Grace Potter Rocks The Fox
By Lou Fancher
Better Than: Indulging in controlled substances. Seriously, you can get high on Potter.
Beauty is in the ear of the beholder during a Grace Potter performance. Appearing at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Saturday night and depending on the decade of one’s birthdate, a person could hear shades of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin ('60s), Led Zeppelin and Creedence Clearwater Revival ('70s), Prince and Madonna ('80s) Whitney Houston and soul/blues/rock bands ('90s) — and in the 21st century, hints of inheritance from decade- and genre-spanning artists like David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Usher, Stevie Nicks, Kenny Chesney, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and others. (Potter joined the last two on that list — the Stones and Young — onstage in June and July, respectively. “This is bucket list shit. I'm thrilled," was Potter’s reported response to sharing the limelight with Mick Jagger on Gimme Shelter, a song she and her band have covered.)
Here touring on the crest of the August 14 release of her solo debut album, Midnight, the Vermont native entered minus The Nocturnals, the hands-down, most solidly tight rock band formed with Potter as the frontwoman in 2002. During 13 years with the band, the singer/songwriter released four studio albums under longtime label Hollywood Records. The most recent, The Lion The Beast The Beat, debuted at #17 onBillboard's Top 200 chart and #10 on Billboard's Digital chart. For the outside circle, Potter’s best-known song is Paris (Ooh La La) from the album Grace Potter & The Nocturnals.
The Midnight release constituted 7 of the 20 song setlist and comes by way of producer Eric Valentine. On the CD, much of the new work has a bouncy, rousing style — tinged with a synthesized edge that might initially startle insiders expecting only Potter’s customary howl, bleeding-heart ballads, and Flying V guitar growl. Potter and Valentine play most of the instruments, along with longtime Nocturnals members drummer Matt Burr, guitarists Scott Tournet and Benny Yurco, bassist Michael Libramento, and a host of friends and fellow musicians.
But heard in concert, the new songs gained a bolder profile. Potter is the whole package. Put a guitar in her hands, her legs lash out like liquid daggers; blond hair flies like a lion’s tresses; and the silvery, short dress she wore at the Fox became a shifting shield of armor. Jumping on keys or grabbing guitars, Potter delivered the fundamentals and more.
After what felt in retrospect like a slowish start, with Potter feeling out the crowd and the crowd surprisingly placid, the singer grabbed the night’s direction and from then on, owned it. Down on her knees in "Loneliest Soul" or hitting "Low Road" with deep tenderness, Potter’s voice held both hope and despair. Nothing But "The Water," a duo with Burr, was a reminder that anguish and ecstasy are close sisters. Anyone familiar with the title tune from Potter’s 2005 album got a bonus this time as the two musicians nearly climaxed the show with a fast-paced version.
But it was just one peak in a mountainous evening that eventually capped itself with two encores. After a disappointing "Rocketman" with Rayland Baxter (who fared better in his 40-minute opening), Potter and the band wound up working it out ensemble-style on the percussion instruments with a mashup of "Paris/Not Fade Away (Rolling Stones)/Paris." The cohesive collaboration wasn’t just auditory, it was physical euphoria: like being part of a car crash and surviving, unscathed, to tell about it later. Returning for the final encore, Potter said, “If nobody leaves, we’ll do two. Deal?”
Nobody left: "Stars" and "Alive Tonight" served up a last double cocktail of bliss, betrayal, beauty and earthy drums like a universal heart beat.
The reasons Potter delivers a complete knockout of a show is rooted in basics: a great band, serious pipes, solid songwriting. Branching beyond proven ground, it’s a kind of reverse engineered sexism for anyone suggesting her solo debut album is a record label turning a rocker into a plastic sex kitten: There’s no doubt, Potter is leading the parade.
Think about it another way: Given Potter’s pipes, lanky legs, swanky outfits and her ability to write lyrics that strip pretense off love, work, human existence and other subjects, why not grab enough peroxide to go blonder-than-blond and hit the road?