Solo debut brings Grace Potter back to Aspen for two nights at Belly Up
If You Go …
Who: Grace Potter
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday, Feb. 5 & Saturday, Feb. 6, 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: Sold out
More info: http://www.bellyupaspen.com
W e’ve gotten to know Grace Potter and her showstopping performances well over the years in Aspen. She’s played Belly Up regularly. She did a Skico Hi-Fi Concert outside in Snowmass. She gave an epic rain-drenched performance at Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day in 2013 and returned the following year, saving the day after a last-minute headliner cancellation from Fun.
When she got the call to fill in at Labor Day in 2014, Potter was in Los Angeles working on “Midnight,” her first album without longtime backing band the Nocturnals. Released last summer, the record has a slicker pop sheen and more personal touch than previous records. Her “Midnight” tour brings Potter back to Belly Up for a two-night run today and Saturday.
Most fans met Potter through her energetic live shows, where she channels Janis Joplin and Tina Turner and Robert Plant in wild, crowd-pleasing fashion. She and the Nocturnals played as many as 200 gigs a year for more than a decade. So it’s unsurprising to hear that Potter spent most of her career crafting songs primarily for live shows, imagining them playing out in front of an audience.
But on “Midnight” she became a bit of a studio rat.
“Up until this record, I always wrote with the show in mind because it is the backbone of the band,” Potter, 32, said from a tour break in Los Angeles. “It’s the thing that defines us and that makes us who we are. So when you have your identity tied up in the live show, the record is just about trying to mimic it and create some sense of the visceral energy of the show. With this, I just peeled away those parameters.”
Rather than creating a launchpad for great shows, on “Midnight” Potter wanted to craft a great record — something that people might play again and again, in the way she’s repeatedly listened to Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday albums. She’s proud of her reputation for soaring stage shows, but sought a new challenge in the recording process.
“I didn’t want to set those kind of boundaries for myself on this one, even though I wasn’t that comfortable in the studio initially and there are parts of the recording process that feel like brain surgery as opposed to finger painting,” she said. “I always liken the show to art class and the studio experience to math and science.”
Similarly, after making four albums with the Nocturnals and playing with them since 2002, Potter felt she might be growing too cozy in the routine of recording and touring with them. This led her to make her first proper solo album.
“Like anything, you get comfortable in what you do,” she said. “It becomes a nice pair of weathered jeans — you know what to expect and you feel comfortable in that clothing. So at a certain point, you need to know what it feels like to be uncomfortable again to see what kind of an artist you are.”
She’s reached out to a coterie of new collaborators to help push her creative limits in recent years, from Noelle Skaggs (Fitz & the Tantrums) to Wayne Coyne (The Flaming Lips) to Nick Oliveri (Queens of the Stone Age).
“It’s about kindling each other’s creative spirits,” she said of the collaborations. “So a lot of it is experimenting and, really, you never know until you try. And it doesn’t always work. But you would hope that the collective sound leads to something really rewarding.”
Potter is touring with a seven-piece band, including some former Nocturnals members and some fresh faces in a collective that she’s calling the Magical Midnight Road Show. It includes keyboardist Eliza Hardy Jones, who also opens the Aspen shows.
“It’s very dramatic,” Potter said of the band. “It’s a bigger sound than what many people are expecting and that’s because it’s a bigger band.”
Despite the changes, fans can expect the same burn-down-the-house approach this weekend that they’ve come to expect. Potter writes a set list but tends to abandon it about halfway into her shows — calling out songs on the fly for the band and choosing what she’ll play based on the crowd’s energy, throwing in the odd cover song or two, dancing and gabbing.
“The live show is never going to change, because it’s me — I’m me — and that’s what you get whether you tag the Nocturnals name on it or not,” she said with a laugh. “I’m a f—ing Tasmanian devil.”
The new record is full of dance rock and anthems that showcase Potter’s powerhouse voice, but also more personal songwriting than we’ve come to expect from her. There are songs about love and loneliness and fear. And there’s “Look What We’ve Become,” an autobiographical track about the naysayers she and the Nocturnals faced in the music industry.
“You’re seeing someone who is feeling very exposed,” she said. “And in that vulnerability and openness has revealed things about myself to fans that they’ve always want to see from me. And I didn’t know that. There’s a lot more raw emotion. I’m feeling more comfortable sharing my true feelings and breaking down the sort of Sasha Fierce wall. I’m not in character. This is really me.”
The singer grew up in Vermont ski country, so her connection to Aspen is natural. Potter said she made sure she got in some Aspen time on the “Midnight” tour as her bookers were planning its route.
“They were asking me what are we going to do, plotting the direction of the tour? And I said, ‘At least two days in Aspen. It’s imperative. It’s for my soul as much as for the tour.’”
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