The state has as many stereotypes and broken stereotypes as the rest of the country combined. Contradiction is the one norm in a state with a landscape that includes a desert, mountain ranges, one of the largest agricultural regions in the world, a redwood forest and an enormous coastline boasting a terrain of endless contrasts in its own right.
Tim Bluhm, former front man for the late-Mother Hips, was born and raised in California, but to peg him with one definition or to identify him with one area would be difficult.
"I took piano lessons as a kid," Bluhm shared recently, "and I sang in choir." But, pressed further on the topic of his musical background, he begrudgingly revealed the true beginnings of his performing career.
"I was in a group - we sang and danced show tunes," Bluhm admitted. "It was Rainbow Connection, a community-service group in high school."
The truth is out, and this beginning of a musical artist as a young man, in Manhattan Beach, is not so contradictory to the cool, tall figure that held Chico in the palm of his rock 'n' roll hand as young man leading an emerging band in a fertile music scene. Bluhm's unique California experience has taken him on a ride with one of California's most popular bands, and eventually back to a new and different solo adventure.
No band in the history of Chico has garnered more praise and more success, both locally and beyond, than the Mother Hips. And, as one of the former leaders of the now-defunct band (although, according to the original press release, the band is "taking an indefinite hiatus"), Bluhm stands as one of the more intriguing and adventurous artists to bloom from this fertile music scene over the past couple of decades.
His music is described broadly as "California soul" by most critics, and the categorization really fits. Throughout the group's history, the Mother Hips have been compared to the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Neil Young, the Beach Boys and just about any other musicians who made names for themselves through their attachment to this state.
The Mother Hips created a prolific catalog of diverse music over their 10-plus years, one that stretched across a musical landscape as varied and diverse as that of the Golden State itself. All told, Bluhm and the group released five albums, three of which were put out on Rick Rubin's (Beastie Boy producer) old American Records label - with a couple of additional solo efforts interspersed in the mix.
The band's recorded output ranged from the sunny pop and groove-laden jams of its debut, "Back To The Grotto," to extended forays across the vast landscape of Americana, from country to bluegrass and back to rock 'n' roll. Mother Hips received a fair amount of critical praise for its efforts by the likes of Rolling Stone magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, with both publications going so far as to name the group's last album, "Green Hills of Earth," one of the 10 best of 2001.
The group's fanatic following, however, was developed through its incessant touring. The Hips played shows all over the western United States, with the likes of Johnny Cash, Wilco, Cake and the Black Crowes.
Considering the ambiguous nature of the Hips' demise, it's not surprising that Bluhm's musical life hasn't really changed all that much. Continuing from where his old band left off, Bluhm has just released a new solo EP, "The Soft Adventure," and is back on the road again, this time with a new backup band.
"I've been working a lot harder since the Mother Hips broke up," Bluhm shared. "I'm rehearsing with all new musicians, who had to learn 30 songs all at one time."
The new musicians are established Southern California rockers 5 Foot Tuesday, and while Bluhm acknowledges that he and the new band are "not going to outdo the Hips at the Hips' game," they will be playing "a few Mother Hips songs" along with his solo stuff.
The new album is actually two records in one. Included with "Soft Adventure" is a previously unreleased home recording from 1996 called "Colts."
"Colts" is a collection of introspective stories written and recorded back when Bluhm still lived in Chico. Combined with the newer material, the amalgamation of California's musical influence on the songwriter is a recognizable thread in his work.
The solo singer-songwriter setup is an obvious connection between the two recordings, but a deeper feeling of the people in Bluhm's life, and the stories about them, are the foundation common to both releases, despite the six or seven years that separate them. Both EPs have a soft storytelling style that is reminiscent of the approaches of Tom Petty and Neil Young, with the more current recordings painting a brighter soundscape that brings to mind the lush voicing and harmonies of the Beach Boys.
When asked whether or not he considered himself a storyteller, Bluhm was hesitant in replying. "I guess I do," he said. "Any song is going to tell a story."
On the topic of songwriters and his influences, Bluhm confessed that there so many that have inspired him: "The ones that everyone shares, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Neil Young, ... lots of country songwriters. Leonard Cohen was a huge inspiration to me when I heard his songs." The "depth of his lyrics" made an impression on Bluhm as a songwriter.
The end of his old band obviously hasn't stopped Bluhm from working, and as a songwriter, he has taken advantage of the events in his life and allowed them to inform the exploration of his craft. With his band's history in mind, when asked whether or not he felt he'd already written his best stuff, Bluhm replied, "I think about that. I'm experiencing a lot of transitions. I feel, for myself, that now I'm writing better songs."
The music is always there, and as Bluhm enthused, "Sometimes it's joyous; sometimes it's utterly discouraging. It's like the engine that powers my entire life. To watch someone that's performing a good song, and doing it well - it can make you feel good when you're feeling bad and make you feel bad when you're feeling good."
Plenty of people are feeling it, too. Just check out The Grotto, a message board Web site (www.the-grotto.com) for fans of the Mother Hips. The level of devotion, even in this time of band upheaval, is of Grateful Dead and Phish proportions.
"More than anything, it (the Grotto) is humbling," Bluhm shyly admitted. "It's powerful. It makes me feel good, and sometimes it can ruin my whole day."
Currently living on the road more than anywhere else, Bluhm has eased into the newest chapter in his California adventure. To put things into a little perspective, the Mother Hips was just his first band, and there is more to be seen and done for a young man who likes to see and do things.
Chico still feels a sense of loss when it comes to the Mother Hips, but the truth is the soul of the band always shared a much larger stage than even LaSalles could provide. And, while Bluhm continues to spread out and seek new things, he does admit an affinity for his former home.
"Chico will forever be in my heart. Chico does that to people."
Tim Bluhm performs at 7 p.m. Saturday at Tower Records Used, 215 Main St. The show is free. Another show scheduled for Saturday night at The Palms on Dayton Road has been canceled.