You don’t really expect a country-bluegrass band to open with an original rock-ish song like “Love-a-bye,” with its punk-inspired bass – at Cold Springs Tavern no less – as Cuyama Mama & The Hot Flashes did on Saturday, December 5. It was something of a stumble into their set, with bassist Andrew Clinard even sort of apologizing for it, saying that it was not really representative of who they were as a band.
Perhaps it wasn’t the strongest foot to step in on, but there’s no need to apologize – the song represents what makes Cuyama Mama & The Hot Flashes great. This is a band that isn’t afraid to mix it up or take a few risks. Whether it’s in the members switching between instruments, or in adding funky flavors to a genre that, in so many ways, resists innovation, they showed why they are one of the more exciting country-western bands in the region.
The Hot Flashes played for an impressive three hours, deftly shifting between styles and subgenres. The first set had many highlights, including soaring hard-folk originals like “Wolf Mother” and “That’s All,” with their multi-part harmonies. The bass lines and drum work were downright grooving, with additional swing from Willow Brehmer’s honky-tonk piano. With a slightly fuzzed-out tone, these folk tunes came rollicking forth with the heft of rock – and it was great.
Of course, it’s fiery frontwoman Jan Smith, the Cuyama Mama herself, that makes these Hot Flashes so hot. On songs like “Dragon” and “Goddess,” she showcased her stage prowess, swaying into confidently slack-armed strumming and impassioned vocals, both road-roughened and soul-sweetened. She commands the farm family band with wise assuredness and more than a little bohemian boldness.
As shown on not one but two (or was it three?) Gillian Welch covers, done in totally surprising ways with funky bass and upbeat drums, Cuyama Mama & The Hot Flashes are truly Earth mothers of invention. They can take a well-loved, well-worn genre and spruce it up in fresh, organic, spontaneous ways. Catch them next time they roll through town, and let the good times roll.