By Jesii Dee
I arrived a bit early, and walked down to the depths of Winnie's hide out aka Valley Bar. The first band was up: Flagstaff natives Nolan McKelvey & the Confounders.
Their first song is what country music truly is, and none of that pop country main stream crap. With two guitars, bass and drums, it's a pretty standard lineup. But damn, they can shred on guitar. I always appreciate a good guitar solo that's at once showing off but also totally necessary. Song two gets into what I call "Jesus country" territory, which is not usually my thing, but the crowd was enjoying it. People were actually dancing, that it made me proud of Phoenix for actually moving! These guys know their way around a country song, with just enough twang on the vocals without being obnoxious or fake and just enough bass to tell me they grew up in the 70's.
During the break between sets, the crowd shuffled around a bit and I was able to move closer to the stage. The only pitfall to coming to a show alone is being subjected to the conversations around you. I know way too much about total strangers. The lights dimmed, and the main act, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, kicked things off with a bang, jumping right into the song "Heart Gets Tough" as the crowd gathered closer to the stage. From the group next to me, I learned that the guitar player is from Phoenix. He seemed to have a LOT of friends & family in the crowd! Bluhm herself was in a killer white dress, drinking red wine. That's my kind of living on the edge. Also, now I want bangs again.
She introduced "Mr. Saturday Night" with a little joke: "It's Friday right now, but Saturday's almost here, so cheers to your future Mr Saturday Night," which was a bit of a stretch pun wise, but the song is about meeting someone that you don't really have intentions of seeing again, or in the daylight, but they are just fine for Saturday nights. The next song, "Deep Water," is referred to as the Arizona song, having been written here by the guitar player. The stand out lyrics are "It's kinda strange out there in the desert // I finally learned what deep water means" It's another must listen.
There is a moment where you're not sure if they will play the one song you know as your favorite but might not be popular enough to play live. Well, I won this round because they played "Queen of the Rodeo." I love this damn song; I am a sucker for a subtle key change before the last round of chorus. Plus, she sounds so good. Bluhm embodies the lyrics emotionally, and carries the song without breaking into theatrics. It was so beautifully preformed, I almost cried. It's a sad song after all!
Picking the energy back up with the sassy song "Tragedy," it was then I noticed what a huge difference standing at the back of the crowd is compared to the front. At this point, they changed things up and gathered around one reverb-heavy mic in the middle of the stage. It was a lovely acoustic song, but I missed a lot of it due to the difference in sound, and because people were yelling right next to me. Moving back toward the front, I was able to catch that the two songs done this way are a tribute to the "van sessions" that went viral for them. They played right into a Grateful Dead cover for their second acoustic van session song. The entire audience was singing along, and that was a cool moment to witness, even if I didn't know any of the words.
The next song is back to regular spots and microphones, moving into the song "Me and Slim" Then another twist: as the musical interlude starts up and the lights dimmed again, they set up a moody stage vibe which lead into a Fleetwood Mac cover. A brave choice, but they successfully pulled off. Rockin' and rolling, they moved into the upbeat "Little Too Late to Die Young" and the crowd was bobbing up and down to the beat once more.
They closed things out at 10:30 with "Jetplane" a little jammer that showed off each band members’ strengths, from harmonies, vocals, guitar and bass. They even had good audience participation moment at the end. It was a solid way to end a very good performance. Overall, it was another classic Valley Bar show. Good mix of people in the audience, packed house with sold-out crowd, great sound, unique show energy, and of course a damn fantastic performance from the bands.