By Brian F. Johnson
The popular misconception is that life on the road for a touring rock band is a glamorous one. The reality of the situation, though, is that aside from a few hours each night when the artists are actually performing, most of life on the road is boring as hell. There’s hours of waiting around for sound checks, for hotel rooms and for, usually, pretty bad food. And then there’s the road itself — hour upon monotonous hour driving between gigs.
Every band passes the time differently. Some simply plug into electronic devices and tune out. Others drink so hard that they can’t help but sleep away the next leg. Some fight. But for Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers, one fun day in the van, passing time by goofing around playing cover tunes, turned into a pinnacle part of their career, which has drawn more attention than they could have ever imagined.
That day, the group set an iPhone on the dashboard of their van and while driving to the next show, recorded a cover of “Tonight You Belong To Me.” The original intention was to send the raw video home to friends and family, but one band member posted it to YouTube and before they knew it, “The Van Sessions” were born.
Now more than 25 Van Sessions later, the videos have collectively attracted more than five million views, with their cover of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” going massively viral, pulling in nearly two million views, alone.
The videos, which sometimes sound and look far from a professional recording (although they’ve improved since Bluhm upgraded to an iPhone 5), give viewers a very intimate glimpse of the band on the road, and since all of the Van Sessions are cover songs they allow listeners to immediately recognize and connect with the group.
But while Bluhm and company are thrilled with the attention the Van Sessions have received, they don’t want to be known simply as the van singers from YouTube. The band just finished up a successful stint at SXSW in March and immediately afterward they pointed the van toward Nashville, where they had a couple of other meetings set up. “We’re hoping we can find a good situation,” Bluhm said in a recent interview with The Marquee. “We’re looking for a label right now and so, of course, SXSW was a part of that process of getting some conversations going.”
Another giant piece in that process, though, is already wrapped up for the band. Last spring, the group started working on Bluhm’s third album, the first that will officially be billed as Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers. “The way we recorded the first album, there were no Gramblers. We put the band together for the CD release party. For Driftwood  it was the same band but we used a lot of other different musicians on the album. But this record, that we’re about to put out, is pretty much solely The Gramblers and we did a lot of it live, so it’s really a true reflection of how we sound,” Bluhm said.
The band recorded the album at Mission Bells Studio, the San Francisco studio which Bluhm’s husband and bandmate, Tim — known for his work in The Mother Hips — opened in 2006, in partnership with recent Black Crowes addition Jackie Greene and engineer Dave Simon-Baker.
“We spent a lot of time recording it. The blessing of having your own studio is that you can record whenever it works for you. The downside though is that you can stretch it out. Like a simple ‘I want to go in and fix this one little thing,’ and it turns into eight hours,” Bluhm said.
The material for the new album is all new, written since the release of Driftwood, and Bluhm explained that the four songwriters in the band, including herself, Tim, lead guitarist Deren Ney and rhythm guitarist Dave Mulligan, all contributed pieces to the new album. Also contributing to the new work is songwriter Steve Poltz, who famously penned the 1996 Jewel hit “You Were Meant For Me.” “There’s definitely lots of different kinds of tunes on the record and a lot of collaborations too,” Bluhm said.
The band has already released two singles from the record, “Little Too Late” and “Ravenous,” but are holding off, temporarily, on the full release.
While Bluhm has been making music since 2006, the Gramblers have only been touring seriously for about a year-and-a-half. This summer they’ll hit their first full summer festival circuit with appearances at Bonnaroo and Hangout, among others. But Bluhm said that even if the band’s explosion continues and the group ends up graduating from the van to a bus, the Van Sessions won’t stop. “They’ll just become the Tour Bus Sessions. It’ll be better, I promise,” she said.
:: Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers::
:: L2 Arts & Culture Center :: April 10 ::
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