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It's one minute to sound check when Blort--a rather ugly converted airport shuttle bus that Chico, California's Mother Hips call home on the road--scrapes the curb outside the Fillmore in San Francisco. It's Friday night, the Hips are in town and the old room is sold out.
Tim Bluhm, the grassroots-rock quartet's lead singer, chief lyricist and rhythm guitarist, hops out and heads upstairs to the dressing-room bathroom for a shave, passing en route beneath a towering photo of Bill Graham.
"I think it's important to look good at a classy joint like this," says Bluhm, reaching into his wardrobe box and carefully selecting a frilly, Glen Campbell-style lounge shirt for the performance. "You know, make the proprietors happy."
Lead guitarist Greg Loiacono grabs an old acoustic Epiphone and follows Bluhm into the john for an unplugged, countrified hack at James Taylor's "Bartender's Blues." Bluhm croons along as he saws away at his three-day beard.
Meanwhile, bass player Isaac Parsons is on the dressing-room pay phone with his wife, discussing the condition of a wayward cat, while drummer Mike Wofchuck quietly sets up his kit onstage. All the while, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and other neon-postered rock demigods stare down at the band from the shadows.
Might the members of Mother Hips envision their faces on black-light velvet one day?
"We have fantasies," says a freshly groomed Bluhm, relaxing on the couch, "but they're not that grandiose. We don't see ourselves on TV or with millions of dollars. We just can't imagine that. Right now, we want a normal, relatively plush tour bus, like any other big band."
As far as the commercial-rock press is concerned, Mother Hips is one of the H.O.R.D.E.--a neohippie jam band that's supposed to be as comfortable Phishing as it is Blues Traveling in Dave Matthews Land. Entertainment Weekly recently listed the Hips as one of eight bands in line to assume the throne of the Grateful Dead in this A.J. (after Jerry) era. Hype to the contrary, Bluhm says his band is not about noodle rock.
"Hey, I respect those bands," says Bluhm. "I think most of those guys are excellent musicians. But we don't really listen to those bands that much. We hardly ever listen to the Dead, and we're still constantly being compared to them. That seems kind of strange to us."
Not so strange, however, that the band would turn down a slot on last year's patchouli-permeated H.O.R.D.E. tour. "The bottom line is getting people to see us," says Wofchuck. "In that sense, the H.O.R.D.E. tour and other festival gigs are always worth it."
Last summer's final H.O.R.D.E. date outside San Francisco at Shoreline Amphitheatre gave the Hips a chance to show off in front of a hometown crowd chock-full of familiar faces.
"Yeah, that was hectic," says Parsons of the Labor Day gig, "probably more than usual. There was a big mosh-pit scene, and my grandmother was right in front, maybe ten feet from the stage. We weren't expecting that type of crowd. Security had to pick her up and take her to a safe spot. But she thought it was a good show."
Mother Hips coalesced at Chico State, a 14,000-student mead-and-merriment mill isolated in a Gold Rush-era town 160 miles north of San Francisco. The four musicians all knew one another through classes--Bluhm and Loiacono were English majors, Parsons was declared in recording arts and Wofchuck was taking a bit of everything. After a succession of dorm-bathroom jams (it's the acoustics, you know), Mother Hips cut a 12-song demo that blitzed the California-indie market upon its 1992 release. Back to the Grotto tracks "Hey, Emilie," "Chum" and "Run Around Me" all enjoyed hearty play on California-college-radio stations.
That exposure led to a showcase spot at the 1993 College Music Journal convention in New York City. The Hips were invited to perform at South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, the following year, and a bidding war ensued. American Recordings won, the band bought Blort, and the rest is, well, hysteria. Since signing with American, Mother Hips has played out roughly 200 nights a year. The band titled its 1995 sophomore release PartTimer Goes Full.
"It gets maddening sometimes," Bluhm says of the pace. "I think about going home a lot. California is so good to us. The shows are packed and all our friends are there."
Outside the Golden State, the Hips recently gigged at Tramps in New York City with the Haters, played Memphis and New Orleans with Wilco (one of the Hips' favorite bands) and warmed up for Blues Traveler in Hawaii.
The band is scheduled to start recording its third album next month and plans to pullat least 60 minutes' worth of gems from the war chest of material written on the road. Bluhm says a barroom stomper called "TwoRiver Blues" and the groove-churned "Honeydew" are practically givens for the album.
Typically, a Hips song features constant interplay between Loiacono and Bluhm on guitars, and a perpetual shift between time signatures executed with just enough panache that the songs don't come off as awkward or gratuitously complex. True to H.O.R.D.E. form, Mother Hips also takes long sets, often playing for three hours or more.
Lyrically, Bluhm weaves a free-associative tapestry from little pieces of everything he can see and muse on while staring out a van window--road life, workaday life, childhood, colors, animals and airplanes--anything goes. He also likes to create new worlds out of old phrases, as in the unreleased "Mountain Time":
"In Mountain Time, there's not allowed atime to gently shape your hairdo/In Mountain Time, it sets aside a space for girls who smell like health food/In Mountain Time, a screaming school bus full of Girl Scouts meets the river's tongue/In Mountain Time, a lonely grandmother gives birth to her own grandson."
Sometimes Bluhm just goofs off, and the band goes along with him. Check "Pet Foot," a no-chaser rocker off Part-Timer Goes Full: "Well, my pet foot's my left foot/I keep it close to me, closer than a beekeeper keeps his bees/And I kick it with my right foot when it steps out of line/My right foot is a lemon, but my pet foot's a lime."
Back in San Francisco, the houselights go down at the Fillmore. The Hips take the stage and rip through "The Desert Song" as the bodies turn into a roiling mass. The music won't stop until last call, some 200 minutes later. The set is spontaneous but not chaotic.
"We're willing to check out any kind of new area," Loiacono says after the show. "We have no set list, no written plan and no idea, really, of what we'll do next."
In this case, it seems, the music plays the band.
Mother Hips is scheduled to perform on Saturday, February 3, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Gravy, Audra, and Fugue. Call for showtime.