Some Northern California touring bands don’t seem to be hip to the way that Austin’s thriving music scene and progressive vibe mirror that of the Bay Area. It’s a connection that dates at least back to Janis Joplin, who started her legend in Austin before moving to San Francisco. The Mother Hips, however, have the veteran savvy to recognize such a good thing. Their weekend stand at Emo’s was their second trip to Austin this year, following up an appearance at the SXSW Conference in March.
The rootsy yet psychedelic power pop rockers have been one of the great music stories of the past few years. The band was good back in the ‘90s when they first came on the scene and headlined venues like San Francisco’s fabled Fillmore Auditorium. But The Mother Hips have been on a major resurgence since the release of 2007’s Kiss the Crystal Flake, a superb album that evolved their sound with tighter songwriting and even more melodic hooks. This in turn seemed to open up their shows to a higher level of jamming, but always jamming with a purpose…no noodling here. With the brand new Pacific Dust just out this October, a stellar follow up to Crystal Flake, the band seems poised to continue this mid-career ascension to new heights.
They open up the show with an older tune, their classic “Red Tandy”, which sets a rocking tone. The band then moves right into “White Falcon Fuzz”, the lead single from the new album. It’s a signature tune which sums up exactly where the band is at these days, both musically with its deliciously fuzzy chords and with the insightful lyrics on the music industry from singer/guitarist Tim Bluhm. “Is that what the world is saying / That your rock ‘n’ roll band can’t last if you haven’t got a really good singer / And you’re finding it rough to get yourself across / Get lost in the White Falcon fuzz if you are a good singer.” Bluhm sings about overcoming what some might perceive as a lack of virtuoso pipes with a good dose of rock spirit.
Bluhm and band co-founder Greg Loiacono (guitar/vocals) might not be mistaken for Bono, but they’ve developed a chemistry in both their guitar playing and sweet vocal harmonies that stands out from a modern music scene where strong vocals are tough to come by. They’ve also got a great bassist in Paul Hoaglin, who jazzes up every tune with melodic riffing and counterpoint playing on his trusty Rickenbacker. Hoaglin left his awesome sounding eight-string bass at home on this run, but that Rickenbacker sounds so good (note to all rock bassists – more of you should play Rickenbackers). Hoaglin and drummer John Hofer bring a dynamic rhythm section to the party, elevating nearly every tune with just the right accents.
The hard rocking “Time-Sick Son of a Grizzly Bear” from Crystal Flake is another highlight, featuring some of Bluhm and Loiacono’s best guitar interplay. Crystal Flake’s “Time We Had” stands out even more, with gorgeous vocals and melodies that conjure a lost utopian vision from childhood. It’s a tune with an instantly classic vibe and serves as a fantastic jamming vehicle.
Austin is famous for Sunday “Hippy Church” gospel rock concerts at Maria’s Taco Xpress, and the band conjures some of that vibe during the first encore with a funky but extremely soulful and uplifting tune where Bluhm sings a chorus of “Ever-light is bright and shines on you”. The sweet harmonies make it seem like a higher power is indeed shining down on the audience. The group follows with the heavy title track from the new album, as Bluhm and Loiacono throw down some bluesy riffs and dirty chord changes, but still with those melodious vocals intact. A big jam reaches a huge crescendo for the finale, and it’s a great way to end the show.
The word must have gotten out on Saturday, because there was a larger crowd in the house for night two. An early highlight is “Third Floor Story”, an older fan favorite that was only just recorded on Pacific Dust. The song about record company politics is one of the band’s signature tunes, featuring great tandem vocals, sharp riffs and a popping bassline.
Loiacono leads on “Del Mar Station” from 2001’s Green Hills of the Earth, a tune that is one of the shining gems in the band’s catalogue. Loiacono’s heartfelt vocals touch any soul with ears bent to hear the tune, while Hoaglin’s melodic bass line gives the tune an extra swing to get folks swaying. Bluhm delivers a fierce solo on a sizzling jam toward the end, powering the tune to heights not always reached.
The energy is building now and really soars with “Magazine”, a rip-rocking tune featuring super funky riffage and a supremely groovy bass line. “White Falcon Fuzz” is featured again, appropriate since the new song is such a commentary on where Bluhm and the band are at in 2009. The hard rocking “Pacific Dust” is also repeated, leading toward another “Time-Sick Son of a Grizzly Bear” that ends the set with even more rocking power than it had on the previous night.
The encore ends with another big melodic rocker that leads into a surprise jam on Led Zeppelin’s “Living Loving Maid” that has fans heading to the bar for last minute Jaeger shots. There’s a huge number of choices on any given weekend in the Austin music scene, but those who spent this weekend with The Mother Hips received a delicious double-dose of soulful psych-rock at its finest.