Grace Potter & The Nocturnals/The Leaves/Jen Crowell & The Woods Vehicle Palace Theater, Manchester, NH 6/6 & Lebanon Opera House, Lebanon, NH 6/7
On “Family Affair,” Sly & The Family Stone gave poetic and soulful expression of the bittersweet feelings inherent with familial obligations. Focusing on the joyful aspects of bringing together family, however extended, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals created their own version of a family affair in conjunction with their two New Hampshire performances for Child and Family Services’ Concerts For The Cause. For the two benefit shows, which raised more than $70,000 for the charity, Potter & The Nocturnals kept their opening acts close to their hearts: for the first, at the Palace Theater in Manchester, The Leaves, fronted by Aya Inoue, bassist Bryan Dondero’s girlfriend, welcomed the crowd and the following night, Jen Crowell, a member of an early version of the Nocturnals and the band’s current tour manager, fronted the Woods Vehicle before an excited crowd at the Lebanon Opera House.
The good vibes brought by the Vermont collective embodied the spirit and goals of Child and Family Services, the charity organizing both of the weekend’s benefit shows. Founded in 1850, the nonprofit, nonsectarian Child and Family Services is the oldest children’s charitable organization in the state and one of the founding members of the Child Welfare League of America. The organization is geared towards helping families remain strong, healthy and united and provides a host of services to assist children in need from their infancy through their teenage years. Instead of organizing fun runs or glorified bake sales to raise awareness and funds for their organization, CFS created Concerts For The Cause. In its 23rd year of sponsoring the summer shows, the charity has benefited greatly from the activist power of rock and roll. In addition to being innovative fundraisers, CFS proved themselves shrewd connoisseurs of their local music scene by bringing in the relatively local Potter & The Nocturnals to headline two of their three 2008 events.
It’s a decision they may have initially regretted; Manchester’s fancy and somewhat swanky Palace Theater may not have been ready for the Nocturnals. Within moments of opening the show with “Here’s To The Meantime,” the younger fans in the audience leapt to their feet and began to dance wildly, much to the consternation of the older fans seated throughout the theater and the horror of the relatively elderly ushers that were responsible for maintaining order. As Potter rocked her Gibson Flying V, the chaotic scene in the theater mirrored one of those overly paranoiac newsreels from the Sixties that depicted kids being driven into an uncontrollable frenzy by the wickedness of rock and roll. To the theater’s credit, they quickly realized they weren’t keeping people seated and wisely moved all the dancers over to the sides of the theater where they could get their groove on in peace.
The Lebanon Opera House, built for relatively quieter music, is adjacent to the town’s City Hall and serves as the Clock Tower to a square that is eerily reminiscent of Marty McFly’s 1950s hometown in Back To The Future. While the venue was ready for the dancers, Potter was likewise ready for the audience, especially a theater crowd’s reticence to make noise in between songs. Charming even when she’s being bratty, Potter refrained from suggesting that the crowd rattle their jewelry, choosing instead to gracefully chide the audience by commenting on the “silence” of theater shows. Over the course of the night, the band got the crowd nicely wound up and by the time they emerged for an encore of “Nothing But The Water,” they had everyone on their feet screaming wildly and acting in a decidedly un-operatic manner.
A remarkable showman . . .er showwoman, Potter is so much more than a sexy girl rocking a Flying V. In addition to her remarkable stage presence, she simply has a tremendous voice and while the comparisons to greats like Janis Joplin may be unfair given her iconic status, they aren’t entirely unwarranted. Male or female, it takes an extremely courageous singer to tackle an Otis Redding song, and in Manchester, Potter not only took on “Pain In My Heart” she made it seem easy. Even more impressive, during that night’s a capella intro to “Nothing But The Water,” Potter started to improvise and changed her cadence – only the crowd wasn’t on the same page, clapping out a different beat from the one Potter was singing. Hardly detectable, Potter subtly started tapping her leg, blocked out everything and continued to stretch out the opening, testifying with the skill of the gospel greats.
On both nights, Potter closed out “Nothing But The Water” with an extended solo on her Hammond B3 organ, slowly winding the song down and using it as a segueway into the opening chords of Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come.” Although she has the voice to do so, Potter doesn’t approach Zeppelin by trying to mimic the vocal histrionics of Robert Plant. On “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” she slows down the tempo to suit her inner sense of the electric blues and much like she does when she sings “Whole Lotta Love” – a highlight of Galactic’s set at the Jammys after-party as well as of one of Warren Haynes & Gov’t Mule’s at Mountain Jam she makes the song her own, investing the vocals with a bold womanly quality that transforms strutting testosterone fueled Zep classics into a neo-feminist anthems.
Given the bounty of Potter’s charms, too often people make the grave error of forgetting that GP&TN are very much a band and it’s criminal to leave guitarist Scott Tournet, bassist Bryan Dondero and drummer Matt Burr out of the discussion. That’s something that is going to have to change in the main part because it’s time to start talking about Tournet in the same glowing terms that we talk about the other guitar giants on the scene. On “Treat Me Right,” he matches Potter’s Hammond licks with his own masterful blues and his versatility with so many different styles allows the band to move in so many interesting directions. His work on “Apologies,” which on both nights got the teenage girls in the crowd swaying, saves what might otherwise be a song mired in run-of-the-mill weepy high school drama. On songs like “Ah Mary,” “Mastermind” and “Stop The Bus,” during which Potter usually gets in his face and goads him on, Tournet proves himself an avid student of Seventies-era rock and roll guitar, finding it an unlimited source of inspiration. His slide guitar work evokes memories of old-school Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits and when he has the opportunity to let loose, as he did in Lebanon on “Over Again,” he swaggers with the charisma of the finest axemen.
When the band indulges their heavy side or simply keeps it uptempo, as they did both nights on the Paul Simon-esque “Left Behind,” Dondero keeps things lively with nimble bass lines; he can provide the funk when it’s needed or simply lay down the foundation for blues-based rock with some creative riffs of his own. He also contributed the weekend’s more bizarre bit of stagework, finding ways to work a yodeling pickle into the mix without forcing the issue. Dondero provides a nice, heavy bass sound and it’s more pronounced on weightier fodder, most notably on “Sugar,” a song written during the band’s appearance as the first artist on the Sun Studio Sessions. One of the rougher songs in the band’s catalog, Dondero’s bass explodes throughout the tune, matched only by Potter’s delivery of the pseudo-salacious lyrics. If Robert Plant has dibs on lemonade, Potter’s claimed rights on coffee. Looking a bit Zappa-like, Burr is on his way to dealing with the inevitable confusion with Chris Robinson on their upcoming tour with the Black Crowes. Burr plays one of the simpler drum kits but it doesn’t hinder the overall impact one bit. Playing so ferociously he struggles to stay in his seat, Burr does more with less and during the manic group-wide, free form drum solo that has become a concert staple, he shows that good drumming involves more than just hitting things.
Potter wasn’t the only strong female vocalist to perform at the New Hampshire shows. The Lebanon Opera House show featured a wonderful opening set by Jen Crowell & The Woods Vehicle, which on this night consisted of bassist Max Adam and Tournet. Seated across the front of the stage, Crowell led the trio through a folk-style throwdown, a milieu in which Tournet really flourishes. Crowell’s sultry, bedroom voice, similar in tone to Natalie Merchant’s, mesmerized the Opera House and her guitar exchanges with Tournet on the dreamy “Hey Dixon” and intoxicating “Marvelous” received great reactions from the crowd. For the final song, Tournet and Adam exited the stage, leaving Crowell to close the set on her own. A fitting end to a finely delivered performance, Crowell’s Cold Front became the must-have item for sale in the lobby during the set break. She wasn’t done though. Having Crowell back in the on-stage fold provided Potter & The Nocturnals with the inspiration to break out “Go Down Low” from Original Soul, with Crowell perching herself on a stool behind Potter’s keyboards to lend a hand on vocals.
On the previous night, The Leaves, who hail from the jamband haven of Burlington, Vermont greeted the Manchester crowd with a nicely-crafted set of hard-edged coffeehouse rock and roll. Aya Inoue, The Leaves’ dynamo of a singer, may be recognizable to anyone who caught Ramble Dove, Mike Gordon’s traveling honky-tonk road show a couple years back. Fronting The Leaves, Inoue shows she can do much more than sashay to a two-step beat, her stature belying the bold voice and powerful lyrics that explode from her tiny frame. Along with Steve Sharon (drums), Cory Beard (bass) and Matt Harpster (guitar), Inoue and The Leaves’ focused their set around newer material, on which Inoue showed glimpses of Gillian Welch’s feistiness, only playing the title track from Timid Line, their wonderful recently-released EP. Their smoldering set, perfectly matched the Town Hall atmosphere of the Palace Theater.
In an era where music gets separated and classified into highly specific genres, it’s slightly comical that a straightforward rock and roll band like Potter & The Nocturnals falls between categories. If they had come around a generation earlier, no such confusion would occur, as they would have fit in nicely with the earthy, rootsy rock bands of the time. In today’s world, people seem to struggle with how to describe a band that consists of a lovely and charming lead singer who plays a devastatingly gorgeous Hammond B3, a guitarist who can expertly deliver the blues as well as reach the melodious heights of guitar geniuses like Roy Buchanan, a bassist who can subtly work the power chords of classic rock without overwhelming the entire sound and a drummer who gets more out of his sparse drum set than most drummers do with a kit twice the size. However you want to characterize them, the New Hampshire shows left no doubt that by defying people’s expectations of what they should be, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals are one formidable, entertaining and exciting band.