Squeeze me like a key lime

As I looked over the merchandise table for Vermont-based band Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (when they performed at Cain’s Ballroom Saturday night), I couldn’t help but notice a t-shirt. It was adorned by a hand making the “metal horns” symbol and the made-up word “Nocturnica”—written, of course, in Metallica’s trademark font.

The band members themselves might be fully aware of the irony there, but I’m sure it would be lost on most metalheads. As a band that plays a retro-but-timeless music that’s firmly rooted in the blues, the Nocturnals are a surprisingly versatile group (their press materials boast that they’ve been just as comfortable in the country’s various jazz, blues, jam band, and rock scenes). When they took the stage, it was hard to miss their eclectic influences—psychedelic, country, gospel, and—yes—heavy metal (guitarist Scott Tournet pulled off more than a few face-melting solos).

Really, this makes sense for a band that plays what is most simply described as a natural evolution of the blues. Those timeless workingman’s ballads are more or less directly responsible for all Western popular music (especially metal—Jimmy Page and the rest of Led Zep were bluesmen before they invented headbanging), and the Nocturnals are just a band that connects the dots—and connects them beautifully. Their bouncing spirituals, sensitive ballads, and extended acid jam sessions effortlessly captivated the almost sold-out crowd when took Cain’s second stage.

And yet, as the t-shirt indicates, this isn’t a band that takes itself overly seriously. Potter is the sort of singer that can sing lyrics like “You gotta treat me right, all the time / Squeeze me like a key lime” with a straight face—and pull it off. (This was, incidentally, one of the best moments of the evening—the band built the three-chord chorus into a ten-minute opus that finished with Potter repeatedly screaming into her microphone while she pounded out block chords on her organ.)

There was no doubt about this from the moment they took the stage and Potter told the crowd, “We’ve been watching SNL on the bus, so it could be a very silly night.” (I also noticed that the all-access passes worn by their crew featured a picture of the band member caricatured as South Park characters—if that doesn’t give you an idea of where the band is coming from, I don’t know what will.)

That’s not to say there weren’t serious moments, of course. The Nocturnals are a group with serious musical chops, and when Tournet’s guitar virtuosity combines with Potter’s soulful voice and formidable organ skills, special things happen. Potter controls the stage with an empowerment that prepackaged pop divas the world over can only dream about, possessed of an unimpeachable love for music and an occasional growl that can only be described as pure rock ‘n roll.

The band closed out their main set with “Nothing But the Water,” a ten-minute, Potter-penned gospel opus that calls to mind some of the best moments of Jefferson Airplane. The song meandered from an a cappella solo by Potter to an extended drum solo—in which all four band members played a single drum set—to a rocking, organ-driven gospel breakdown to—of all things—a choral recessional (which had the crowd singing along in harmony, of course).

After such a moving, virtuosic performance, it was a no-brainer that the crowd would demand a reprise, but the band still managed to impress, following the best performance of the night with three more songs that included “Big White Gate” (another gospel number) and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” But before closing the show, Potter told the crowd “Next time we come back, we’re gonna be in the ballroom, and you guys are gonna be here, right?”

You know it, Grace. Consider my ticket bought.

About the author:
A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Luke Harrington currently resides in Tulsa and works in the aerospace industry–but, at any given moment, would probably rather be reviewing movies and music.  In his spare time, he’s off playing blues piano, pretending to be Assistant Editor for MovieZeal.com, or reviewing the many musical events in Northeastern Oklahoma for Tulsa Today.