Words by: Corby Anderson | Images by: Andrew Quist
Gramble On Big Sur :: 02.28.09 :: Fernwood Lodge :: Big Sur, CA
The venerable and stony Fernwood Resort in Big Sur scored a real musical coup out on the Central Coast by hosting the ascendant trio of Skinny Singers (Jackie Greene and Tim Bluhm), Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers and Big Light on the last day of February. Like peanut butter and chocolate or whiskey and ice, this was a pairing so monumentally cool that the potential for epic-osity was endless.
Bluhm & Greene :: 02.28 :: Big Sur|
The Fernwood is not like any "resort" that you have ever been to. It is a completely original, sweetly jagged, irreplaceable spawn of a cosmic anomaly. Cobbled together with serendipitous ramshackle utilitarianism, the twelve room hotel wings out from the redwood hewn tavern like a beckoning yellow bear hug, and sits perched atop a grove of monumental Coastal Redwoods with some of the best creek camping spots imaginable. It is an undeniably special place, a spun out vortex within the already trippy Big Sur meridian.
With this lineup, there was a real concern about capacity. Tickets and accommodations sold out almost immediately. Greene commands a well-heeled herd of dedicated supporters drawn from his own works and his riffing associations with The Dead and Phil Lesh. Tim Bluhm, whose band The Mother Hips are now settling into their rightful place as kings of the California sound, also draws devotees from far and wide whenever he plays. Full, the Fernwood can only hold about 150 souls, and most insiders estimated a number much higher than that.
This veil of expectancy existed on several fronts. With so many fans opting to camp and a major storm predicted to sit down over Big Sur on the day of the show, the large, sprawling decks of the Fernwood would be drenched and rendered mostly useless for overflow. But along the way to the Gramble, an interesting thing happened. The storm tracked north, and the overwhelming hordes of fans never appeared, and a lucky crowd filled things out nicely, spilling out onto the groovy smoker porches.
"Tonight we are Bigger Light!" proclaimed lead singer Fred Torphy. Playing as a seven-piece rock machine (and eight with ALO's Dave Brogan adjoined), the band was literally too big for the small Fernwood stage. Keyboard/guitar player Dan Hurley played with most of his body sticking out of the front door. From inside, all that could be seen of Hurley were his rhythmic arms dancing on the keys. Mellifluous and driving, Big Light evoked Summer Teeth-era Wilco while exhibiting a propensity for note-lingering glory rock.
Jackie Greene :: 02.28 :: Big Sur|
In between sets, the surreal dynamic of a Saturday night in Big Sur also held sway. Musical migrants named Spanky, Shoeey and Whitey mingled with Surian lifers, and the visitor's organic bartering chips for CDs and tickets turned out to be too kind to ignore. A local cowboy dressed in a big Stetson and a vivid blue motocross jersey played his own concert in the front lot, a big Copenhagen chaw jutting out from his lower lip, his kaleidoscope eyes unfixed and wild, while out back a drunken duo of Latin flamenco strummers clawed at their nylon strings and howled sentimental drug ballads. Somewhere, far down below in the misty haze of the campground, an unbalanced banshee named Angel screamed dangerous obscenities at anyone who dared to question the irony of her name.
Back in the Fernwood, Nicki Bluhm was poised onstage, back straight and proper, dark bangs shading her eyes while she reached deep into her vocal well for high notes that drove home the crux of the full-hearted "Down the Beach." "As I look down on my life's sailings/ I find that restlessness is all I know," she wailed with measured vocal punch, her words resonating with an agreeable crowd. Her long arms flowed out of endlessly blousing sleeves that made a mockery of buttoned cuffs. The Gramblers rolled on with a dazzling set of country blues numbers. Guitarist Deren Ney stepped up with a powerful and economical array of licks and runs, highlighted by his fluid, Buckinghamian picksmanship on "Keep It Loose" and tearing slide work on the romping blues of "Big Road." Tim Bluhm grinned and strummed approval from his stool aside his singing wife, his beard as wooly and ragged as the scene.
The stage room now cooked. The human heat was enough to make a cool-down trip outside a mandatory routine, which was fine because the bar was that way and the wait for fresh swill was minimal. The crowd turned over as Greene's joyous fans angled towards the front, tall ladies in tight jeans and high heeled thigh boots, many bearing green colored roses. One fancy-pants woman staked out a prominent spot in the front and just owned it for the rest of the night, attempting to mentally ping the undeniably magnetic Greene, and openly salivating as if Greene was a well-grilled T-Bone.
The Skinny Singers took off in an urgent gallop with the desert rattish "Heroes, Hear Me." The twin guitars jangled as the catchy county tale of Annie the dreamer unfolded from Bluhm's endlessly dramatic lyrical reservoir. "What have I done with my own right hand/ and can I ever undo it?/ Goddamn these collapsible plans/ I did what was wrong and I knew it." Bluhm pleaded earnestly, while Greene raised his white Fender and fired off a raspy stringed sayonara to his forlorn friend.
Nicki & Tim Bluhm :: 02.28 :: Big Sur|
Greene is perpetually unaffected; his familiar face just hangs placidly on his skull, topped with a straw hat. Bluhm and Greene have worked out some really, really good songs in the relatively short time they've worked together. "Dirty Pharmacy," "Going Home Again, Singing My Way to the Grave" and "Silver Key" are fantastic, instantly memorable songs, and in the heart of the Big Sur woods they played like timeless classics. Offstage, there was a sense that this small scene will be talked about someday as "the good old days," but of course, onstage that kind of thinking is doomed the second that the thought escapes for there is very little room for self-reflection in stoner rock of this magnitude. There seems to be no limit to how good things will actually get. These are two genius level artists collaborating in their prime, and in Bluhm's case, his prime has lasted for a good 15 years - always improving, always growing, never coasting.
An hour into the Skinny show and I suddenly got the sensation that I was as comfortable as I've ever been at a concert, to the point of looking down to make sure I wasn't lounging in a Lazy-Boy. It was an uncanny, yet tangible feeling, where it all just felt right and mellow with a capitol ELLO. The Skinny Singers are Yoda-like people whisperers, soothing masters of calmness and sanctity. The inherent natures of both band and venue melded sweetly, and eventually the various Gramble players began to interchange and rejoin the music. Brogan on skins, Steve Adams on bass, Nicki singing and Ney playing lead with his big, red, hollow-bodied six string for a scintillating version of "Down By the River." Being in serious Dead country, there was no better encore than the selection of the "Sugaree" and "Franklin's Tower," which has become the crowd stoking signature medley for the Skinny Singers.
The performance ended in gracious, long applause. It was late, and just about everyone grambled off to their own little crackling fires down in the tall trees for a nightcap and a little of that inexplicably soothing Big Sur sleep.
Continue reading for more pics of the Gramble in Big Sur...