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. 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 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.