For Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, it’s been a strange, viral-video road to the Santa Cruz Mountain Sol Festival
One band. One van. One iPhone. Millions of hits.
If their series of “Van Sessions” videos hadn’t become the surprise YouTube sensation of 2012, maybe alt-country-folk-rockers Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers wouldn’t have ended up near the top of the Santa Cruz Mountain Sol Festival lineup this weekend at Roaring Camp Meadows in Felton.
Though the band’s musical director—and Nicki’s husband—Tim Bluhm was somewhat of a Bay Area music legend already, thanks to his band the Mother Hips, the Gramblers were still a fairly new experiment for the couple. With Tim’s encouragement, Nicki released her first solo album in 2008, surrounded by several of his musical collaborators. The band coalesced on tour, but after the videos—featuring the band crammed into their touring van, playing their instruments on a series of cover songs while Nicki sings—went viral, the first record credited to Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers came out in 2013, landed on the Billboard Americana charts, and spurred TV appearances.
But the Van Sessions weren’t just some kind of gimmicky launching pad. On the contrary, the very reason they got popular in the first place was that in a summer of overproduced pop—where Carly Rae Jepsen’s catchy but creepily robotic “Call Me Maybe” was the closest thing to an anthem—they were a DIY breath of fresh air. With a list of song choices that veered from the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” to Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream” to George Michael’s “Faith” to (most famously) Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That,” always with one static camera shot capturing the action, the videos showcased the unpredictable mix of rock, country, folk, and soul that the band conjures effortlessly. They also provided a stark showcase for Nicki’s incredible voice.
She, of course, had no clue they would catch on.
“There’s no way to prepare for something like that,” she says now from her home in San Francisco. But as demand for the band went up, the wild eclecticism of the Gramblers’ music proved to have a downside, too, in trying to establish for potential new fans just what their music was about.
“It can be a good thing and a bad thing,” she says. “Definitely one of the focuses on the new record [Loved Wild Lost] was to be a bit more cohesive. We’re constantly trying to hone our sound.”
When they play the Santa Cruz Mountain Sol Festival on Saturday, they’ll be in the company of headliners Michael Franti and Spearhead; as well as African diva Angelique Kidjo; the Spirit of ’76 featuring Melvin Seals, who’ll recreate a show originally played by the Jerry Garcia Band; and Santa Cruz songsmith Keith Greeninger. Sunday’s lineup includes headlining bluegrass vanguards Yonder String Mountain Band; Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass, which does bluegrass Grateful Dead covers; singer-songwriter Brett Dennen; jam band Golden Gate Wingmen; and popular former Giants third-base coach gone Americana songwriter Tim Flannery, with his band Lunatic Fringe.
Bluhm sees festivals like this as not just a great gig, but also a community.
“Everyone tours so hard throughout the year, it’s cool to connect with other musicians and just hang,” she says.
After this show, Bluhm and the Gramblers will be touring the country through the entire summer and into the fall. But don’t expect any more videos from the road, now that they’ve had an upgrade in transportation.
“We tried to do one in the bus,” says Bluhm. “It just doesn’t translate.”
The Santa Cruz Mountain Sol Festival will be held on Saturday, July 11, and Sunday, July 12, at Roaring Camp Meadows in Felton. Gates open at 11 a.m., music starts at 11:30 a.m. Headliners Michael Franti and Spearhead (Saturday) and Yonder Mountain String Band (Sunday) take the stage at 5 p.m. One-day tickets are $65; two-day passes, $115. Go to santacruzmountainsol.com for tickets. PHOTO: Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers play the Santa Cruz Mountain Sol Festival on Saturday, July 11.