Live Concert Photography: Nicki Bluhm with Peter Oren at Bowery Ballroom 7/25/18
Over the past few months, I’ve written a bit about Lafayette, CA-born, Nashville, TN-based singer/songwriter and guitarist Nicki Bluhm, and although she began her career as a solo artist releasing two albums, 2008’s Toby’s Song and 2011’s Driftwood (which was re-released a year later), Bluhm may be best known for a six year stint as the frontwoman of Nicki Blum and The Gramblers, an act that included her ex-husband Tim Bluhm, with whom she also released a duet album, aptly titled Duets in 2011. Interestingly, Bluhm’s Matt Ross-Spang-produced full-length effort To Rise You Gotta Fall was released earlier this year, and the album, which is her first solo album in over six years was primarily written in and influenced by one of the most difficult and life-altering experiences of her life — a period in which she got divorced and her band went on hiatus. She then followed that with a seemingly spur of the moment move to Nashville.
Bluhm, who has frequented Music City for a number of songwriting sessions was deeply inspired by her time in the city, and how could she or any songwriter not be? After all Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Reba McEntire, Townes Van Zandt and dizzying list of songwriters have all claimed Nashville as a homebase at some point or another. “When I could come to Nashville on writing trips, it was just percolating . . . it was intoxicating,” Bluhm says in press notes. Around the same time, Bluhm met renowned producer, engineer and mixer Matt Ross-Spang, who was in town working on another album, and as the story goes, Ross-Spang and Bluhm quickly hit it off. “I really needed someone who was going to take the reins and have a vision for the album and he really did,” Bluhm says of meeting Ross-Spang. “My ex-husband had been my musical director, co-writer, and producer on all my records except one and I was looking for someone to step into that leadership roll, which Matt did very gracefully. I was looking for a clean slate; the only baggage I wanted to bring into the studio were the words to the songs I was singing. I wanted it to be a fresh experience; I didn’t want to even have history with anyone in the room that would pull me into old habits or ways of thinking. So we agreed we’d record in Memphis.”
Recorded at Sam Phillips Recording, the Rise You Gotta Fall sessions were primarily centered around the live tracking of a backing band of accomplished musicians that included Will Sexton (guitar), Ross-Spang (guitar), Ken Coomer (drums, percussion), Al Gamble (Hammond B3), Rick Steff (piano), Dave Smith (bass), Reba Russell (backing vocals), Susan Marshall (backing vocals), Sam Shoup (string arrangements) and a number of special guests. “We really just recorded live and we didn’t do that many takes of each song,” Bluhm says of the sessions. “The final versions we ended up with were all one take. It was really refreshing to go analog. It minimized over thinking and second-guessing; forced us all to stay in the moment and play from the heart. . . Throughout the session there was a lot of listening and trusting. Matt really spends time curating his sessions and who he decides to bring in; he knows how to keep the vibe right. What you are hearing is, as Jerry Phillips would say, ‘not perfection but captured moments in time.’” Bluhm adds, “These songs are quite personal. They are the conversations I never got to have, the words I never had the chance to say, and the catharsis I wouldn’t have survived without.”
“I had lost my partner in so many ways,” Bluhm recalls in press notes, “my musical partner, my life partner, my creative partner, and all of a sudden I was left on my own, to start my own engine. It was really intimidating and scary,” she says “but I had support from my management, my agent, my friends and family, and ultimately I just had this guttural drive that I didn’t even know I had in me. I was on auto-pilot, ready to move forward and take the steps I had to take to keep moving forward.” Unsurprisingly, album title track, “To Rise You Gotta Fall” is an effortlessly self-assured track that’s indebted to Memphis and Muscle Shoals-era soul, and as a result the single reminded me quite a bit of Nicole Atkins‘ Goodnight Rhonda Lee and Natalie Prass, thanks to a “you-are-there-in-that moment” immediacy and a fully-fleshed out narrator, who has the resiliency and determination that comes from living a complex, messy life, full of struggles, heartbreak, setbacks, small victories and crushing losses. And as the song points out, life will find a way to kick your ass in ways both large and small — and yet, you’ll always wind up in the exact place you needed to be at that particular moment.
To Rise You Gotta Fall‘s second single is the aching ballad “Battlechain Rose,” which was co-written by renowned singer/songwriter Ryan Adams and as Bluhm told American Songwriter, the song was inspired by a restless night in which her mind wouldn’t stop turning with thoughts of the past, of what she could have and should have done differently, of her inability to move forward and of her despair of knowing that relationship has become a phantom limb of regret and heartache. Coming from such a personal place, the album’s material thematically and lyrically focuses on the aftermath of the messy dissolution of a longtime relationship — there’s hurt, accusations, betrayal, anger, hatred and foolishness and yet, the album’s narrator won’t let an embittering situation change her, her outlook or anything about who she essentially is. It’s the strength and wisdom I’ve seen primarily in women, who after a breakup with someone can say “Yes, it hurts. I will cry until my heart burst — and then I’ll cry a bit more. But I’ll be okay. I’ve seen better and I’ve seen worse; but goddamn it, I won’t be fooled like that again.”
Now, as you may recall, I caught Nicki Bluhm play a solo set opening for The Wood Brothers at Chicago’s Vic Theatre — and throughout last month, Bluhm toured with a backing band to support the album that included a July 25, 2018 stop at the Bowery Ballroom with opener Peter Oren. Check out photos from the show below.
Peter Oren is a Columbus, Indiana-born, everywhere-based singer/songwriter and guitarist. Columbus, Indiana is famed for its midcentury modern architecture and the hometown of our current Vice President, Mike Pence; in fact, during his set, Oren mentioned that the Pences were his neighbors, a fact that he said filled him with shame and anger. In any case, as the story goes, after learning that his hometown was named after a murderer and greedy exploiter, not a brave and intrepid explorer, Oren, began putting his thoughts down in poetry while in high school. later picking up a guitar and setting his verses to music. “It was a form of therapy, a way to process whatever a teenager’s trying to figure out. And there’s a lot to figure out with politics. I’ve always had a tendency to be critical of what’s going on, and when I got pulled into the Occupy movement, I had my ideas about the world questioned,” Oren says in press notes. As soon as he could and was able to, Oren left his small town to travel the world, drifting along this country’s highways in his pickup truck with folk and hip-hop albums his only company. And of course, along the way, he kept his eyes and ears open for new experiences, new inspirations and new songs centered around confronting big issues. After the release of 2016’s full-length debut, the sparse Living By The Light, Oren began playing more live shows, accompanied only by his guitar — and while it was financially expedient, he found it to be musically effective, as it allowed him to address his listeners directly. Early encouragement came from another singer/songwriter Joe Pug. “I was on a bill with him in Bloomington, Indiana, and he invited me to open another date for him in Chicago. His support was amazing. He was the first real professional musician I ever worked with,” Oren recalled. Shortly after that, Oren attracted the attention of Ken Coomer, best known for being Wilco’s drummer and a Nashville-based producer, and together they assembled a backing band that featured some of Music City’s finest session musicians including keyboardist Michael Webb, who’s played with John Fogerty; vocalist Maureen Murphy, who’s played with Zac Brown Band; guitarist Sam Wilson, who’s played with Sons of Bill; guitarist Laur Jaomets, who’s played with Sturgill Simpson to play and record on Oren’s latest album Anthropocene, an album that derives its name from the term to designate a new epoch in Earth’s history, when humans have exerted a permanent and incredibly deleterious change in the environment and focuses on his observations about the state of the world as we know it; but underneath the political rallying cries, is a sense of hopefulness and connection with others. Throughout his set, I was most impressed by his rich, sonorous baritone, which recalled some of country’s great male singer/songwriters — for some reason, I couldn’t help but think of George Strait and others.