Grace Potter & The Nocturnals – The magic’s onstage
Almost immediately after I get them on the phone, it becomes reasonably clear that, in the background, the members of Grace Potter & the Nocturnals are beating themselves senseless with something.
“Tubes,” Potter reports, when I ask after the splendid, yet weirdly melodic, racket. “We tracked down these plastic PVC things. We just pulled into the hotel, and the guys are jamming out on these rainbow-colored plastic tubes.”
“Jamming out” works, I guess, although from my end it sounds a little like a rugby scrum between several Blue Man Groups. “I don’t think the hotel’s gonna let us in,” she says, cracking up.
Such things appear to happen, more or less, all the time with this bunch. Though it’s a difficult thing to prove, Potter is very probably the music world’s most gregarious and engaging 24-year-old soul-blues singer/Hammond B3 operator/Janis Joplin disciple. From their current spot in a hotel parking lot in Madison, Wisconsin, they sound like the band you want to be in if you ever wanted to be in a band. “There are people coming into the hotel right now,” Potter says. “And our drummer has gone into banging on the rain pipes.”
There are many reasons for the Nocturnals’ growing appeal. The first is Potter; she’s sweet and funny, curses regularly, and calls exactly on time, which, in the music-journalism world, is improbable bordering on miraculous. The second is the band’s New England history. For all their swampy soul, the Nocturnals — Potter, guitarist Scott Tournet, bassist Bryan Dondero, and drummer Matt Burr — are based in Vermont, and formed in northern New York at St. Lawrence University, an area notoriously friendly to jam bands.
They convened regularly to do what music folk do when it’s prohibitively cold: plunder local music stores and sit around and play records. Potter found herself initially into Joni Mitchell and Patty Griffin (“total chick music,” she says), but soon found that her heart was in something a little meatier, a little more soulful.
The third reason is their crossover appeal. The Nocturnals self-released their first two records, Original Soul and Nothing But The Water (the latter of which was given a spiffed-up re-release by Hollywood Records in 2006) and spent a few years engaged in a touring fiesta that would find them in front of indies and hippies at blues festivals, jam-band soirees, and whatever opening slots came their way.
Shows would generally end with Potter leaving her B3 for a neck-hair-raising a cappella version of “Nothing But The Water” and frequently featured the band’s fire-breathing take on “Mystery Train” (both are on YouTube). All of which contributed to the band’s well-won reputation as a live monster. “We have this notion of being a cute, rootsy band from Vermont,” Potter says, “which is so not what we are anymore.”
“It’s a really weird position right now,” said guitarist Tournet. “We feel like we can’t really be a spokesmodel for what’s going on. We’ve made it onto this label, and they’ve been damn cool, but until now we’ve done the grass-roots indie thing. So we’re deeply in both worlds, which has been interesting.”
In August, they released (on Hollywood) their third record, This Is Somewhere, produced with Whiskeytown alumnus Mike Daly. It’s a poppier, smoother record than its predecessor, but one not frightened of crawling around some dark places, including infidelity (“Lose Some Time”), the drowning of New Orleans (“Ain’t No Time”) and the dicey state of American politics (“Mr. Columbus” and “Ah Mary”).
“It’s not some hip trend to write an anti-war album anymore,” Potter said, “It’s a fucking crisis. That’s why I’m writing songs like that. That’s what we’re dealing with.”
Dark topics aside, Potter and the band are relishing having new songs to break out on tour. “It’s like having a new brood of children,” Potter says. “The older ones grow up and go off to college, and you make some more babies.”
Bassist Dondero said the band suffers from a case of “musical ADD. We get a little tired of playing the same thing, but we allow our songs to change pretty quickly out on the road. Scott and I come from a highly improv background, and Matt and Grace are always interested in stretching things out. It keeps things interesting.”
The hard part, the band agrees, is the recording process. “Oh, it’s horrible!” Potter says with a mighty laugh. “I’m not going to lie and say, ‘It was a really wonderful growing experience…that is bullshit. It’s fucking hard.”
Potter does not say this last part in a way that startles you; it more makes you want to get her a beer. “It’s just not who we are,” she goes on. “It’s easy to sort of forget you’re a road band and get into the studio thing, but coming back out is a clear indication that we’re just kidding ourselves, that we could ever do anything half as good as we do live. This is the phase when you can go watch people’s faces as they experience the new songs for the first time, and seeing their faces, whatever they face they make, that’s an instant result. I love that.”