Words by Dennis Cook :: Images by Josh Miller
The Mother Hips :: 12.16 & 12.17 :: Great American Music Hall :: San Francisco, CA
This is fundamentally perfect music.
The Mother Hips :: 12.17 :: San Francisco
This realization dawned as I raised my voice and whiskey glass towards the rafters, singing along with dozens of others, "I dunno about no rich little girl, walkin' around like her papa got some money!" Now these are class politics I can get down with.
Smiling hard enough to make me massage my jaw, I was struck by how wonderfully and completely together their sound is – radio-ready but smarter than the stuff most music directors let reach the airwaves, played with pluck and relentless cleverness, saturated with all the primal things that make us scream and shout, like great harmonies, amazing guitar solos and gorgeous bridges. In terms of song craft, passion, and technical skill, the Mother Hips are as good as anything out there. And a damn sight better than most.
At the beginning of this holiday run, it was pointed out that this Bay Area band has been doing their thing for 14 years. You can hear all those days in the nuances, in the ever-changing animation of the words, in the body movements of this hard pop quartet. They arrive fully formed. There's no warm-up. They plug in, and this wondrous sound emerges from every corner of the stage. Through two packed nights with highly varied setlists, not a dud note was played. Not one. It's impressive even writing it, but the experience of it was even more so.
Bluhm & Loiacono
The Mother Hips :: 12.17
My shorthand the last few years to anyone who hasn't heard the Hips is, "They're the band Buffalo Springfield might have evolved into if they'd had a little less ego and a lot more time." Tim Bluhm (vocals, guitar), Greg Loiacono (guitar, vocals), John Hofer (drums), and Paul Hoaglin (bass, vocals) actually coalesce a lot of influences – Beatles, Merle Haggard, pre-disco Bee Gees, Neil Young (who got a proper salute on Friday with a stunning rendition of "Cowgirl In The Sand"), The Hollies, '70s garage rock. The product of their creative digestion is a sound that's instantly familiar but also unique. You get the feeling of their ancestry, but the bone structure and other features are all their own.
For example, the inspired back-to-back playing of their new single, a-side "Red Tandy" and b-side "Colonized," the second night. You'd swear you've heard "Tandy" somewhere, perhaps sandwiched between "Bus Stop" and "Drive My Car" on the oldies station, but you haven't. It's brand new but bares the hallmarks of the time when singles were more than product. It's the type of 45 you can listen to on repeat. And when that gets old, you flip it over and there's a darker, denser track to sink into, a "Don't Let Me Down" or "Memo From Turner" to peruse at length. "Colonized," like many of their compositions, is packed with discrete sections that keep you guessing at the next move. They hide the complexities of their pen in a breathless rush. Only with time do you get just how bloody good the writing is. They don't see a dichotomy between writing classic-sounding singles and lively experimentation. As long as the feel flows then everything's gonna be alright.
Paul Hoaglin :: The Mother Hips :: 12.17
All of this is head stuff, and fine as such, but the live setting is where they help folks find incarnation. Butts shake, throats grow soar, eyes glaze with immediate, unmistakable pleasure. Put bluntly, the ladies totally lose their shit when they play. The fair-skinned leaners from the balcony both nights didn't seem to care a lick if they fell into the roiling crowd below. They are one of two bands (the Black Crowes being the other) that causes me to behave like a teen in A Hard Day's Night, mouthing the words, head waggling helplessly, safe in the surrender to something bigger than the workaday usually allows.
You can get lost in a lot of things at their shows. One minute it might be their warm, flexible voices, and the next it's the alliterative rhythm of Hoaglin and Hofer, a bass/drum pairing that navigates some unusual changes with ceaseless agility that never sacrifices that hard-snare punch rockers crave. I wait for Bluhm's first unbridled yelp of the evening. He didn't make it two songs either night before it tore from him. I also adore their lively word use. There's not another band I can name off the top of my head that's used "egress" or "harkened" or told someone they're "pleasing in an Oscar Wilde way." Like I said, smarter than the folks who decide what gets played.
Tim Bluhm :: 12.17
A buddy the first night said they reminded him of Widespread Panic, something I'd never heard before but spent the rest of the night trying to suss out. The guitar interplay between Loiacono and Bluhm does bring John Bell and Michael Houser to mind. However, my ears always placed them closer to Malcolm and Angus Young of AC/DC. In this scenario, Greg is the eye-catching Angus by virtue of being one of the most inventive, blindingly interesting guitarists perhaps ever. That means Tim is Malcolm, but as with AC/DC, folks miss that the guy who isn't wearing schoolboy trousers is also throwing haymakers. He's just quiet about it.
Another key to their appeal, like Panic, is the way their lyrics stick with you. Bluhm and Loiacono have penned literally hundreds of gems. Depending on your own predilections, different lines will resonate. Maybe you dig the tiny but classy lady in "Channel Island Girl," who all summer long has been the only person in your song. Or maybe, like the narrator of "Del Mar Station," you need a small vacation someplace where you can't hear a sound. The masses singing along to every song at the Great American are proof their words have connected with their fans on a deeper-than-usual level.
Hoaglin & Bluhm :: The Mother Hips :: 12.17
Spontaneously, a half dozen people turned to me during these gigs to ask aloud, "Why aren't the Mother Hips world famous?" The exact words varied but the gist was identical. With just guys and gear and an arsenal of sensational tunes, they tap into the deep water that fed rock's inception. Fantastic showmen, blessedly gifted singers, a voluminous catalog, a tight accessible sound, and brains to spare – all this should spell enormous success. But as the Hips themselves once pointed out "Happiness will not bring you money." Because they do what they do with unflinching integrity, never pandering or diluting their music for any reason, the world is only somewhat aware of them.
Greg Loiacono :: The Mother Hips :: 12.17
They aren't driving fancy cars or snorting white off expensive tail. Instead, they are the carpenters that give us shelter from the storm. They are the bringers of truths that crop up during coffee with a friend. Their music keeps us company when we're dealt a blow and joins us in a round when we've reason to celebrate. You might quibble with bits – too twangy for some tastes, not enough long jams, whatever – but the constituent parts are just what I said at the start, perfect, and these SF shows served only to cement that belief.
Look for an extensive feature interview with the Mother Hips on JamBase in the early months of 2006.
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