Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, World Cafe Live, Philadelphia, PA- 2/16
There have been people throughout the ages who capture a spirit of years beyond their age and experience. Grace Potter holds one of those heavy souls. She has the ability to weave her youthful exuberance into a high caliber performance beyond anything you might expect. Some people just walk into a room or onto a stage and instantly command it. Grace epitomizes such charisma in a way that echoes with a powerful resonance.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals released Nothing But The Water this past year, elaborating on 2004’s commanding debut Original Soul. Both were recorded by Chuck Eller who has worked with some outstanding musicians, including Dr. John, Taj Mahal, Trey Anastasio and Bonnie Raitt. He remarked that Raitt and Potter have similarities, especially their soulful voices, though he feels Potter has more dynamic pipes. Grace and her band have opened for a who’s who of the scene but now it was her turn to toss down in our town. The World Cafsquo;s performance was a milestone in the timeline of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. The band named for the late practice hours was playing their 4th performance in Philadelphia, their first headlining gig in our liberty city.
Grace glowed as the Nocturnals played her onto the XPN stage. She slid out of the shadows to some Voodoo Child flavored riffs from the Scott Tournet. The music shifted slightly as it paid homage to the roots of blues and rock brushing tones of the Mississippi delta across the venue. It’s obvious as she clasped the tambourines shinning silver that the bloodlines of soul and Americana roots music touched her. The support around Grace was a definite group of her friends; none were safe from her playful ribs as she introduced her bass player as Brian “Don Juan” Dondero. Scott Tournets wild and raucous guitar licks first grabbed my ears a month earlier opening for moe. Today he played with a gracious poise that led the music as Grace charged the vocals. As we bore witness to a band taking shape, one could see Grace taking her musical cues from Scott. Matt Burr vigilantly handled drums and percussion keeping pace. The rim shot was his strength and smash of choice. He kept his presence known and interjected time into the musical conversation. The B3 Hammond wrapped up a dark slow groove building during “Treat Me Right, before we witnessed Bryan’s gentle standup solo to open up "Toothbrush".
By the third song of the evening, Grace had dipped into her blues shaded handbag and referred to JJ Cale in her lyrics. She delved lower into a growing bag of tricks and yanked out Junior Parkers “Mystery Train.” The train sounds rolled out with Scott’s harmonica before Grace worked her gritty voice though the octaves using her hand to take her higher. Some might say she personalized the cover tunes, but I’d disagree and say she played covers to memorialize the past. The harmonica groove blew the crowd back a few notches before the performance rolled on.
For many in the packed World Cafive this was a first glimpse at the Vermont quartet. They might have purchased the second album, but had yet to feel Grace Potter’s presence. For the select few that had caught one of her earlier performances, the night demanded a sturdy pair of boogie shoes.
Musicians that have experienced some real pain seem to give the most vulnerable performances. It seems hard to believe, but at some point Grace’s heart must have been ripped out and trampled on. Many of her songs dealt with a hurt from lost love and poor treatment. Potter transformed the pain to a slow dirty rage during “Out of my Tree”. The guitar soared off as Grace waxed southern poetic as if she just took a huge swig of whiskey and let out a howl. Deep from inside something released and her mood changed. She sauntered over to her keyboard and announced that she doesn’t play this next tune often. The band left the stage leaving her alone, draped in darkness. Her sadness reflected in a single spotlight during “Apologies.” It was a moving moment as her self-therapy of song was released into the room.
All I do is cry when he says
It’s crazy our love stays with me
It hurts me because I don’t want to fight this war.
and it’s amazing to see me reading through this scene of love and fear
Apologies Apologies Apologies Apologies
The combination of the rage and the tenderness was one of the most poignant moments I’ve witnessed in a long time. The house fell silent before Potter broke the somber moment. Grace has a knack for laughter and let slip one of the best quotes of the night. “Enough of the EMO Crap sometimes I just need to get my feelings out. I should go on tour w/ Sarah Silverman.” Grace’s quotes are becoming legendary. There is even a section on thinkexist with some of her quips. We were back to laughs and cheers as the band rejoined Potter on the stage.
The 22 year old Potter has a comfort level that stretched around the house as she sifted through the burnt ashes of her life and started preaching stories about an out of control bus tearing down I-70 into Aspen, Colorado. The self-proclaimed anthem of the Nocturnals continued to highlight how solid the band is. The play between Scott and Matt was the strongest of the evening as Grace ridiculed us for not leaving the tables to dance. Her challenge of “Move the tables and show me how rock and roll you are” led us into a funky “Gumbo Moon” that humidified the room with most of the crowd realigning their bodies down front. We remained captured in the moment, ready to travel south to songs about the road and Junior Kimbrough.
Homage was paid to RL Burnside in the form of a nasty “Skinny Woman.” Scott Tournet’s excited strumming resembled a rough version of Buddy Guy meets Asie Payton with the flare of Todd Park Mohr. His Fender was set ablaze drawing hoots and hollers for his motivated guitar solos while Burr and Dondero provided a stellar backbeat to the searing atmosphere.
Grace’s Hammond gleamed in glory as she transformed into the female Jimmy Mcgriff and Richard Groove Holmes all wrapped into one. She let her fingers dance heavily on keys as Scott and Bryan traded the bottom and top sections on guitar and bass. Matt pounded the back of the stage in as Grace let the control go digging into the lyrics of “Lover’s Lost & Found”. Scott’s guitar matched Graces passion and the whole place went ape.
The gospel sounding beginning of “Nothing But The Water” flowed from somewhere deep in Grace’s Waitsfield, Vermont. Her emotion was out again for all to witness before the shift into an 18-minute pass the funky jam and showcase the band. At this point, all were on their feet as Matt thwacked and Bryan pounded the bottom out on bass and all derrieres were shaking. The heavy only got heavier between Scott and Grace. It was really the first time that Scott pulled his instrument away from the delta blues and into an exploratory jam.
The band was hungry with a few rough edges, but Grace had a knack for restraint and knew when to let it all hang out. Her voice offers an expansive range but real and gritty. Her notes wrap you up in the depth of blues one moment and push you back the next. Her playing on the Hammond is almost as energetic and theatrical as her vocals. Something in the way her fingers pounce upon the keys of her Hammond B-3 organ says Potter got soul. It was wonderful to see her turn frequently to Scott for cue’s and musical direction. She doesn’t steal the limelight and you can see why the band can all live together. Hollywood Records has just signed the young band and on April 11th, will reissue an enhanced version of Nothing But The Water. They will then play this summer’s Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival. Grace said, “My dad taught me something as a very young child never presume anything. But some big stuff is going to happen, and I’m really excited.” I believe that prediction will be spot on.