Sunday, October 14, 2012
Grace Potter's glammin' and growing (with podcast)
In a decade of performing, the frontwoman for Potter and the Nocturnals has undergone a bohemian-to-bombshell transformation, and fans have noticed. It's one more way that Potter continues to challenge everyone's expectations.
Grace Potter performs with her band, The Nocturnals, at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif.
Courtesy Philip Andelman
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
If you go
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals With Rayland Baxter
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals have for years been part of the Southwest Virginia live music scene. With Potter's explosive voice in front of a wall of rock, pop, soul, blues and psychedelia, the band that first came to the valleys in 2005, to play Blacksburg's Steppin' Out, has seen its profile consistently rise.
The band has headlined at Jefferson Center in Roanoke and FloydFest, and it opened for the Avett Brothers in 2010 at Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre.
Just a decade since its formation, the band has touring dates that include the Ryman Auditorium, in Nashville, Tenn., Zac Brown's Southern Ground Music & Food Festival in Charleston, S.C., and New York City's Beacon Theatre. Closer to Roanoke, the band has sold out two of three scheduled dates at the 9:30 Club, in Washington, D.C.
Along the way, though, some complaints have arisen.
Potter's stage persona has gotten too sexy. Her skirts are too short. What happened to the demure young brunette singing and playing piano and organ? She turned into a blond rocker with a Gibson Flying V guitar, not shy about showing her legs.
None of those criticisms has escaped Potter's attention. In a phone interview before her Thursday night headlining show at Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre, she said those questions come up frequently, even among the home folks.
"It's a great conversation and it's one that I have over and over again, especially when I come home to Vermont, because so many of the folks here in Vermont did get to know us when we were young," Potter said.
The night before her Sept. 18 interview with The Roanoke Times, she had watched a video of a 2006 performance. Her uncle shot the footage of the band playing the Barre Opera House, in her home state.
It was the first time she had seen it since the night of that show. She said she tried to watch it from the perspective of an audience member, and she wondered what it must be like to have seen so many changes both with Potter and her band, "constantly challenging people's expectations of what we are."
For most successful pop and rock acts, image change is pretty common. So is musical change. David Bowie has done it numerous times. The Beatles didn't stay in mop-tops and suits. More recent examples include such acts as Christina Aguilera and Pink.
Not that it's hurting Potter's fan base. The band's Facebook page has close to 210,000 "likes," and on Twitter, @gracepotter has more than 80,000 followers.
Her own Grand Point North Festival, in Burlington, Vt., was a success for the second consecutive year, with acts including the Avetts, Dr. Dog, Galactic and Carolina Chocolate Drops.
And reviews of the band's latest album, "The Lion The Beast The Beat," have been mostly favorable. The New York Times called it the band's best record yet, saying that it had grown from a group with "a lot of muscle but no wit or savvy" to one that has "finally allowed itself to try new poses and found give where previously there'd been only stiffness."
Moving with the music
Potter's huge and flexible voice has always been the key part of the equation since 2002, when the band formed in Vermont.
For the most part, the band is the same. Drummer Matt Burr, her longtime boyfriend, has been there from the beginning. Guitarist Scott Tournet is a longtime member, as is guitarist Benny Yurco. Multi-instrumentalist Michael Libramento is the newest bass player, replacing Catherine Popper, who is now touring with Jack White.
Potter wasn't even 20 when it all started, and her music showed groove, soul and user-friendliness, but no real innovation.
While watching that old video, the 29-year-old Potter had thoughts aside from her evolving look. Her thoughts addressed the musical side of Grace Potter & the Nocturnals.
The band has been a favorite at summertime jam-band festivals, but spent a good deal of the past year playing shows with country music headliners Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw. Potter joined Chesney onstage to sing their hit duet "You and Tequila."
But she is not a country act. And she is not in a jam band.
"The truth of the matter is we will never let people put their finger on what we are, because we can't put the finger on it. We don't know," she said, laughing. "I think that's what makes it fun and exciting. And as a songwriter, I feel that need to grow. I feel a need to establish the music first and foremost. And everything else is dictated by the song and the music."
Hence the sexy stage garb.
"So when I was having my psychedelic Vegas cocktail dress miniskirts and Tina Turner moment, that's because of the music that we were making," she said. "If you listen to that record [the eponymous disc from 2010], it was just full-on, sassy, salacious, obvious, fabulous, sexy music.
"So why wouldn't I be wearing a miniskirt, you know?"
Touring behind "The Lion The Beast The Beat," the look is changing, she said.
"And now with this record, I've got a lot of animal instincts, a lot of capes, a lot of fur, a lot of weird hats and sort of medicine man iconography going on," she said. "And that's all a reflection of the music as well."
Not that she expects that explanation to satisfy every one of her longtime followers.
"So all these changes and all these adjustments that the fans need to make — or if we lose fans along the way because of those changes — I think it's all part of growing up and figuring out what kind of artist you want to be. And then the second you figure out what kind of artist you're going to be, take a left turn and change it all over again."
Impressing a legend
One won't hear those sorts of complaints from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Jorma Kaukonen, an original member of San Francisco psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane. Potter and her band regularly cover the Airplane's "White Rabbit."
In a recent interview with Kaukonen before a Roanoke performance, Kaukonen said that he had heard the Nocturnals perform that song at FloydFest.
"It is killer," Kaukonen said. "That's what I'm saying. It is absolutely killer. Grace Potter, I've never met the woman. She is a rock 'n' roll girl. There's no two ways about it. She's hugely talented.
"Rock 'n' roll is so much about attitude as it is about the music. They've got it all."
"Wow," Potter emailed in response. "It's pretty surreal to hear Jorma's praise of me & my band. He's a huge part of the rock & roll tapestry that influenced us and I'm deeply humbled and honored."
Making the right record
That's a popular cover, but Potter writes or co-writes most of the band's material, as she did on "The Lion The Beast The Beat."
If she's not deathly afraid of fans' responses to changes in her look, she's definitely afraid of putting out a piece of music that doesn't meet her standards.
While recording "The Lion ... ," she called off the sessions and took a long road trip. The idea was to make an album that she would want to support, even though her label, Hollywood Records, had been loving what it had already heard.
"[Producer] Jim Scott and the band were kicking it. They were doing a great job," she said. "As we were recording the songs, I just got this deeper and deeper gut feeling like — it wasn't anyone else's fault — it was kind of just that these songs were not speaking to me.
"I think that comes down to the fact that I'd been writing for two and a half years, basically since our last record came out, and compiled about 35 songs, which were all good and sounded like hit radio songs and very commercial and radio friendly and all that, but it just wasn't where my head was at.
"It was the wrong direction to go in to just make a commercial, obvious record that sounded like a follow-up to our previous record. I don't want to follow anything. I want to create something new."
She drove up the California coast, stopping for a while in Redwood country and Big Sur, then flying back to Vermont, where she wrote four songs before finding an isolated motel by the ocean to finish and rework some other songs. The reworked title track, album closer "The Divide" and another song, "Timekeeper," wound up in the final product.
Some of the songs originally scheduled for the album, such as "Roulette," "All Over You" and a couple of versions of the album's "Stars," have been mixed and released as bonus tracks.
Potter even had the band record the songs in the order that they appear on the album, in order to solidify the idea of a complete work. That could be considered unusual in this age, where a listener is just as likely to download a song or two as to buy an entire record.
"That's important to me," she said. "I think it's important to a lot of people. But there is a push and pull to it.
"People are going to download a few songs on this record more than other ones. And I'm not going to tell you not to love one song and that you have to love the whole thing. I'm not here to tell anybody how to listen to music.
"My only expectation is the expectation I put on myself as a creator. I think I accomplished that, and I'm really proud of it."