A Little Bit Country and a Little Bit Rock and Roll

March 28th, 2013

Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers – The Bowery Ballroom – March 27, 2013

I spent a little too much time last night trying to figure out exactly what a Grambler is. That’s the name of Nicki Bluhm’s backing band, in town for a boisterous set of soulful honky-tonk last night at The Bowery Ballroom. With their “YouTube sensation” label and their standard rock-band setup—bass, drums, guitar, Rhodes, female lead singer—the name “Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers” felt like it could have been auto-generated.

Perhaps a Grambler is someone who tells a rambling story, but with guitars, as the band did throughout with country-rock songs like “Go Go Go” beefed up with twang-y guitar and Bluhm nicely channeling Dolly Parton. Maybe it’s someone who likes to take risks while crisscrossing the country (gambling while rambling). Or perhaps it’s a husband–and-wife team displaying their emotions bare onstage with powerful duets like Nicki and Tim Bluhm did with “Stick with Me” and “Till I’m Blue.” Or maybe a Grambler is someone carrying on the tradition of Gram Parsons, like when the band brought up pedal-steel player Jon Graboff, who added some much-needed oomph to the early part of the set.

The highlight of the night for me was when the Bluhms sang a lovely duet on Kenny Loggins“Danny’s Song,” with Graboff’s beautiful steel playing accentuating perfectly, capped by a stolen smooch. Things picked up steam from there, the band grambling their way through a high-energy “Jetplane” with multiple slide- and pedal-steel guitar solos and the makings of a full-band jam. The set had a nice balance of covers and originals, older songs and songs yet to be released. The climax of the night was the new “Little Too Late,” a single-ready gem of a song that encapsulates Bluhm’s sound. And in case I still wasn’t clear just what a Grambler is, the encore laid it out: a gorgeous gospel number, “In the Mountains,” sung in three-part harmony around a single microphone followed by the angry-heartbreak rocker “Kill You to Call.” Whatever the definition, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers are the real deal. —A. Stein