MUSIC REVIEW: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals - Establishing Higher Ground

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Writer's note: Grace Potter grew up in the Mad River Valley, where I currently reside. Good to see our young folks making it in media and the arts.

First, the bad news.

I missed the New Year’s Eve Higher Ground show, in which the Nocturnals vamped as the Royal Tenenbaums.

See photo.

The good news?

I caught Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ (GPN) December 29 Higher Ground show, two days before, and what a show it was.

The popular Burlington venue was packed to capacity by the time the band took the stage at 10:15 p.m. With a quick welcome for the crowd – “Are you guys ready to have a good time tonight?” - Grace Potter, resplendent in knee high boots and a black mini skirt, promptly picked up her triangle-shaped cutaway electric guitar, laid down some growling blues chords, and lit into “Watching You,” backed by smoking riffs from fabulous-fingered Scott Tournet, the solid drumming of Matthew Burr, and the low-end speed bass of Bryan Dondero.

The evening took off from there.

All of the band’s best original rockers made the cut: “Mastermind,” “Treat Me Right,” and “Joey,” as well as a new tune I didn’t recognize, something about “Apples Off My Tree.” Sign me up.

My first thought, while listening: this is a band that has clearly been honing their chops with plenty of good hard touring on the road. The extended “road trip,” of course, as any traveling musician will tell you, is not nearly as glamorous as the movies and popular imagination make it out to be, but it is vital for a band seeking to cultivate a larger audience and a tighter musical groove. The Nocturnals sounded tighter and more together than they ever have, despite a few technical difficulties at various moments during the show.

My second thought: after several years of touring, Grace Potter has established herself as a multi-talented instrumentalist and stage performer. Throughout the course of the sixteen song Higher Ground set, she moved fluidly from one instrument to another - electric guitar, the Hammond organ and keyboard, the tambourine (a much harder instrument to play than it looks) the acoustic guitar and back again, comfortably and with a playful sense of the possible. Her voice has matured, as well – she channeled the blues, funk, soul and folk traditions with equal ease, though this listener would love a few more slow ballads mixed into the set – the “jam band” thing, which the band does well, could benefit from occasional more quiet interludes, which would also offer Grace a chance to show off both her voice and her remarkable word smithing chops. (For listeners who want to keep up with GPN’s exploits, check out the web site - you can hear and watch some great live stuff, and you can find acoustic live versions of some of the band’s tunes, as well.)

All in all, the show proved spectacular. By the time the Nocturnals slipped into “Ah Mary” (their set’s ninth song and Potter’s most brilliantly lyrical – a critique of U.S. Empire disguised as an “out-of-control” woman story), I was hooked. They followed this up with the wonderfully hooky tunes “Some Kind of Ride” and “Stop The Bus,” but the band’s “come to Jesus” movement – a transcendental tour-de-force – came at the show’s climax, with “Big White Gate” and the “Water” double-shot from their “Nothing But The Water” project – masterful. Throw in a really funky cover of Steve Miller’s “Big Old Jet Airliner” to round things out, and the evening proved magical.

To top it off, as we left the theater, the snow started to come down, blanketing Burlington in some much-needed white stuff for the journey back to Mad River. The warmth of the music stayed with me and my companions, though, and I thought how fortunate we are to live in a place and in a community that nurtures and supports its young people as they spread their wings, in so many different ways.

Here’s to more music in 2009!