Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Britt Fest, Jacksonville, OR- 6/24
Photo by Stuart Levine
The threat of rain hangs in the air. The picturesque outdoor venue is sealed in hot, moist breath with no windows to open. It’s an environment well suited to the sultry, unabashed rock of Grace Potter and The Nocturnals.
Grace Potter, a multi-instrumentalist powerhouse, stretches sound through her voice to the point that her vocal chords resign their tethered rope-like existence and stretch to rounded vessels capable of holding this force. She sings with a depth and intensity of a much older, bluesy, soulful, southern rocker from the 60’s and 70’s than her age, generation or geographical location (Vermont based) justify.
Wearing a sparkly white robe, that Stevie Nicks must have designed for Star Wars, she asks the audience after the second song if she can take off her shoes, then tosses them in a dramatic arc across the stage, claiming she’s really a hippie. Jumping and bounding over the stage, she spends the remainder of the night validating the statement.
The single set of music builds skillfully. Slow, melodic songs start the show, blending a color swatch on the canvass of the evening. I fear she’s turned pop artist and wonder if it will be a landscape painting. My fears dissuade after a few songs when Grace walks her sultry swagger into the crowd, singing rock blues with breathy gasps as she shakes peoples hands and turns the show up a notch. The crowd wakes up and the evening shifts.
The soft beginnings transition to an ecstatic rock explosion. A driving force emanates from two guitarists: Scott Tournet and Benny Yurco, bassist, Michael Libramento, Matt Burr on drums and Grace playing an array of acoustic and electric guitars and keyboards under the overlay of mighty vocals. Slashing a knife over a canvass and punching a wall, the whole band (Grace in particular) pounds on their instruments and cuts sound through the open air. Yelling with fine-tuned skill and abandon, Potter’s head flies as she pounds the keys, desperately attempting to loosen itself from her neck.
The music builds with the intensity of a natural disaster. It’s a demolition. Potter’s voice explodes in geyser-like fashion over the chaotic rock momentum, then carries skillfully to a smooth beauty where the landscape began, layering a sweet sound where there should be no breath left. The instrumentals follow this pattern as well. When fingers should be bleeding and worn through to the bone, they delicately pick a precise sweet tone and melody like the layer of absinthe floating the top of the glass decorating the beverage in electric flame.
Grace’s vocals rival the instruments. She takes on a guitar in a musical duel at the end of 2:22. Facing off with her guitarist in a fashion I’ve only seen two externally held instruments attempt. Challenging one another back and forth, they pass a riff while layering something profound and unimaginable back for the other to play… if they can, and Grace does it with a single word. Screaming, “Lovin’,” again and again, passionately, scratched and tormented, until it breaks something intangible, but felt nonetheless. The guitarist walks away and she slowly stretches the words, “Your brother Lou,” to shut the door of the song.
Standing alone on stage with an electric guitar, Grace starts, “Nothing But The Water” in a hypnotic gospel incantation shocked with electric blows. The song stretches its limbs to hold the rest of the band and transforms to rock and roll beating the heart of a river. It’s an effective closing song, but they keep going. All 5 members grab an instrument (3 acoustic guitars, snare drum and bass) and stand in line at the front of the stage to play their new song from the Lone Ranger movie soundtrack, “Devil’s Train”: an old Roy Acuff song from the relics of the original radio broadcasts in the 1930’s. Riding the rails of bluegrass, they kick out a good old boy tune very different from the repertoire of the night.
Returning for two encores, the first, a bluegrass classic with Lukas Nelson from the opening band, couples well with “Devil’s Train” but doesn’t exhibit the full potency of the band. The second encore rectifies this. Scott Tournet, stands alone on the stage, with his guitar, pummeling the strings with similar violent skill and abandon to Grace’s vocal schooling of sound. I forget where I am for a moment and expect him to light his guitar on fire. The attack on the strings turns into Heart’s, “Crazy on You” and the rest of the band returns. The drum set forms a vortex where they all gather and hit whatever they can find. Grace crouches in front smacking the hell out of the bass drum and hi-hat. A marching band with no legs, they build a crescendo of rhythm and beat tossed through a torrential storm of percussion. The lights from stage reveal a gentle rain. I turn my face up to the sky and let it fall.