By John Curley
The best artists are able to mine personal issues and turn them into great works of art. Nicole Atkins overcame a drinking problem and other issues in her personal life to craft the finest album of her career, “Goodnight Rhonda Lee.” (Rhonda Lee is the nickname that Atkins gave to her drinking alter ego.) Atkins, always a phenomenally talented vocalist, has shown growth in her songwriting with this album and has crafted songs that fit her powerhouse vocals so well. (Editor’s Note: “Goodnight Rhonda Lee” was reviewed in the August 2017 issue of Goldmine.) Atkins’ tour in support of the album brought her to New York City’s Mercury Lounge on Saturday night, September 9th.
The opening band, New York City’s Jeremy and The Harlequins, put on a well-received 30-minute set. They have a roots-rock sound with trebly guitars and heavy bass. Their rocked-up cover of Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” got a nice hand from the crowd.
Following a 30-minute break, Atkins took the stage with her very talented backing band. Atkins’ band on this tour includes Thayer Sarrano (keyboards), Steven Cooper (guitar), Aaron Shaifer Haiss (drums), and Owen Evans (bass). They kicked off their set with a heavy, trebly, and quite fantastic cover of Can’s “Vitamin C.”
Atkins performed 10 of the new album’s 11 tracks at the show. The first of those was the second song of the set, “Darkness Falls So Quiet,” which featured top-notch vocals by Atkins and a terrific performance by the band.
It was extremely hot in the venue during the show, as it was sold out and the crowd was packed onto the floor in front of the stage. Atkins, who was wearing glittery eye makeup that sparkled when the lights hit it, implored someone in the crowd to go to the bar, get her a Red Bull, and pass it up to the stage.
“Brokedown Luck,” another new track, featured an energetic performance by Atkins. Atkins then spoke to the crowd a bit about co-writing the song “A Little Crazy” with Chris Isaak. The performance of “A Little Crazy” that followed was stellar, featuring Atkins’ powerhouse vocals.
“Listen Up,” during which two guest vocalists joined the band, received a big hand from the crowd. “Maybe Tonight,” one of Atkins’ signature songs from her first album, featured a terrific performance by Sarrano on keyboards that really enhanced the song. “Cry Cry Cry” spotlighted Atkins’ vocal and Cooper’s guitar work. Atkins and the band gave a strong performance of “If I Could” that featured Atkins adding dreamlike vocals toward the end of the song through the Sennheiser MD411 effects microphone. The two backing vocalists returned to the stage for the excellent performance of the new album’s title track that featured fantastic work by Sarrano and Cooper.
The bluesy “I Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t)” was given a nice airing by Atkins and the band. They followed that with a killer version of “Who Killed The Moonlight?” that incorporated some of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” in the song’s mid-section. It got really heavy toward the end and Atkins again used the effects mic to give her vocals an otherworldly feel.
Atkins recently produced some songs for Tommy Stinson of The Replacements. Since Stinson happened to be in New York City, he took the stage with Atkins and gave high praise to her vocal ability. Atkins and Stinson then performed one of the songs Atkins had produced, a really nice duet called “Too Late.”
After Stinson left the stage, Atkins and the band concluded the main set with three songs from the new album. "Sleepwalking” featured a tight performance by the band. The rendition of “A Night Of Serious Drinking” was quite beautiful, a slow torch song with a soulful vocal by Atkins. “A Dream Without Pain" included terrific guitar work by Cooper and haunting vocals by Atkins through the effects mic toward the end of the song.
The encore performance of “The Way It Is” from Atkins’ first album was kind of heavy and had the two backing vocalists onstage. Atkins provided an amazing vocal. It was a fantastic way to end the show. When the song was over, Atkins asked the crowd to clear a path so that she could get from the stage to East Houston Street outside the venue to get some air. Cheers from the packed house rained down on Atkins as she made her way through the crowd, past the bar at the front of the venue, and out onto the street.
Upcoming shows by Atkins include an appearance at The Hamilton Live in Washington, DC on September 12th and two shows at the Americana Music Festival & Conference in Nashville on September 14th and 17th.
Nicole Atkins’ set list at the Mercury Lounge was as follows:
Vitamin C (cover of song by Can)
Darkness Falls So Quiet
A Little Crazy
Cry Cry Cry
If I Could
Goodnight Rhonda Lee
I Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t)
Who Killed The Moonlight? (with a bit of Miss You by the Rolling Stones)
Too Late (duet with Tommy Stinson)
A Night Of Serious Drinking
A Dream Without Pain
The Way It Is