Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Andrew Quist
The Mother Hips :: 06.17.11 :: Café du Nord :: San Francisco, CA
Jump right to Andrew’s cool gallery of pics from Café du Nord and the following night in Santa Cruz here!
The Mother Hips have long been one of the most reliably excellent rock acts going but in recent years they’ve exhibited a real talent for nigh-legendary performances, one-offs in intimate venues where they tackle arduous fan-chosen setlists, zany Matt Butler conducted improvisation, Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and inspired acoustic reworkings of their thick catalogue. They excel on the outer edges of their comfort zone, always gravitating back to their classic-minded songwriting and taut, muscular musicianship before spring-boarding outward again with a mischievous glint in their eyes. A mixture of deadly seriousness and unadulterated joy flashes across their faces in these off-the-books performances, and the boys were positively aglow at Café du Nord for this Jay Blakesberg curated extravaganza in celebration of the release of Jay’s fantastic new book of Hips photos, The Mother Hips - Now We Give It To You – 1994-2011.
|The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist|
For as fine as these special shows have been, most of which have occurred in the band’s Northern California base, this one possibly took the cake for hardcore Hips lovers. Chosen with impressive care by Blakesberg, the evening consisted of a first set, first-time-ever performance of 2001’s Green Hills of Earth album in its entirety and a second set that marbled together rarities, solo album selections and impeccably chosen cover tunes.
Singer-guitarist-songwriters Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono, drummer John Hofer and new bassist Scott Thunes were joined by appealingly empathetic keyboardist Danny Eisenberg, and these rosy colored babies quickly found their tone. After two reportedly intense rehearsals, Green Hills sounded surprisingly together, both echoing the studio charm of the original and brushing on splashes of fresh color, a slightly extended solo or cheeky Neil Young quotation giving what is already one of the group’s standout efforts a cool new blush. Hearing these songs in context only added to the feeling that Green Hills is an unsung classic from the 2000s, and perhaps the point when the band fully began to explore the potential of a studio. That this material translated so well to the stage is a testament to the sturdy bones inside their work, but a happy surprise nonetheless.
|Scott Thunes by Andrew Quist|
Once it was clear that we were being given the full album, one settled in for the ride, finding their groove with the band, knowing what came next and thus able to focus on the details as Bluhm howled, Loiacono rattled, Thunes stalked and Hofer shuffled, Eisenberg floating in and out like a cheerful specter, accenting phrases and putting just the right punctuation on what was being written in the foreground. And with no disrespect to recently benched bassist Paul Hoaglin, this was my first time seeing Thunes with the Hips and the fella brings the rock vibe pretty hard. If anyone was gonna fill Paul’s rhythm shoes, Thunes seems the right man.
Rarely played beauties “Sarah Bellum” and “Seaward Son” hit a properly wistful note, and even oft-played “Rich Little Girl” had a nice bite bookended by its original studio pals. During “Smoke” I couldn’t suppress a thought as the line about Wilco sailed through: The Mother Hips deserve the same level of fame, riches and critical adulation as Tweedy’s over-praised bunch. They’ve deserved it for a long, long time and it chafes my hide that the world isn’t angled towards rewarding talent and skill like the Hips. This music is so good I long ago took it on as a cause and not merely a passion, and pressed tight with the faithful at Du Nord, I felt my purpose renewed as the band concluded the first stage of the evening, the melancholy lilt of Loiacono’s watery tale lingering in my head as I headed upstairs for a smoke.
The second set put their best foot up our ass, snarling out of the gate with beloved rarity “Headache To Headache,” one of a goodly number of great songs that have never made it onto a record. With most bands, the tunes that don’t make the cut for albums are understandable leavings, the stuff of bloated reissues padded out with what the Brits call “trainspotting” filler. Not so with The Mother Hips, who simply have too much great material to ever squeeze it all onto official releases.
|The Mother Hips by Andrew Quist|
Thankfully Blakesberg also decided to tap into Bluhm and Loiacono’s solo catalogs, which presented the songs in a new light and reminded us how much quality stuff these two have composed beyond the primary Hips songbook. Two from Loiacono’s great side band Sensations, “I, As a Ghost” and “Incredible Man,” were highlights of the set, and Bluhm’s “Somewhere In Your Mind” and “Dora Lee” showed off what a diverse, thoughtful writer he is. Sprinkled amidst fan favorites like “Honeydew” and “Pet Foot,” alongside recent gems like “Mission In Vain” and one of the rangiest takes on “Pacific Dust” to date, one wondered how these solo selections hadn’t long ago joined the regular rotation.
However, the true meat of the second set lay with the covers, all of which were first time performances, if I’m not mistaken. Matthew Sweet’s “Divine Intervention,” Derek & The Dominoes’ “Keep On Growing,” Moby Grape’s “Omaha” and the Stones’ “Wild Horses” tumbled out and the Hips took solid possession of each, particularly the sublime reading of “Horses,” a song that’s long begged for Bluhm’s quivering, emotion-soaked voice. Tim’s missus Nicki Bluhm joined them for a rollicking run through “You’re No Good,” the 60s R&B chestnut that clear Nicki role model Linda Ronstadt took to Number One in 1975. It was, like everything else, a perfect fit for the band. It takes a crazed fan to come up with this intuitive an assortment, and it’s a safe bet all present felt the specialness of what we were witnessing.
|Tim & Nicki Bluhm by Andrew Quist|
Adding bloom to the lily, the encore gave us two more killer picks – The Hollies’ “The Air I Breathe” and Neil Young’s “Down By The River” – before concluding with the group’s theme song of sorts. Drained, sweaty and delightfully stunned, the audience and band lingered inside and out, enjoying the hovering camaraderie, hugs, smiles and compliments everywhere the eye fell. This evening showed how mutual appreciation can elicit the best in artists, and anyone fortunate enough to squeeze through the doors was the beneficiary of this meeting of Blakesberg and the Hips. Don’t miss the book while you’ve still got a chance to snag one (only 500 copies were printed), and cross your fingers – dear lord, cross ‘em – that they captured this shindig on one of them newfangled digital recorders so we can revisit this sweet glow again and again.
Set 1: Given For You, Life in the City, Take Us Out, Pull Us Together, Singing Seems To Ease Me, Protein Sky, Channel Island Girl, Sarah Bellum > Cowgirl In The Sand tease, Such A Thing, Emotional Gold, Delmar Station, Rich Little Girl, Smoke, Seaward Son
Set 2: Headache To Headache, Divine Intervention, Incredible Man, Somewhere In Your Mind, Dora Lee, Wild Horses, Mission In Vain, I, As a Ghost, Honeydew, You're No Good (w/ Nicki Bluhm), Omaha, Precious Opal, Pet Foot, Keep On Growing, Pacific Dust
Encore: The Air That I Breathe, Down By The River, Mother hips
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