Van-Tastic: YouTubing The Past With Nicki Bluhm

Written by Tom Speed

March 26, 2012

Van-Tastic: YouTubing The Past With Nicki Bluhm  

 

Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in the next big thing, or the obscure old thing, or the what does it mean thing. The music business is messy and doesn’t always reward talent and artistry. It can be frustrating to everyone involved. If you’re not careful, you can forget to listen. You can lose the joy. I worry about the artists who can never seem to catch a break or make a living, just as I lament the crap spewed forth by the karaoke TV shows.

But sometimes, beneath all the sheen, strategy and cynicism that coagulate to construct the music “business,” you discover something that reminds you just how elemental music is to being human. It’s why all this mess has built up around it to begin with.

We all do it because we have to. We do it even if there’s a broken apparatus that sometimes stifles the people who try to do it for a living. We do it for free. We do it for money. We do it when no one is watching. We do it, without constraint or self-consciousness, as children. This is proven time and time again when a four-year old sings “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” at the top of their lungs for six hours nonstop, even while eating.

Music is what we do, what we have to do, when we want to express ourselves. It’s what we do when there is sadness or happiness inside of us that needs to be shared or just let out.

Sometimes we have to be reminded that singing songs can be innocent and gleeful for it’s own sake. It’s not all about business. It’s not all about art.  It doesn’t have to be calculated or serious or even have any other purpose other than to amuse us and to have fun. It’s a great way to pass the time, too.

I found just such a reaffirmation while perusing the Internet last week, as I am apt to do. I found a series of YouTube videos from Nicki Bluhm and her band the Gramblers.  They’re a California outfit that plays an easygoing style of country rock and soul that takes you right back to 1975. Nicki writes and sings and her husband, Tim, sings with her when he’s not fronting his own band, The Mother Hips. The two bands tour together often, piled into a passenger van and towing their equipment in a trailer.

In each YouTube clip, Nicki and the band are seated in the van as it careens down the highway, presumably traveling between gigs. The camera is positioned on the dashboard, and the five of them joyfully sing songs into the camera. They’re just having fun. Goofing off. But the joy is palpable. It’s the millennial equivalent of singing songs in front of the bathroom mirror with a hairbrush for a microphone. It’s just that on the other side of this mirror, there’s the rest of the world.

The band uses a lot of carefully constructed harmonies and some sparse instrumentation.  A melodica (that tiny keyboard powered by blowing into a tube) or a travel guitar. The occasional ukulele. A kazoo. Things that you can fit in your lap while seated in a van. With just voice and these simple, small instruments they imbue familiar songs with gleeful zest. Most of the clips end with laughter or bright smiles that seem to say, “hey we pulled that one off pretty well!”

One can imagine it’s just a fun way to pass the time between gigs. But the playful performances come across as so heartfelt in their deep appreciation for Song itself that it speaks to a greater truth. These clips are connections to the musicians that came before them, the songwriters who knew the transformational shorthand that gets us all to that place where we are singing in the mirror. For as long as there have been traveling musicians, there has been music being made, for free, for fun, between stops. That we get to peek in on that world is what makes it transformative for us.

The songs have clearly been rehearsed. The lush harmonies on the Beatle’s “Here Comes The Sun” don’t materialize without some practice—these are not first takes.  But there is still an off the cuff vibe. Though they’ve practiced these songs before hitting “record” one can imagine that it comes after only a few hundred miles of woodshedding. Half the fun is probably figuring out which songs to tackle next.


The Beatles – Here Comes The Sun

Cover by Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers – Van Session

The songs run the gamut too. They are almost all well-known, easily recognizable cover tunes. It’s nearly impossible to prevent yourself from singing along with “Material Girl” and when Nicki does her little falsetto squeak it might be neurologically impossible for a living human being to not crack a smile.

They tackle the Grateful Dead’s “Deal” with style, Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That” with vigor and their take on Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” possibly outshines the original. Their giddy take on Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” became an apt homage that spread quickly after Houston’s death, though it had been posted months earlier. Buddy Holly, James Taylor  and Patsy Cline also get the joyous Van Sessions treatment.

Those songs are cultural touchstones for people of a certain age, and for many of those people, those 80s pop songs may well have been the very same ones they, too, were singing into a hairbrush years before discovering the Beatles, Funkadelic and the Grateful Dead.

A cynic would say these clips were carefully crafted publicity pieces featuring well-honed performances designed to show off the band’s chops and generate a viral marketing sensation. But to anybody who will listen, the van is actually a time machine that can make every one of us four years old again.

 

The Allman Brothers – Ramblin Man –

Cover by Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers -Van Session

 

Funkadelic -Can You Get To That -

Cover by Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers – Van Session

 

Grateful Dead – Deal –

Cover by Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers – Van Session

 

Whitney Houston – How Will I Know 

Cover by Nicki Bluhm – Van Session

 

Madonna – Material Girl -

Cover by Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers – Van Session

 

 


Hall and Oates – I Can’t Go For That –

Cover by Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers – Van Sessions