VIDEO: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, "Mystery Train"
Grace Potter is going to be a star. She may be one already. After all, her band Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ major-label debut, This Is Somewhere, on Disney’s Hollywood imprint, just debuted at the top of Billboard’s “New Artist” chart. Their next Boston show, this Friday, steps them up from the Paradise to Bank of America Pavilion. And they did The Tonight Show on August 2.
“The Tonight Show was awesome. I loved seeing all the commotion that goes on behind the scenes,” Potter says by phone from the band’s home base in rural Waitsfield, Vermont. “I was surprised to see how on top of everything Jay Leno is. He even came to our soundcheck.”
Leno also visited the band in their dressing room, and that led to an amusing moment. “I had nothing on but my underwear, and I was putting lotion on my legs when he knocked and opened the door. He said, ‘Oh, I’ll come back later,’ but I didn’t think he would, so I said, ‘No, it’s okay. Stay.’ So we talked. We were the only ones in the room — our publicist and label people were outside the door — and when Jay left 15 minutes later, he said to them, ‘Well, that worked for me!’ ”
Potter laughs. She laughs often. On stage and off, she’s friendly, upbeat, a bit brassy, and a little bohemian. It’s a likable combination that — along with a big warm alto voice that sounds zipped in from the classic-rock era and an ability to write smart, catchy songs that score emotionally — adds up to success. That Potter (who also plays guitar and keyboards), lead guitarist Scott Tournett, bassist Bryan Dondero, and drummer Matt Burr are equally at home with the precise-but-heavy big-league arrangements of This Is Somewhere’s down-and-dirty jams (see their YouTube version of R&B legend Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train”) also helps. They seem to have a Three Musketeers–like friendship that’s held together through a pair of self-released discs, a rise through the local club scene, two years of ceaseless touring, and, now, the trial of making their first major-label effort.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals were sought after by a pigpile of music companies, from rock and blues indies to mega-corporations. But they were already selling more albums than most indie artists. And they wanted a label with the promotional muscle it takes to score a Leno slot and pump a debut onto Billboard’s charts right out of the box. What they brought to the table was a boxcar full of American roots and rock so big it slammed through all kinds of musical barriers, earning them a following among jam, rock, pop, and blues fans.
After signing with the Disney division, they secured a recording budget hefty enough to attain their vision of making, as Potter puts it, “an album that sounds like 1973,” using pearls like Neil Young’s Harvest and the Stones’ Exile on Main St. as touchstones. Their studio team was led by former Whiskeytown producer Mike Daly (who’s worked with Boston’s Pernice Brothers and many other song-driven Americana outfits), engineer Joe Chicarelli (who’s co-produced the Shins and recorded the White Stripes), and mixer Michael Brauer (who’s labored for Coldplay and My Morning Jacket). Daly, who was part of Whiskeytown’s songwriting triumvirate along with Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary, concentrated on lyrics and arrangements. Chicarelli aimed for great sounds. Brauer urged them on to outstanding performances.
“We were covered from all angles,” Potter jokes.
The hard part, she recounts, was working with Daly, who pushed her to whack and rewrite parts of tunes to make them more accessible. “It was frustrating for me and involved some creative heartbreak, because I really believe in everything I leave in a song when I finish it and take it to the band. But when we were finished, I understood that was part of making the album we really wanted to make from the beginning.”
On The Tonight Show, they played the protest number “Ah Mary,” which turns on a metaphor for America’s current self-destructive streak. That song and others — like “Big White Gate,” with Potter’s darkly angelic wailing and Tournett’s high, singing guitar carrying its protagonist to the grave and beyond, and the more intimate, piano-driven “Apologies,” a subtle portrait of emotional conflict — don’t just straddle pop’s past and present. They sound remarkably spare and honest despite their meticulous production and huge blasts of guitar.
Part of that is due to the album’s old-school approach to recording and mixing. Potter and her cast understood that raunch and fuzz can be tempered in the studio without sacrificing power, and that recordings then become mixable in a way that lets listeners hear the nuances of each instrument and the open sonic spaces without sacrificing spirit or energy. That’s the way such classic discs as Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On and Young’s Harvest were crafted.
The heart of the album, however, isn’t the production but the performances: Potter and the Nocturnals possess that intangible quality called “soul.” So, for all their mainstream accessibility, it’s no surprise that they’re sharing a bill at the Pavilion with openers Earl Greyhound and headliners Govt. Mule — friends from the jam scene.
“We love coming back to New England, and especially Boston,” says Potter. “Sometimes, when you’re on the road, especially playing big places, it’s easy to get all rocked up and feel like you’re from Texas or something. But it took us a long time to build a following in Boston, and now we feel like a home-town band there. It’s centering.”
GRACE POTTER AND THE NOCTURNALS + GOV’T MULE + EARL GREYHOUND | Bank of America Pavilion, Northern Avenue, Boston | September 7 | 617.931.2000