Bentley's Bandstand: Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, Brett Dennen, Van Morrison

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Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers

Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. Sometimes bands that begin proudly independent are just one click away from breaking through to the forefront. Singer Nicki Bluhm seems like she's been on the cusp of doing just that for awhile now. Based in San Francisco, Bluhm is an intriguing vocalist who comes from a rootsy foundation but at the same feels like she could just as easily be a pop chanteuse. Hearing her progress to where she is today is a study in stardom. Onstage the woman is completely captivating, and with the Gramblers behind her it's like America could have a brand new favorite band on its hands very soon. Husband Tim Bluhm, a longtime veteran of Mother Hips, throws in on keyboards, guitar, vocals and songwriting to push the whole album through the roof. The Gramblers really are that good a group.

Even better, it's like Nicki Bluhm realizes there is no real rush to greatness. Better it come in natural progression, with each step taken leading to solid footing and letting the results dictate their own pace. And that's exactly what this album does, as the singer finds her own voice. Even with elements of Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks and others sometimes evident, there is never any doubt Bluhm is her own person. She's worked hard, building a growing audience and creating a clear path. She and the Gramblers are right on the edge of the big breakthrough, and over half the songs here will demonstrate exactly how it's happening. And if "Always Come Back" doesn't become the official song of California, Golden Staters are missing a beat. It's all right here, in the groovy grooves, flagging down fans wherever Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers get heard.


Brett Dennen, Smoke and Mirrors. This young man has made a bunch of records, sometimes moving forward and other times standing still. But Brett Dennen has never faltered from the task of always seeking true self-expression. He no doubt has different voices in his head telling him which way to wander, and he has written several songs that will last forever. On the new album Dennen plays to his strengths and finds the north star again. Recording in Nashville with noted producer Charlie Peacock lets the singer-songwriter zero in on a somewhat stripped-down sound. Since warmth is always at the top of his strengths, Dennen's lyrics and crystal-clear voice throw a comforting blanket over the soul. Though the edge of pain is always there, so is hope and heart. That's his calling card.

Any album with song titles like "When We Were Young," "Don't Mess with Karma," "Not Too Late" and "Who Am I" tips its hand in the intention department. A child of the hills and ocean of the California central coast, Brett Dennen is a searcher, and there are lyrics that contain moments of such intense self-reflection that it feels like a burden is being lifted on his new music. With every album there were predictions of hit-dom which came with them. And each time, that momentum only got so far before a wall of reality was bumped against. Smoke and Mirrors is often a more down home affair, and for that reason alone it could be the one that brings Brett Dennen a whole new public profile. He's on a major label for the first time, and appears to be ready to step all the way up and leave the downs from the past behind. Dennen's inside inscription reads: "This album is dedicated to those who might have lost their way but found it again. From within." True that.


Van Morrison, Moondance: Deluxe Edition. After the Astral Weeks album came out in 1968, it felt like Van Morrison was headed for somewhere far from shore. He'd established something so personal with songs like "Madame George" and "Cyprus Avenue" that the Irishman looked destined to set up shop somewhere in the outer cosmos, playing "dominos in drag" for the undetermined future. Imagine the shock when Moondance arrived two years later. It was an album as much of the street as the stars, and established Van Morrison for the next four decades as the ultimate singer-songwriter who could cross soul music with rock and roll, drawing on the very best from each side of the fence. In many ways, this is the standard-bearer for everything else Van the Man would do. The five-disc collection might be for the Morrison fanatic, but is also one of the most moving case studies of a single album. The multiple takes of various songs, along with an unreleased semi-gem and earlier versions of songs that would find their way to later albums is like taking a crash course in how classic releases are born. Not for everyone, the Deluxe Edition instantly becomes a high-water mark in multi-disc sets of a single album.

The first disc features the remastered Moondance release, and proves beyond doubt it's one of the best albums ever recorded. Every single song is a wonder, as if a higher hand was guiding not only Morrison in singing and writing the songs, but also the seven musicians on the sessions, along with the three "girl singers" as they're called on two songs. There is an undeniable force at work on "And It Stoned Me," "Come Running," "Into the Mystic" and everything else, adding up to something that still leaves a listener breathless by the last notes of "Glad Tidings." From there, over the next three discs (and a fourth featuring a Blu-ray audio version) are included all the different tries at finding the heart of these songs. Each evolves at a different pace, but it's clear Morrison knew he was after a sound he hadn't found before. "I Shall Sing" is included though it didn't make the final cut, and it's obvious why — it just didn't fit. One more song would have thrown the whole balance off, and there was no way that was going to happen. Van Morrison had found his lovelight, and he was getting ready to shine it on the world. Long may it continue to burn.

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Bill Bentley got his first drum set in 1965 and still has it. He's been a deejay, record store clerk, publicist, writer, concert promoter, record producer and a&r director, sometimes all at once. He's worked at KUT-FM, Austin City Limits, L.A. Weekly, Slash Records, Warner Bros. Records and Vanguard…

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