By Mike Greenblatt
Two headlining nights at The Beacon Theater in New York City means something: Little Gracie Potter from Vermont has arrived. As lead singer/songwriter in Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, she’s rockin’ and rollin’ these days with the best of ’em. The girl could be a country superstar if she wanted. She could take her cue from Delaney & Bonnie and be a soul-shaking Bonnie Bramlett if she wanted. With her looks, her personality, her energetic pizzazz, Potter could be whatever she wanted. But, as Little Richard says, “The girl can’t help it … she’s got a lot of what they call the most.”
Oh yeah, and she just wants to rock.
Potter’s cross-generational appeal has catapulted her upward ever since her 2004 “Original Soul” album. “Nothing But The Water” (2005), “This Is Somewhere” (2007), “Grace Potter & The Nocturnals” (2010) and “The Lion The Beast The Beat” (2012) are all solid. Her appearance at Farm Aid 2012 in Pennsylvania was positively electrifying. Her one song (“I Shall Be Released”) at the Levon Helm Tribute Concert in New Jersey just days later put such a spell on the house that you could hear the proverbial pin drop.
Goldmine: I was at Farm Aid, and you blew me away. Hey, as a 61-year-old ex-hippie, I’ve almost given up trying to find new rock and roll bands to love. As a result, I’ve drifted into other genres and fall back on my rock and roll favorites. But, man, I couldn’t take my eyes off you!
Grace Potter: Hah! I love it! Thank you so much; that is so sweet to hear. I have these conversations with folks all the time who say they gave up on rock and roll. And I’ve heard this statement, this idea, and it’s true, that rock and roll is not what it used to be. It’s changed, whether it’s the introduction of electronic synthesizers within pop music or the sort of formulaic song writing that seems to have taken over not just the Top 40 chart but people’s mentality.
GM: Plus, the good newer bands just try to ape the great bands of yesteryear, anyway.
GP: I know! But, there is a complete underbelly of rock and roll revolution that you just have to peel under the surface a little to find.
GM: When I first saw you, I could only liken it to when I first saw Pat Benatar or Cheap Trick or The Black Crowes. It’s that shock of recognition I hadn’t experienced since I was a kid discovering dozens of bands.
GP: The problem I have is I can’t decide what I want to be! I want to be like Trent Reznor and go f**king apesh*t on a movie soundtrack. Me and the guys in my band, we all love change. We love challenging each other to bring out our best, so that means different music, different genres. But, yeah, at the core of it, it always comes back to rock and roll for me. It just has to. Why wouldn’t it? It’s not a dead art. It’s still alive and well.
GM: How have you and your band changed?
GP: People bemoaned the fact I made our presentation a little more dramatic. I kind of went Bowie there for a while, wearing crazy outfits and glitter all over my face. It happened when we were in the limelight, so people said they didn’t like me anymore. I don’t read the articles or blogs. I don’t buy into Internet fodder. I think it’s weak for any musician to do so. But I had folks coming right up to me and saying, “What happened to you? You’re not the same girl we used to love.” Hey, if someone’s got the balls to come up to me and say it? F**k yeah, dude, I’ll hear it. I’m listening. And that’s the challenge.
GM: You’re sexier now.
GP: But it’s trying to find a command over my own sexuality and personality in the public eye. I started to understand it a couple of years ago. The truth is, I’m not really the person who everyone perceives when they see me onstage. I had to accept that, and it took a little while for me to figure that out, but now I know, and it’s good to know.
GM: You flaunt your sexuality onstage, and because rock and roll and sex are so intertwined, it works! But your song at the Levon Helm tribute was so spiritual, so artistic and moving, it belied your entire public persona. And that’s what made it such a standout performance. You sat at that keyboard with your head down, playing and singing the most beautiful and gut-wrenching rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” I’ve ever heard in my life. What were your thoughts? What was in your head just prior to your performance, during the performance and then just after the performance?
GP: Aah, great question! Man, I was pretty overcome even just being there all day, seeing Amy [Helm], seeing all the gang from the Ramble, reconnecting with all my friends. The energy backstage was stunning. The universal feeling was that Levon would have been so pleased with all of this. People just came out of the woodwork, and everybody was reminiscing. The truth is that right there was the accomplishment – before the music even started. Just the presence of the folks who showed up. It was already feeling very “Last Waltz”-y, y’know? And then to watch the performances begin to unfold, to see people, one by one, come back from their performance, all of us were pretty humbled. That was the word I kept hearing from some of the biggest stars in the world who I’ve looked up to for years. Joe Walsh and Roger Waters coming backstage and going, “Man, do you think I did it right?” That, right there, is a testament to the fact that everybody just wanted to do right by Levon. We wanted to make him proud.
But in my mind? “I hope I’m not going to come in and put everyone to sleep now,” is what I was thinking prior, because it was a pretty up tempo show until that point. But I was the one who had to take it down, and I was scared. Then I was out of my body … floating on air. The second I sat down at the piano, I stopped thinking about who was watching, what anybody was thinking, I was in a trance. And I only broke out of the trance as I walked offstage. That’s when I saw John Mayer, Jim James [My Morning Jacket] and Jakob Dylan. I thought, “Oh sh*t, those guys saw what I just did?” To me, to have that much solidarity, those three guys, who I love, standing there with their mouths agape, was not what I was expecting. Then it hit me. Maybe I did good.
GM: I noticed the first half of the song, vocally, you were reverential, then, about half-way through, you started playing with the melody line.
GP: You don’t want to freak people out and butcher it at the beginning. But once they get cozy with the melody, the second people think they can start singing along, is when I want to change it up. That’s just my nature. But I certainly didn’t want to come in hot. I respect the composition too much for that. At sound check, I tried four different versions of the song.
GM: You got a little emotional at the end.
GP: I was completely unwound and crying, yeah. That’s because I happened to look over at my drummer [boyfriend] Mattie [Burr], who first introduced me to Levon. I mean, he’s the reason the band even started! Mattie found me playing in a coffeehouse and convinced me to start the band. He wasn’t even a drummer. He learned for me! He took me to his apartment and showed me “The Last Waltz.” I had never seen it. And that’s where the whole journey began. I swear I wasn’t going to cry that night until I looked over at him, and he had his head down, and I’m like, “Omigod, he’s totally losing it.” And that’s when I lost it, too. It was a very intense moment.
GM: Later that night, I saw you come out front and stand there grooving to My Morning Jacket.
GP: They’re my dear friends. I’m so proud of them for backing Roger Waters, because that was such a big moment for them. They’ve loved Pink Floyd forever. So it was a milestone in their career.
GM: So here you are, playing two nights at the Beacon, and you’re a flat-out rock star. When along the way did you realize that, “Oh wow, this might actually work! I’m going to really do something with this band!”
GP: I think there were a few of those milestone moments where we’ve gone, “Oh sh*t, we’re really doing this! This is our real life … no joke …no dream … no déjà vu of another person’s life. This is real!” The truth is, though, we always thought this was going to work, even when we were playing at a bar in front of 15 people somewhere in West Virginia in our van with no gas in the tank and no money to buy food that night. We never once questioned it. We all knew it would happen. It was happening even before it happened, y’know what I mean? I felt the divine necessity for a band like ours in the world, and I do truly believe that. I mean, I’ve said this, and it’s so naïve and I know it, it’s clichéd, but I don’t care. Rock and roll will go ever on. I feel another beginning. I absolutely believe in this. There’s a long way to go, and there’s a lot of music to be made. It’s only getting better and richer with the new modern influences coming into play. It doesn’t have to all be throwback nostalgia anymore. It can be a lot of things to a lot of people. A lot of new melodies and a lot of new tones, sounds and ideas are blossoming. And that’s what modern music is, that’s what pop music is. But the power of rock and roll is stronger than any one era. And I think it’s going to come back in a major way. That’s always been the driving force behind us, behind our success and our failures, is the fact that we just won’t let go of rock ’n’ roll. GM