The Mother Hips are an all time great rock and roll band. Though major success has eluded them throughout their career, for every fan at the Highline Ballroom for a rare Mother Hips east coast appearance, there was little doubt that they were seeing a should-be legendary band. As youngsters, The Mother Hips battled their record label, Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, which stunted their growth, and the band never quite caught on as expected. The label declined to promote The Mother Hips’ debut Back To The Grotto, and as 2012 marked the twentieth anniversary of its release, the band is giving the album the attention it never properly received, performing it in full for their New York fans.
With Back To The Grotto serving as their first set, The Mother Hips kicked into opener “Hey Emilie.” After one gentle verse, pounding drums crashed in and Greg Loiacono and frontman Tim Bluhm turned their guitars way up, with the song exploding into a hard rocker. Though the Mother Hips would soak up and more prominently display country influences later in their career, the first set reminded the crowd that on Back To The Grotto, they were first and foremost a heavy rock and roll band. As Bluhm squared away with Loiacono on guitar, it became clear that this pair have their own special dynamic that has fueled the band for their entire career. Mixing the thunderous firepower of Neil Young & Crazy Horse with the rhythmic complexity and listening skills of Weir and Garcia, their interplay is truly unique and was a constant awe-inspiring highlight. Setting a foundation for their soaring guitar acrobatics, the rhythm section of John Hofer and Scott Thunes also impressed. Thunes, a veteran of Frank Zappa’s band, is a relatively recent but perfect addition to the Mother Hips, architecting jams and giving each a song a furious rumble.
“Hey Emilie,” with roaring riffs from Loiacono, set the tone for the set, which, for the most part, consisted of raw, ear-bleeding rock and roll. The Mother Hips were literally a garage band when they recorded Back to the Grotto (as they were living in an off-campus house while attending Cal State Chico together), and brought that vintage, aggressive sound to the Highline Ballroom. Of course they also brought plenty new to these songs as well – improved musicianship along with tricks and lessons learned from twenty years of performing on the road. The Mother Hips fled from the jamband tag in their early days, but this night, stretched out every song on Back To The Grotto, with “Chum,” “Two Young Queens” and “Turtle Bones” all pushing beyond the ten minute mark. Tim Bluhm even admitted “We’re gonna get weird now” before launching into “Precious Opal,” and they certainly delivered on his promise, with Loiacono’s blazing slide guitar leading the charge.
Album closer “Turtle Bones” finished the set with manic, feedback-drenched guitar, and Bluhm capped things off with a couple of primal rock and roll screams. After a short break, they returned for a second set that felt abbreviated compared to the marathon, thoroughly jammed out reading of Back To The Grotto that came first. Though the second set never quite reached that same fiery energy level, fuzzy rockers “White Falcon Fuzz” and “Time Sick Son of A Grizzly Bear” ensured it felt like more than just an afterthought, while “Whiskey On A Southbound” and “Later Days” infused the night with a welcome slice of Grams Parsons-esque country rock.
Before launching into the first notes of Back To The Grotto, Tim Bluhm described the band’s first New York show (a cross country trek crammed into a van with a stuck open window for just one show at an empty CBGB’s), and only half jokingly noted that things haven’t changed much. And in terms of commercial success, perhaps they haven’t. Far too heavy to make it in the pop world and too much California melody and harmony for grunge, the Mother Hips debut album existed in a world of its own. And twenty years later, they’re still crossing the country (hopefully in more comfortable conditions) to play New York shows at venues not all that much larger than CBGB’s. But, more importantly, what also hasn’t changed is the passion and dedication they continue to bring to every live performance, night after night for over twenty years, just as a legendary rock and roll band should.