Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, The Stone Pony, Asbury Park, NJ – 5/17
Photo by Matthew Shelter, 3/11
Where do Grace Potter and the Nocturnals get the balls to play “Nothing But the Water” mid- show? Is that not their “Stairway”? Doesn’t “Stairway” come last, just before “THANKYOUGOODNIGHT!” and house lights? Something fishy is going on here.
It was 2004 when Grace Potter and the Nocturnals first rode a B3 organ fueled with high-octane folk angst and piloted by the seeming illegitimate love child of Stevie Nicks, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison out of Vermont and demanded the attention of the listening public. They were a plucky foursome with starry eyes and serious chops that brought the barn-storming ethos of juke joints and rock clubs unabashedly to the stage on a nightly basis. With the band having quickly thought better of their Nora-Jones-inspired sound on 2004’s Original Soul, the strength of 2005’s Nothing But the Water won them critical acclaim and opening gigs for acts like The North Mississippi Allstars, Gov’t Mule, and The Black Crowes, where they routinely challenged their headliners to bring their best or be upstaged. A blistering noon set at 2006’s Bonnarroo festival seemed to announce that they were ready to take center stage. The band followed Nothing But the Water with a poppy and mostly uneventful This is Somewhere (2007) that hinted they may be running out of the steam that seemed so promising in years prior.
But three years, some personnel changes, and a defunct collaboration with T-Bone Burnett later, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals put those fears to rest with a brilliant self-titled album and a new swagger. Whether it was the addition of bassist Catherine Popper whose vocals give the band new access to harmonies unheard before, or of the spirited new rhythm guitarist Benny Yurco whose presence allows the brilliant Scott Tournet to explore the funky intricacies of the band’s grooves, or the LA vintage clothing store that seems to have swallowed the band in a tornado of hip and unleashed Potter’s legs from behind faded jeans, something clicked for this band, pushing them into exciting new realms of rock & roll decadence and grimy Muscle Shoals funk that explains exactly where they get the balls to whip out “Nothing But the Water” mid-show: they’ve kicked in the door on their career and are now confidently driving the party train however they damn please.
On Tuesday night this band from the land of Phish took over The House that Bruce Built and blew its roof off all. Kicking off the Bonnarroo Buzz Tour at Asbury Park’s legendary Stone Pony, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals showed their new swagger from the moment they took the stage, opening with a slinky and funked-up version of “Joey,” off Nothing But the Water. The Nocturnals proper took the stage first and followed drummer Matt Burr’s lead into a tight groove that jammed for a few minutes before Potter herself stormed on, pounding a tambourine and whirling in an Axl Rose jig that announced the night was about revelry in the glorious noise of this band. Potter quickly found her spot behind the B3, but moved around the stage all night, from organ to center-stage with a gleaming white Gibson Flying V, to simply master or revels with only a tambourine and a dance card full of energy.
The set list progressed from tight and fun through loose and wild jams. Heavy on the new album, the early part of the set bounced through the sort of folky funk indicative of self-titled release. “Oasis,” “Only Love,” and “That Phone,” all played well and showed the band at their united best. For all of Potter’s energy, Tournet has become a study in the stoic virtuoso; while Yurco pounded fiercely through the songs’ rhythms, Tournet moved with a confident slow hand around his fret board locating and accentuating the band’s funk. Burr’s smile rarely left his face and Popper’s hips follow her groove all night. The band played the show’s first half with their familiar and wonderful drive and pep.
But things got serious with “Sugar.” As Tournet played the song’s heavy opening sequence, Potter strolled from behind the B3, strapped on her Flying V, and hit an open cord that announced the time where the retooled Grace Potter and the Nocturnals would show their true glory. They powered through “Sugar” with a fierce drive—teasing the Rolling Stones and even Def Leppard along the way—and rode its wave for the rest of the show. “Tiny Light” brought a spaced-out jam with walls of sound and layers of reverbed screams that tested the upper limits of the Stone Pony’s sound system, and then “Nothing But the Water” brought soul bounce back to the show. The audaciousness of playing this monster song during the main set and then following it with the lovely but airy balled “Big White Gate” phased the band not at all. This was their party, and their swagger never faded. The radio hit “Paris” brought the house down to close the main set, and a killer encore of “Stop the Bus” and “Medicine” closed the night.
Although they were consistently slaying live audiences, three years ago it seemed like Grace Potter and the Nocturnals were still searching for their voice and stumbling to find their identity. They could very well have settled into the pop folk scene and had a long career of making pleasant if not overly exciting music. But Tuesday night in New Jersey, this band demonstrated how they’ve done exactly the opposite: challenging themselves and exploring the depths of their sound. They’ve found their stride, and it’s a glorious groove. Grace Potter wheels and whirls around the stage like banshee of funk, and the band joins in and powers the vortex. This band is a rare pleasure: get out to see them at your nearest juke joint, and ready your soul for the spirit of a rock & roll revival meeting.