Grace Potter (photo: Joshua Huver)
Grace Potter returned to the Mountain Winery in Saratoga as part of the summer concert series for the first time in four years, on Saturday, August 13.
Grace Potter is a force of passion, charged with sexuality and the need to wail, flail, or sail between genres as effortlessly as she moves across the stage (once she’s ditched her shoes, that is).
“A lot can happen in four years,” she admitted late in the show, addressing concerns of her decision to launch a solo effort sans her long-time band The Nocturnals, and then having the nerve to play a “magical” venue like The Mountain Winery.
Beneath the punk-rock attitude, Potter’s self-awareness left her exposed, as if the show up to this point culminated in her warming the audience up enough to acknowledge The Nocturnals’ absence at all, and the crowd only lifted their outpour of approval for her charging forward.
San Francisco’s own brand of high-spirited revivalist funk opened the evening proper. Con Brio took the half-hour set they were given and made the most of it for the early-birds in the crowd. Their brand of loose, yet hard-hitting, funk appropriately set the stage for the rest of the night.
Less than ten minutes after the set should have started, the lights dimmed and a weird, warbly sound effect crept through the speakers. Antsy and older regular audience members had their nerves quelled (or raised, depending how familiar they were with Potter’s music) when Prince’s voice washed over the crowd: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” boomed the late purple icon. Spotlights swirled the outdoor theater as the band took their places, waiting for Grace to enter center stage through the giant double-door to the back area.
Once Potter finally made her entrance the band broke into the opening track “Hot To The Touch” off of 2015’s Midnight. During one transitional break, Potter addressed the crowd directly — the first of several such messages.
“Is everybody here? Is everyone in your seats, did you find your spot?” she asked. “Good, good. Well, you know, you won’t be sitting in them all night so enjoy it now. It’s gonna get weird tonight.”
They dove right into the religiously rebellious tune “Ah Mary” next, from the 2007 album This Is Somewhere, the second Nocturnals release. “Empty Heart” and “Your Girl,” a pair of Potter solo tunes followed next, with Potter moving back and forth between an acoustic guitar and her Hammond B3 organ.
The band again returned to former Nocturnals material from the 2012 release The Lion The Beast The Beat for the track “Never Go Back,” a tune that was co-written with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Tim Deaux, bassist for both Grace Potter and the Athens, GA garage rock band The Whigs took the spotlight with a fantastic, punching bass breakdown mid-song.
“Never Go Back” slid into another sing-along rebellion tune off the new record. “Look What We’ve Become” was the sixth song in almost 25 minutes with no breaks, and the hard riff rock introduction and punctuated lead guitar squeals by lead guitarist Benjamin Yurco continued raising the energy level as the sun set.
Following the first pause in playing, the band dialed back the intensity if only in song selection with the slower paced anthem “Low.” Drummer Matt Musty helped set the mood with an African hand-drum beat on the toms, occasionally clicking on the rims to accentuate the driving punch on the down beat.
Decked out in a brighter-than-life gold sequined robe, Potter’s movements were wide, wild, and not always planned — she was living as much in the moment of the music as the fans in the crowd, and that live electricity rippled back and forth all night. Sometimes it was hard to tell where her leg kicks ended, her hair began, or which direction she was even facing, let alone moving in.
Every song, not just “Low,” was full of Potter’s trademark breathless vocal abilities. Featuring loads of “oh ah woah ah” sing-along hooks, every tune had that magical pop catchiness but somehow maintained a super-gritty soul. The same could be said of the reflective lyrics of “Timekeeper.” One of the final songs recorded with The Nocturnals in 2012, it resonated heavily throughout the crowd, who was more than happy to clap along to the tick-tock of the song.
Approaching the halfway point of the set, Potter sparked a series of hard-hitting tunes from her days with The Nocturnals, beginning with an epic, 15-plus minute run of “Loneliest Soul.” The track opened with a rebel yell that was quickly enveloped into very upbeat big-time band sounds; circus-like to the point that I caught myself wondering, ‘Do I hear a kazoo in the mix?’
A few minutes into the song, the band settled down and Potter took an organ solo. She kept it very splashy, but Musty’s drum beat was very lounge-act and wide open. The band picked up on the organ fury before settling down around the same lounge-style drum beat, now with a kick of salsa. Potter took off her shoes and got as close to the crowd as the stage let her, singing in whispers and half-breaths. The lights went low, almost out but not quite, and Yurco delivered a perfect impression of Mark Knopfler thru the guitar. A full musical melt into lounge jazz was completed as Potter moved into a tease of the Betty Boop/Helen Kane classic “Me And The Man in The Moon” before finishing “Loneliest Soul.” Eliza Hardy Jones on keys came through exceptionally well in the transition and tempo between sections, at times combining sounds with Yurco to mimic a violin overlay.
The whole performance drove the audience wild. Potter let them clap themselves out and introduced the band members as The Magical Midnight Roadshow as they left the stage one by one, save for Yurco. At the insistence of Potter to “tell a story,” Yurco dove into a classical methodology while Potter filled the space with back-up oohs and ahhs. The instrumental showcase gave into the Nocturnals’ “Low Road.”
After “Low Road” Potter was left to herself on stage and gave a brief solo performance of the 2007 Nocturnals track “Big White Gate” off of This Is Somewhere. Incredibly, the crowd remained silent for her a Cappella performance and going as far as audibly sushing those around them. It is a huge display of respect from her fans, and the Mountain Winery crowd in general and left me incredibly impressed.
From there, Potter picked up her bottleneck slide and began a solo blues romp that could have accompanied Neil Young’s soundtrack to Dead Man. The drums re-entered, followed by the rest of the band for the ultra-theatrical and multi-faceted “Nothing But The Water”, the eponymous track from The Noctrurnals’ 2005 debut album.
“OK you guys, stand up, we’re at a winery,” encouraged Potter. As respectful and intently listening as the crowd was, Potter realized that they were also uncharacteristically stiff. “Move a bit any which way you want. I promise we’re going to have a disco dance party. I want the music to flow through you, feel yourself losin’ it a little bit. Don’t think about tomorrow, don’t worry about others having a good time worry about that sweet music movin’ through your beautiful body. This is what we call a secular revival.”
During a clap along with the crowd, Potter invited the audience to come up front and dance in the aisles, an action that would have normally prompted a stern talking-to from some of the less personable ushers, “as long as no one climbs on stage.” They busted into the dance party anthem “Turntable” which includes hyper sexual and thinly veiled word play concerning audio cable connections, complete with a brief Dead or Alive quote from “You Spin Me Right Round.”
The onstage vibe now is as loose as it could be, the band is locked into a groove, and Potter has running all over the stage, spinning, kicking, and wailing. A brief percussion solo melted into windpipe sounding guitar effects before the drums took center stage again. Guitar feedback washed over a primal jungle beat, matching Potters movements. Combined with her breathy and suggestive wordplay, I felt like I was watching Jim Morrison’s version of “Gloria.”
Even though the winery typically has a hard curfew at 10:00PM, when “Turntable” ended, Potter insisted “we’re not done yet!” In true firecracker form, she exploded into “Delirious”. The same odd, feedback signal that opened the show returned and hung around through “Instigators”, the final track of the set.
A three song encore of “Stars,” “Lion Beats Beast,” and “Paris (Ooh La La)” served as an exclamation point on the end of the show as Potter acknowledged the magic of the mountain top, and apologized for waiting four years to return.
“I’ve been here before and I wanted to come back here, this place is magical. But a lot can happen in four years,” she said. “Some of you were here four years ago, and some people that were then, aren’t now. It’s too magical and I want to take a moment to celebrate the people that aren’t here. Some people are actually not here anymore and that is what I wanna think about when I play this song, looking at the moon and the stars. They’ve probably got a better seat than you do.”