With dark eventually comes the light, right? To get to the good you must slog through the bad – it’s almost cliché but everyone that reads this review knows that to be true. It is the one law of life that can keep us going and the last five years of The Mother Hips’ history is proof. An accident almost took Tim Bluhm away from this life and coupled with an extremely difficult and tumultuous regimen of physical therapy and medical treatment as well as an emotionally draining divorce, the last five years have been tough not only on Bluhm but his bandmates Greg Loiacono and John Hofer. Eventually, too, the departure of Scott Thunes from the band in 2017 left the music on temporarily shaky ground. But together they soldiered back and enlisted the help of some stellar musicians the likes of Jackie Green, Gabe Nelson from Cake, Jason Crosby and Schelia Gonzales (DIVA Jazz Orchestra) they were able to put together their outstanding 2017 release Chorus that contains no less than six songs that will eventually be considered classics in their canon.
The new album and Tim’s returning strength began showing in the music and the band’s performances got stronger. Then bassist Brian Rashap (San Geronimo, Terrapin Family Band) joined the band and his long-time passion and deep caring for the band’s music stoked the fire of the band’s shows even further. It finally feels like this band is out of the valley and consistently bagging some peaks. Since August there has been a steady build that has led the Hips through fall and into winter. Their Halloween run at Mill Valley’s Sweetwater were important benchmark shows, but it was the end of the year slide, from the annual holiday shows at San Francisco’s vaunted and gilded Great American Music Hall (December 14 and 15), Sunday show at Slims (December 16) and their New Year’s Run at Santa Cruz’s Moe’s Alley (December 30 and 31), that truly put an exclamation point on what can only be called this band’s musical renaissance.
So, when The Hips descended on their 25th annual Holiday shows (think about that . . . 25th annual is no small feat), they didn’t just walk into the weekend, they swagger strutted. The three-night run began with Friday’s Ultimate Setlist Show, a performance of a band selected, and fan-submitted setlist, a room burning rock show on Saturday, and a perfectly played acoustic comedown set performed at Slim’s on Sunday. The Ultimate Setlist show is an annual departure from the band’s performance norm and this year was a huge jump. The Mother Hips are a rock band and while there is nightly improvisation, it is not generally their focus. This band is usually about precision execution.
The Ultimate Setlist show allows fans the opportunity to see their band play their own chosen set of songs. Normally you’ll see some bust outs of songs long out of rotation alongside proven favorites on these special nights, but this year was different. This year’s list was completely off the reservation. Dave Berman, a Laughter Yoga practitioner (yes, it’s a thing), currently living in Thailand submitted a list that stretched the band in ways fans have never seen or really expected. It was a list focused on the segue, that glorious little “>” that allows for musical exploration and surprise. A staple for Deadheads and Phish and Panic fans, this is not a norm in the Mother Hips realm. But Berman crafted songs into pairings or trifectas that literally left the crowd wondering what the next twist and turn would be. It was incredibly exciting, expertly crafted, and decidedly well-played.
Were there a couple warts? Sure. But so many of us would rather see a couple warts in the course of imaginative exploration than not. It was a credit to the band that out of forty list submissions they chose to take on Berman’s. It was well out of their comfort zone and once undertaken, they attacked it with passion – a testament, perhaps, to where this band has arrived after so many years of trial and tribulation. The bottom line here is that fans saw renewed Mother Hips, a band willing to go out on a very tenuous limb and take risks in a way that they rarely take. It was a musical adventure that elicited hugs, shouts of joy, furious hippy dancing and lots of fist pumps. And it could be seen from the stage too, there was laughter, levity and looks of “how did we DO that?” This show is one that is better heard than described. It was recorded by long-time fan John Chapman and his trusty cohorts and a matrix mix will surface (hopefully soon) on the Live Music Archive so keep an eye out for that one!
Saturday’s show was a return to the norm. This was the show that the band was looking forward to as it was familiar territory but an opportunity to show the old Great American and fans old and new that there are a lot of miles left on this engine. The band tore through staples of their live show with a crackling energy and rock assault. They were not going through the motions here, they were creating a vibrant, breathing interpretation of songs that was all about that moment in time and a gift for those in attendance. Danny Eisenberg, a long-time Hips collaborator and, to be fair, the fifth Hip sent the songs to stratospheric heights with his organ fills and flourishes. Danny feels this music, he has, in many cases, helped form a lot of these songs when he started playing with the band decades ago. Only his intimate knowledge of these tunes can bolster and build them up to the level they attain when he’s on the bench. And the vocals, perhaps the centerpiece of that California Soul sound, were perfectly on point. These too were augmented over the weekend by the addition of Alex Koford (Colonel and the Mermaids, Terrapin Family Band, Phil Lesh and Friends). Koford, in his mid-twenties, sits solidly astride a rapidly blossoming music career and that he was asked to sit in and lend high harmonies to songs that have held incredible influence over his own music was, in his own words, “one of the great privileges of my musical career” (and his musical career, even at such a young age, is beyond impressive). And so, these guys, all together, created a soundscape that eventually (truly) began to physically shake the old hall in which they played. Foot stomps from the dancefloor below sent tremors through the balcony. New life was given to old standards that for some might have once signaled a quick run to the bathroom or smoke break but kept them firmly in place, eyes wide with discovery and a sense of sharing something special with those around them because, after all that has happened to this band and this fan community every show is a gift.
And perhaps the prettiest little gift of the weekend was the Sunday acoustic show. These acoustic sets have become more regular in the Hips’ performance cycle and they have refined these sets beautifully. The crowd at Slim’s was comparatively small to the previous two days, many having departed the city for a trek home to be with family and return to work in the pre-holiday week. Those that were left were there for a purpose – to eke out the remaining notes and share in the waning weekend vibe. The band came out with their wooden instruments and gently moved through a set that saw kids running through the crowd, a jolly, old Santa high-fiving the little mirth-makers and appreciative eyes cast toward the stage. There was, again, nothing rote about this performance. The Hips have honed these acoustic sets to a razor sharpness but there was an adventure or two left to take and that was what set this iteration of this band apart from the past. An attitude of “let’s just try it” permeated the set, an acoustic version of “One Way Out” as a case in point. That “in the moment” sense was appreciated by band and fans alike – manifested in smiles and cheers. As the last note sustained and fans walked out into the cold, afternoon San Francisco rain there was no way to not be impressed, appreciative, and content but to look ahead to two shows at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz to close out 2018.
And those shows, in their way, were remarkable too. Moe’s Alley has long been a room that this band plays hard and recordings prove this. Many Hips fans hold the band’s stops at Moe’s to be some of the most important shows of the year alongside performances at The Great American and the band’s own Hipnic Festival in Big Sur. The first night while not unremarkable was a settle in two setter. Highlights included a burning, guitar punching “Precious Opal” set one opener that got real serious real quick, and an exhaustingly powerful “Two Young Queens.” “Red Tandy” has taken its rightful spot in recent setlists as a jam infused monster rocker and this one, followed by a beautifully played “This Is A Man” was a prime example. But it might have been the last three songs of the night that gave the crowd a preview of what was to come. “Mountain Time” a relatively rare old song that was brought back through the very first Ultimate Setlist Show years and years ago snapped fans back to attention and got the floor frenzied again. “Mountain Time” was followed by a deep and snarling “Stoned Up the Road” that elicited the final fist pumps of the night and a slowed and sinister “Poison Oak” encore turned the crowed out into the night with beaming smiles and high expectations of what New Year’s Eve would bring.
The band’s New Year’s Eve performance was impeccable in its abandon. It was everything that it should have been. It was all at once angry and celebratory. It was an exercising of all the crap we have had to deal with this year and the way the band took the stage said everything the audience needed to know about what was to come. The opening notes of “Smoke” found Tim Bluhm literally huffing and puffing with excitement and exhortation. He moved around the stage locking eyes with his bandmates, urging them to higher crescendos and yelling out well away from the microphone. He was possessed with energy and ready to lay it all on the stage. It was so gratifying to see him up and moving around the stage, no longer tethered by his injuries and free to lead a rock and roll charge like some kind of musical infantry assault.
Loiacono blistered through his leads, hammering and bending his guitar with reckless precision. Alex Koford was back to lend more of those high harmonies and Rashap pounded his bass, almost crouched in his attack and singularly focused on the moment. Danny Eisenberg held back on this one but locked into Loiacono who brought him along through the song, comrades bent on crushing each note. There was no time for breath and the crowd was unrelenting, bodies packed wall to wall, bumping into one another, peeling screams of encouragement – it was glorious bedlam, band and crowd utterly fused for the next few hours.
On paper it looks like a lull, but it wasn’t. If anything, after that “Smoke” it was necessary. “White Falcon Fuzz” and the contemplative lyrics of this song pulled everyone in the room together. A “Del Mar Station” about mid-way through the first set was a raucous singalong as crowd and band sang together, waking up the sleepy little neighborhood that surrounded. But then Shelia Gonzales came out with her saxophone and the frickin’ place came unglued. Her smiles and enthusiasm, not to mention her sax playing elicited a roar from the crowd that was louder than the band itself. With Shelia they ran through new fan favorite “It’s Alright,” a stalwart but reinvented “Do It On The Strings,” and one of the most spirited “Song In A Can” that has ever been played. Gonzales’ sax solos on this one sent the crowd into ecstasies, it was truly something to witness. A ridiculously raucous “Pay The Bill” left the audience once again breathless to mercilessly close the set and allow folks to chat, recharge drinks and get ready for the New Year countdown.
The band retook the stage with a decidedly rocking “Esmerelda” that took some turns through a long intro finally swelling into the song. This is one of those Mother Hips staples that has longtime fans listening closer these days. There’s a new energy in this one and it holds the audience in place, dancing and singing along. Another highlight of the first part of this second set was the “Whiskey on A Southbound” that slid into Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River,” a nod back to Dave Berman’s Ultimate Setlist a couple weeks back. Another cover followed and the Everly Brother’s “Gone, Gone, Gone” eventually found a vamp that took us to the long-awaited countdown as bartenders busily poured champagne and lined up glasses for the toast. After hugs and high-fives on the stage and in the crowd, the band RIPPED into “Superwinner.” It was a perfect choice to bring in 2019. This anthemic “kiss my ass” of a song is one that often causes dancers to move spasmodically, giving up on any sense of personal space and was a solid way to boot 2018 down the road and put out a call for good in 2019. Let’s all collectively hope that that happens.
The last half of the set held several standouts including an outstanding “Time Sick Son of a Grizzly Bear,” an angry “3rd Floor Story” that had its singalong moments. “Two River Blues” harkened back to an earlier time in Hips history with Eisenberg building the song to shattering crescendos that nerved the crowd with tension only to give way to flourishes of release. “High Note Hitters” has taken its place deep in the second set to stoke the crowd back up toward the end of the night and whip the frenzy just a little further. Then a “Can’t Sleep at All > Sweet Leaf > Can’t Sleep at All” finished out the sent in a swirl of guitars and Hofer’s pounding drums. But it wasn’t done. A contemplative “Motorhome” met sweet smiles from adoring fans in the crowd and then came the final song of the night. An awesome “Hey Emilie” called out the true history of this band while simultaneously looking forward with Rashap killing his bass fills and locked in with Hofer’s driving backbeat. Here was a reminder that there is yet another chapter to be penned in this band’s book.
The story is far from told and the adventure is renewed. There is familiarity but also some real unknowns but now there is health and strength and fellowship. The Mother Hips have yet again proven why they are perhaps the most relevant and riveting band of their time, still eager to capitalize and seize on moments as they come. So, in a brand-new little baby 2019 there is so much reason to continue to say, “God Bless the Mother Hips.”