences pulled from the heart of American music as he dipped into "Gone Wanderin'." It's no wonder Phil Lesh brought Greene' youthful nature and old soul into his fold. The house was treated to a blues tinged, funked-out version of The Grateful Dead's "Sugaree" that lit the spring night air with ambers of molten sound. After a fast smoke break, Greene asked Tim Bluhm up for a cover of "Stoned Up The Road" pulled from deep within The Mother Hips' catalog. The chemistry between Bluhm and Greene was electrifying and continued the upswing from "Sugaree." Just seeing them share the stage was a rare East Coast treat that sealed the deal for the next night's trip over to North by Northwest.
The Mother Hips :: 05.01.08 :: North by Northwest:: Philadelphia, PA
The spring fever sunk in hard May 1 as we sat watching surf flicks set to the soundtrack of The Mother Hips' latest album, Kiss The Crystal Flake. 30-minutes later, we stood next to Tim Bluhm talking about East Coast surf spots and the enchantment of telemarking Mad River Glen, VT. This was only the second time in the past ten years that The Mother Hips had played on the East Coast. The smell of chef Keith Taylor's ribs permeated the air, and the only way to not salivate was to eat or to slide out onto NXNW's eclectic outside digs. The Hips fought some early sound problems before erupting with a cool set that had a '69-era Jefferson Airplane vibe written all over it. Most of the city had no idea what it was missing as Bluhm and Greg Loiacono's harmonies and soaring guitar work introduced the old school Chico, CA crew to a new coast of fans.
Loiacono & Bluhm - Mother Hips :: 05.01
The Mother Hips showed a wonderful example of how balance makes a band, but raw energy makes a band great. The music moved us like a powerful wave would lift you off the ocean floor. All evening Paul Hoaglin ran away with bubbly bass play, using his instrument to create one bouncing, punching line after the other. He chugged through the night moving the low-end of "Song In A Can" exceptionally well. Drummer John Hofer kept time like a Swiss watch, hitting the skins with hard precision, his torso a pillar of stone as his head and arms skipped out the beat. Hints of Brian Wilson and The Band permeated the music as Loiacono let his aggressive nature roar. Perched to his left, Bluhm served as Loiacono's balance as he sang California drenched songs with a passionate waver. Bluhm said the night before that he was thrilled to play with the band again because he had been off doing solo work for so long. His enthusiasm showed as he turned to face Loiacono in one of their many string bending, guitar exchanges. Bluhm's melodies met Loiacono's soloing Fender to form the perfect sound waves that carried our spring fever dreams. We simply couldn't contain ourselves as the Hips belted out the chorus to "Time-Sick Son of a Grizzly Bear." Each musician held down their own as the collective created a raw, infectious energy that had the whole room jumping. The Hips' short set was the perfect third act to end two grand spring evenings of music where the West journeyed East in a pairing of similar styles and attitudes that we only hope to see again.
Editor's note: It is with my deepest, saddest regrets to tell you all that Josh Sack lost his battle with leukemia on Sunday, May 4. He will be sorely missed. To quote Charles Dickens from A Tale of Two Cities:
"A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing, and leaves the sleeper where he lay down, but I wish you to know that you inspired it."
The Brakes, Jackie Greene and the Mother Hips - Live
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