Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
March 11, 2011
POP CULTURE: Concert Review: Grace Potter & The Nocturnals at Irving Plaza, 3/10/11
My wife and I braved the heavy rains and high winds last night to see Grace Potter and the Nocturnals at Irving Plaza. It was a vintage rock show that transported us back, for one evening, to the golden age of classic rock.
I've written previously about Potter & Co. and their album, for my money the best album of 2010, in the rock section of my "State of Rock and Pop" essay. As a vocalist, Potter is basically Janis Joplin with a little Stevie Nicks thrown in, and with an exceptionally powerful voice (on occasion, she takes this just a bit far in showing off her ability to drag out really big notes, like on the studio version of 'Tiny Light,' but on the whole she's a remarkable, soulful vocalist). The band is, oddly, co-ed since adding bassist Catherine Popper in 2009 (most female-fronted bands tend to be either all-girl like the Go-Gos or male-backed like Blondie, although Fleetwood Mac would be the most notable exception and a bit of a cautionary tale in this regard), and features two guitarists (including excellent lead guitarist Scott Tournet), a drummer, and Potter on either keyboards, guitar or tamborine as the song demands. Musically, they're also very much in line with Joplin, the Allman Brothers and other roots/soul rock acts of the late 60s and early 70s. Potter, however, insists she didn't listen to Janis growing up and was more into the Kinks.
The Venue, The Crowd and The Opening Act
I said my bit on Irving Plaza after seeing the Saw Doctors there last May (they're playing the venue again this weekend). On the one hand, it's a wonderfully intimate place to see a show, and positively scandalous - when you consider some of the acts that play stadiums and big arenas these days - that a band as talented, charismatic and musically mainstream as Potter and the Nocturnals are still doing shows for a few hundred people, three albums into their career. And seeing such a great show for $28.50 a ticket is an incredible steal. On the other hand, I have really come to hate General Admission - my wife and I had good position in the center of the crowd until some taller people just forced themselves in front of us about three songs into the set, after which we had to flee to the side (where we had to make way every few minutes for a waitress carrying beers) to see the stage (I'm a shade under 5'10" but my wife is only about 5'4").
As for the crowd, it was almost entirely white (as you expect with a rock act) but otherwise pretty diverse in age, with probably the bulk of attendees in their 20s and 30s. It was also one of the lamest crowds I've seen, rivaling the Billy Joel show I attended at the Nassau Coliseum in 1993 or 94 (described here), really lacking in visible enthusiasm. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was being a work night in Manhattan, maybe it was how densely the sold-out audience was packed that prevented people from moving or raising their hands much, and maybe in part my earplugs drowned out some of the crowd noise, but the audience really did not seem to react all that much compared to shows I've seen in the past. I suppose I was spoiled by some of the recent shows I've been to in that regard, ranging from the raucous Saw Doctors crowd to the outpouring of emotion at the Kelly Clarkson show. It was also the first time in a while I've been at a show with really noticeable pot smoke.
The opening act was a brother-sister fronted pop-rock band called Belle Brigade (as with the Saw Doctors show, no opening act was listed when I bought the tickets, so I only found out the day before who it would be). You can hear one of their songs here, they are apparently releasing their first album next month. We came in about halfway through their set, so I can't really offer much of an evaluation - I think I liked the song they were playing when I arrived better than the last two.
Potter and the band played 17 songs in a set that lasted for about two hours, including a two-song encore; the setlist, courtesy of Potter's twitter feed, is here, featuring seven songs off the band's latest album. If you're keeping score at home, that clocks in at an average song length somewhere around seven minutes. My wife complained that the set contained too many slow songs and too many long instrumentals and preferred the shorter tracks like 'One Short Night,' but of course that's the band's jam-band style (in most cases the band didn't actually stop playing between songs, just slowing down to a segue; as a result, Potter didn't do that much talking between songs). With a nod to the weather, Potter opened up with my personal favorite off the latest album, the rollicking rocker 'Hot Summer Night,' and played a particularly extended and borderline-psychedelic version of 'Oasis.' The band also played a couple of covers (including as part of the encore Heart's 'Crazy On You,' which Potter had performed with Ann Wilson on VH1 a few months ago) and some songs I didn't recognize from any of their albums, which may or may not have been covers. At the inevitable request for 'Free Bird' when Potter mentioned they'd be doing some covers, Potter sang the opening line and then quipped that "you'll have to slip a lot more dollar bills in my panties to get the rest of that one."
Here's video from last night of the blues-stomp number 'Joey,' off their first album; the video quality is better than the audio but should give a sense of the stage setup and the shaggy, white-suited band:
Potter herself alternates between singing center stage and playing the keyboards off to the side, where some of the long instrumentals allowed her to drink from an oversize coffee mug. When doing the former, her electric, sexually-charged stage presence dominates. Potter's intensity and gyrating onstage dancing has something in common with Stevie Nicks, but whereas the diminutive Nicks has always been at a bit of a remove from the audience with her flowing black shawls and mystical dances, the tall, leggy Potter - dressed in a tight, short gold lame dress and punctuating her uptempo numbers with grunts and squeals - holds nothing back, throwing herself into her performance with complete abandon.
The centerpiece of the show was the 1-2 punch of spiritual/bluesy numbers, 'Nothing But The Water' (the title track from the band's first album and their longtime live signature song), and 'Big White Gate' from their second album, This Is Somewhere. You couldn't possibly be unmoved by the 'one more song before dying' last verse and chorus of the latter. As for 'Nothing But The Water,' which opens with an extended largely a capella vocal before breaking into a riotous uptempo tune, here's another video from last night, this one with better audio (you can hear that the crowd did get into clapping along for this one):
The main set closed with 'Paris (Ooo La La),' the guitar-heavy rocker that has been promoted as the lead song from the latest album - it's not actually one of my favorite tracks on the album, but I liked it a lot better live. The show-closer was the other high point of the album, another rocker, 'Medicine,' in the midst of which Potter climbed down into the audience.
On the whole, an incredible show. On the chance that Potter and her band might graduate some time soon to the bigger venues their talent deserves, you should catch them now while you can.