Prospect Park’s Celebrate Brooklyn! series has no right to get artists as cool as it does. David Byrne? MGMT? TV on the Radio (look for a review of that one next week)? All (or almost all) for free. If this was the only musical event Brooklyn had, the borough would still earn its rep as the hip fan’s place-to-be.
Add Grace Potter and the Nocturnals to that list of inspired bookings. Grace often gets unfairly gets lumped in as a“jam band," but that unfortunate labeling didn't deter Brooklyn's hipsters who knew better. Potter may frequent jam fests, but she substitutes soul passion for mindless guitar noodling. When she begins playing a song, she knows where it's going, and directs it there with enthusiasm.
First on the bill were local boys Jones Street Station. Like The Band at their most rocking (think “Chest Fever”) this five piece blasted through alt-country folk-rock tunes like Grateful Dead album cuts. One of the two main singers sported a harmonica tool belt, whipping out a different keyed harp for each song, either jamming in the background or wailing in the fore depending on the song. His soulful croon pushed the mid-tempo songs along while the band thumped along buoyantly behind him. The emotional highpoint waited until the end though, when all the members put their arms around each other up front to join only a guitar in the “Tall Buildings” finale. Like a better-written “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” even an audience who had never heard of these boys couldn’t help feeling nostalgic for the show just passed.
A local band with a national following, Deer Tick followed Jones St. with some their own so-called “alt-country.” Dennis Ryan walked on the dark stage first, laying into a furious drum solo that managed to keep a strong rhythm underneath the flailing fills. Bassist and brother Christopher Dale Ryan soon quietly joined in, laying the bed on which the two entering guitarists could lie comfortably. They began a slow chordal riff, ringing into “Easy” like Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three as a bar band. Leading man John McCauley puts a Bob Dylan whine over his My Name Is Earl appearance, even lending “Mr. Tambourine Man”-style harmonica intro to “Song About a Man.”
Early in the set he mentioned many special treats, and he started the guest appearances early with Liz Eidenberg coming out to duet on their ghostly “Friday the 13th.” The goth-country tune galloped like a horseman of the apocalypse, providing a joyful darkness over the otherwise light proceedings. Chris Denny soon followed for a “Dead Flowers” Rolling Stones cover, his yodeling warble betraying his Arkansas roots as his mid-verse guitar riffs showed he’d studied his Dire Straits well.
The real special treat came with Nikki of Those Darlins. She duetted with McCauley on the unremarkable “Cake and Eggs” because, as the woman behind me said, “they’re good friends.” More than good friends, apparently; following the tune McCauley asked her to take off her boot and fished around in his pocket to produce a ring. A toe ring, to be precise. Regardless, a proposal is a proposal wherever the ring goes and the audience went crazy. Happily, Nikki said yes, and much hugging and kissing followed. The band played a few more tunes, closing with a rollicking “La Bamba” that got even the most bored people-watcher up and dancing.
After an unexplained appearance by Senator Chuck Schumer, hot off his success getting Sonia Sotomayer appointed, the Nocturnals walked on the rose-covered stage. They started laying down a rock groove when Grace herself walked on, shaking a tambourine and dancing around the stage as she went into “Some Kind of Ride.”
The woman is a phenomenon of nature, a tiny thing possessing a huge soul voice. She belts each tune effortlessly, never seeming like she needs to breathe or slow down. Whether channeling a spiritual-with-sin sound on “Big White Gate” or a sassy you-know-you-want-it swagger on “I’ve Got the Medicine,” her gospel-blues confidence proved irresistible. Each song seemed bolder than the last, each verse brasher. Even when she played the B3 organ she seemed a fountain of channeled energy, rising to her feet to pound the keys all the harder whenever she wasn’t singing.
The band behind Potter kept up remarkably. If they ever lose her, a “The Nocturnals” show would be well worth seeing by itself. Both tight and loose at the same time, the four people behind her were having a blast but playing like true professionals. Scott Tournet’s frequent guitar solos on songs like “Stop the Bus” always had a purpose, raging up and down the notes without ever seeming self-congratulatory or meandering. The drummer’s rough-and-ready rhythms recalled a more disciplined Keith Moon and all backed Grace up with ragged background harmonies that never got too pretty to lose the edge. Their interaction with Potter showed their five years together, stopping and starting as she sang to emphasize her pipes instead of trying to compete with them. No one could overshadow Grace, so this band propels their own brand of funky roots-rock that Grace can wail over.
No crowd could resist this energy. Young and old alike danced into aisles, clapping and waving along like they just got saved at an old-time revival. Anyone who would call this a jam band has never heard the music. Call it soul, call it blues, call it rock and roll, just don’t call it “jam.” Jam bands get teenage hippies twirling ribbons, the Nocturnals get all ages jumping and hollering.
This was nothing compared to the reaction to “Sweet Hands.” Potter started the tune on organ, forgoing the a cappella intro that often precedes the song. Her bluesy riffing was matched by the churning band as the gospel-soul number built and built to a frenzy of noise. Just at the volume climax the dam finally burst as every member abandoned their instruments to gather around the drum kit and just start pounding away on a shockingly coordinated five-part rhythm. After an hour leading up to this moment the crowd exploded while Potter returned to her organ and finished the song so loudly she probably didn’t need the mic to fill the amphitheater.
Nothing could match that, so for their encore the band went for a more low-key approach with a soulful cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” If no one had thought to compare Potter to Grace Slick, it now became obvious, Potter’s voice being a perfect fit for the psychedelic “Go ask Alice” builds. This was only the icing on the cake though, the cigarette after the sex, a familiar way to wind the crowd back down from the dangerous levels of ecstasy they had reached before sending us back out onto the Brooklyn streets.
Some Kind of Ride
Big White Gate
I've Got the Medicine That Everybody Wants
Stop the Bus
If I Was From Paris
White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane)