|Grace Potter and Trombone Shorty set the night on fire at Wolf Trap|
When Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews left the stage Thursday night after his hour-long opening set, I thought: How do you top that?
I got my answer 20 minutes later when Grace Potter sauntered out from the wings in her Dolly Parton heels and a sheer, shimmery white frock with a split so far up her left leg it would’ve made Jessica Rabbit blush. “I’ve got the medicine that everybody wants,” Potter cooed into the microphone, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. At that moment, every red-blooded male packed into Wolf Trap’s Filene Center had to agree.
In an online chat last month with Boston.com, Potter addressed her changing look over the first decade of her career, saying it hasn’t been part of some nefarious corporate makeover, but rather a reflection of her band’s expanding and evolving musical direction. Over the course of Thursday night’s two-hour set in the woods of Northern Virginia, Potter showcased all facets of that evolution.
She opened the show in her sex kitten demeanor, prowling the stage like a tigress on a mission to seduce the entire crowd (which, she kinda did). But within a few songs she was at her organ/piano setup stage left, tearing into the emotional catharsis of “Apologies” in her full country/blues glory. At the end of a spectacular “Treat Me Right,” Potter stripped off the strappy shoes and pitched them across the stage to a roadie like Springsteen tossing a guitar. From there on out, we saw an even different Grace Potter.
This one channeled the youthful, tenacious spirits of Mick Jagger and Robert Plant as she whirled and twirled around the stage in her bare feet, at times tapping into that otherworldly power that the best band leaders seem to conjure at will. At one point toward the end of the set she was so caught up in the moment, lost beneath that shock of wild blond hair, that the same roadie who earlier caught her shoes had to tap her on the shoulder to give her the guitar he was holding out for her in preparation for the next song.
Wolf Trap’s Filene Center is a medium-sized outdoor amphitheater with a rather small lawn in the back, but this was likely the largest headlining gig Grace Potter & The Nocturnals had ever played; certainly the largest in the D.C. area, anyway. Far from being overwhelmed by the moment, the band grabbed the opportunity for all it was worth and played one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. It certainly didn’t hurt that I’d scored seats in the second row of the orchestra pit, dead center; with the band going full tilt to project and connect with such a large venue, their energy washed over me in waves.
There were several highlights, but I’ll just mention a few here.
• The band’s cover of Hank Williams’ “Devil’s Train” reminded me of Springsteen’s Seeger tour, as the entire band stood in a line on stage as a folk troupe; they then stayed there for the first part of the next song, “Big White Gate,” before melting back into their traditional instruments and locations midway through (something I’ve seen Wilco do before).
• My all-time favorite concerts always include a moment where a song strikes me in a way it never has before on record. Thursday night, that was without question “Stop the Bus,” a track from 2007’s “This Is Somewhere.” On the album, the track is a slow-burner, but a little subdued. In person, “Stop the Bus” transforms into this transcendent example of pure American rock and roll in the mold of Tom Petty. If I had to pick a favorite type of song, this would be it—a solid, midtempo stomp with big chords and a healthy groove (something The Hold Steady does very well, for instance). I was blown away by this song, and after going back to the recorded version, I realize it was something you had to encounter in that moment to fully understand.
• “Paris (Ooh La La)” was probably my favorite Nocturnals song heading into Thursday’s show, so when Potter brought out my man Trombone Shorty and a couple sax players from his Orleans Avenue crew to polish off the main set, I just couldn’t get enough.
• To open the encore, Potter came out by herself with an electric guitar strapped over her shoulder and launched into “Nothing But the Water (I),” without question one of her best songs. On the record it’s this hymnal a capella track; here she turned it into a fire-breathing tour de force. Online reports say she tagged a bit of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” into this song, which ordinarily would’ve brought me to my knees. But I unfortunately missed it because Potter was playing the guitar right in front of me at the edge of the stage; she was so close, I could literally here the actual strumming of her strings without the amp, so I was a bit, uh, distracted.
I first came across The Nocturnals in January when I came across the “Storytellers” performance they filmed last year. It was one of those kick-to-the-head moments where, after the episode ended, I went right upstairs and ordered all four of their albums on the double. They combine so many aspects of various types of music I love—pure country, heartland rock and roll, blues, folk, and just enough pop to make a great catchy hook. Potter is utterly captivating, evoking the likes of everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Chrissie Hynde to Patty Griffin, with a voice of such power that few can match.
So while I’ve been getting to know the band over the past eight months, I am by no means an expert on their music or their live performances. That being said, I would find it hard to believe they’ve ever been better than they were Thursday night. Combined with an absolutely killer opening set from Trombone Shorty, this was without question one of the best nights of music I’ve been a part of.
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
Wolf Trap’s Filene Center
Never Go Back
Toothbrush and My Table
Treat Me Right
Stop the Bus
Devil’s Train (Hank Williams cover)
Big White Gate
White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane cover)
Paris (Ooh La La) (w/Trombone Shorty)
Nothing But the Water (I)
Nothing But the Water (II)
Paint It Black (Rolling Stones cover)
The Lion the Beast the Beat
Show Time: 2 hours