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The Venue Two-Step 

Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers bring country rock to Liquid Lounge

By most accounts, Bend bar Liquid Lounge is not often associated with singer/songwriter shows. It's probably better known for black light parties, grinding, DJs and the best place to wear your spandex halter top on a Saturday night.

And though its name changed from Boondocks Bar & Grill early last year, the former Elks Lodge building on the Deschutes River is also still remembered for big ass bouncers and parking lot brawls.

But that reputation is changing, and live music, like the Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers show is why.

Local concert promotion outfits like Parallel 44 Presents and Meyer Media seem convinced Liquid can be a hub for quality bands traveling through Central Oregon. And so far, they seem to be succeeding.

Jennifer Meyer of Meyer Media made Liquid Lounge the venue for the third annual Bend installment of the Last Band Standing competition last year. And Parallel 44's Gabe Johnson has booked such nationally recognized acts as Fruition, The Dead Winter Carpenters and Sophistafunk to play there. And they've done so to large crowds.

"In initial meetings with [Liquid Lounge], all signs pointed to the ownership and management really wanting to turn over a new leaf and develop as a live music venue," said Johnson. "The room is the nicest of its kind in the city, sporting a classy décor, a decent elevated stage and stage lighting. No other small venue in the city provides all of these items. We are finding that whatever prior stigma existed as a holdover from Boondocks days is quickly disappearing."

The next Parallel 44 show for Liquid Lounge is the San Francisco based vintage-folk band Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers. Bluhm—whose persona and voice is like Grace Slick and Stevie Nicks rolled into one—says her band is no stranger to bars like Liquid Lounge. Namely, bars that are trying to transform themselves into live music venues, but still have a ways to go. According to her, they're unavoidable.

"Everybody has played the dive bars," said Bluhm in an interview with the Source. "It's a necessary part of the dream. The most important thing isn't about how clean the stage is or how dialed the room is. It's if it sounds good. Even if it's a dive bar, sometimes you get surprised."

Still, it's hard to imagine Bluhm's music—which is antique-tinged rock—being played in the same space that usually spins Rhianna remixes and entices dance floor sexytime. But maybe that's the reality of the music scene in Bend. In order for venues to survive they need to be multi-use.

Regardless of where in Bend they play, Bluhm and The Gramblers have a lot of new music to share as they are preparing to release an album in 2013. And based on what's available so far, the record promises to deliver a robust country-rock sound.

"We've put out two tracks already and those are two tracks that we leaked because we were so excited about them," said Bluhm. "There's five songwriters that contributed to the album, and we recorded it mostly all live in the studios. The songwriting technique hasn't changed, but there is a bigger full band sound on the album. It's more representative of our live shows."

Bluhm isn't exaggerating. Those two songs ,"Little Too Late" and "Ravenous," are in fact indicative of what Bendites likely remember from her 2011 Alive After Five performance in the Old Mill. They're saturated with guitar twang, harmonized vocals and Fleetwood Mac-style keys. Bluhm's voice climbs from gentle to gritty in an instant, and when guitar solos follow, look out—rock-and-roll is in full effect.

And while bands like Bluhm and The Gramblers may not yet be the norm for a place like Liquid Lounge, the frequency at which they are being booked is exciting.

Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers

8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12

Liquid Lounge

70 NW Newport Ave.

Tickets $12 at bendticket.com or $15 at the door

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