Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals

grace-potter-and-the-nocturnalsIn 1958 Danny and the Juniors' Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay topped out at #19 on the Billboard chart. The song was written more in hope than certainty. From its beginnings a few years earlier, when it was decried from pulpits and denounced in city halls as corrupting America's (white) youth, rock and roll has had powerful enemies. As that decade ended it all seemed over. Elvis had been drafted, Jerry Lee Lewis was blacklisted, Little Richard had become "born again," Buddy Holly was dead in a plane crash, Chuck Berry had been railroaded to jail, and Alan Freed and Dick Clark had been tainted by payola scandals. Already faced with the prospect of integrating their public schools, many saw rock and roll - young whites singing and dancing to black music - as further subverting the social order. The large national record companies, which had been been caught unprepared for the demand for this new type of music by white teenagers, sought to reestablish their marketplace dominance by promoting "wholesome" cover versions of songs by popular black artists. (Think Pat Boone doing Little Richard's Tutti Fruti. Awful then; awful now.) In rural Virginia, connected to the rest of the world by two-lane blacktops, the glowing tubes of radio and TV, and Life magazine, I was taking all of this in. I had just become a teenager; rock and roll was our music, my music.

I bought my first record, Fats Domino's Blueberry Hill - a 78 no less - two years earlier. I had seen Elvis in prime time and watched American Bandstand in the afternoons. I listened to after-school music shows on local AM radio, and, when I could get away with it, late night rock and roll from exotic Buffalo, Chicago, Fort Wayne, New Orleans, and Memphis. I had no idea what thrills awaited someone up on Blueberry Hill, but I damn well wanted to find out.

Of course, as we know now in the fullness of time, rock and roll didn't die. But it certainly suffered abuse. It has survived splintering into dozens of sub-genres, being co-opting in advertisements, The Cover of the Rolling Stone, big corporate money, drugs, MTV, synthesizers, a respectable Hall of Fame, artist deaths, the rise and fall of FM radio, and file sharing. It suffered disco, karaoke, hair bands, amusical punks, makeup, Auto-Tune, stadium rock and automated oldies stations. Occasionally it seems to have survived time itself by becoming embraced by some in later generations even as we boomers often seemed reluctant to share.

Still, since 1974 when Jon Landau famously proclaimed Bruce Springsteen as the future of Rock and Roll - a title Mr. Springsteen continues to wear with grace - I have often despaired for that most revolutionary of evolutionary music that formed the soundtrack of my life. Is there anybody out there that still cares?

Fast forward to this summer. I am sitting in the wing of a stage in the mountains of Virginia at an outdoor music festival. My grown, mother-to-be daughter sits beside me. We are waiting for a band I have never heard to close out the evening's music. A power outage has caused a delay of almost two hours. It has been a long day, I am looking forward to crawling into my sleeping bag. The seat in the folding chair is hard. The lights come up, the band is announced: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.GPN2 Two in the band who take the stage are impossibly young women; so which one is Grace? One picks up a tambourine and heads to the microphone laying down a rhythm. She counts off. The other young woman starts a bass riff as the drummer doubles the tambourine. Grace wails like a Celtic warrior, "Oh Yeah." A guitar chords an opening and we are off on Some Kind of Ride. Suddenly the hard seat is forgotten. I am not tired. I am getting goosebumps. Time has vanished. Who are these guys?

Since Floydfest I have downloaded all the GPN albums and several live audience recordings. I have watched her on YouTube. Here are my observations...
  • Grace Potter is a musician. Sure, she has a powerful, nuanced voice. But there are many accomplished voices out there, with or without Auto-Tune. (Auto-Tune is to music as steroids are to baseball.) Grace sings with no need for electronic enhancement; loud or soft, she sells the lyric. Grace closes her Falling or Flying with, "play every show as if it's your last." That is how she sings, as if every line will be her last, every syllable her final defining take. I have yet to hear any recording where she seems to be mailing in a performance. Grace also plays both the Hammond B3, electric pianos, and guitar on stage. But most importantly - like the great ones - she writes her own songs, songs filled with thought and crafted with care. I find it hard to believe they come from the mind and heart of one in her mid 20's. Finally, she respects our music, honors the genre. I like that.
  • The Nocturnals are not just a bunch of sidemen. Even though they recently changed bass players and added a second guitar, they are tight, cohesive, and well matched with each other. The second guitar adds depth and allows Scott Tournet space to stretch out. He has a good ear, avoids rock cliches and sounds fresh. The rhythm section is driving, solid. The occasional addition of Catherine Popper's voice to the mix makes a much more polished sound. One can be clever and describe GPN as a neoclassicial rock and roll band. If that means timeless, OK by me.
  • I don't think any GPN records yet do full justice to the band, especially with its current lineup. I hope their forthcoming disc does. Until then, hear them live if you can. Fortunately they are a touring band, coast to coast. The will be in Wilmington, NC next month at a smallish outdoor venue, promoted by some nice folks at Greater Good Productions. I already have tickets.
  • GPN have paid their dues and earned the respect of their peers and the press. Try here, here, or here. That I had not heard of them reflected on me more than them. Given the fractured, unsettled nature of the music business these days I don't know what constitutes the path to stardom or success. But if quality, commitment, and joy count - Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are already on the charts, with a bullet. Rock and roll is in good, young hands.
I have waited a respectable amount of time before blogging this lest the heat of a festival moment distorted my judgment. However, my initial reaction written just after Floydfest still stands. Upon reflection, I had the same reaction hearing Grace Potter and her band as I had seeing Springsteen for the first time thirty-one years ago. They are that good. Nice to find out I still have a pulse.

I don't know if Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are the future of rock and roll. But if the music has a future it will be someone like Ms. Potter who keeps it alive.


kcortez said...

Looks like you've got the bug, and in a bad way. Good for you.

Check out the fun over on my GPN blog This Is Somewhere.

See you on the road!

Another Recent Convert said...

Love your write up on GPN!

Joey said...

GPN play the kind of rock 'n' rock that just grabs you by the balls in a way that makes you realize that what you are hearing is even more enjoyable than fucking itself!

Bibb said...