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Grace Potter plays Snowmass

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Adrien BroomGrace Potter & the Nocturnals, led by singer Potter, front, perform a free outdoors show on Sunday, March 21, at 4 p.m. at Snowmass Base Village.
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SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Grace Potter talks like a direct punch – fast, hard, no nonsense, no room for worrying how her words might be interpreted. When she reveals the subject matter of her recent song, “Paris” – “It’s pretty clear it’s about having sex, and nothing else,” she said – it doesn’t come off as calculated or affected. It’s just Grace Potter.Early in her musical career, such an accomplishment – just being herself – wasn’t so simple. Potter had a fondness for mellow confessional songs, and figured the most natural thing to do was to emulate that style. The approach served her reasonably well. Such albums as “Nothing But the Water” and “This Is Somewhere,” which combined soul sounds, acoustic guitars, thoughtful sentiments – and just hints of unabashed rock ‘n’ roll – earned Potter and her band, the Nocturnals, acclaim as an up-and-coming act. But Potter felt as if she were leaving something of herself on the table.”I was in the Joni Mitchell ‘cry your tears out onto my keyboards’ phase. But it just wasn’t me,” recalls Potter, who plays guitar as well as piano and organ. “It took me a while to figure it out.”What Potter, now 26, has learned is that she’s a rocker, through and through. Songwriting is important. Soulfulness still counts. A social conscience is allowed to come through the lyrics; the song “Colors” is about the sense of anticipation that followed the election of Barack Obama. Even ballads are not forbidden, as long as they come in small doses. But what’s paramount in her music is the aggressive kick of rock. And the sonic element seems matched by the visual. A photo of Potter on the Belly Up stage from five years ago shows a young woman in straight hair and loose blouse – the image of the Vermont singer-songwriter. A recent publicity photo has her in curls, black materials, heels and flashing lots of leg – very rock ‘n’ roll.• •••It’s taken some time for Potter to demonstrate her newfound approach. Her last album, “This Is Somewhere,” dates back more than two and a half years. In the interim, she has replaced the bassist in her band, and also added a rhythm guitarist. She and the Nocturnals have toured plenty, including an appearance at last year’s Bonnaroo festival, where Potter and the band jammed onstage with Gov’t Mule and moe, and a stretch as the opening act for the Black Crowes.In June, Potter and her mates reintroduce themselves as a recording act. The album is titled simply “Grace Potter & the Nocturnals,” an indication that there is a rebirth going on. “I think we’ve found it,” Potter, who performs a free show with the Nocturnals on Sunday, March 21, at 4 p.m. in the Aspen Skiing Company’s Hi-Fi Concert Series at Snowmass Base Village. “It’s soulful – but it’s not soul. It’s not r&b. It’s got the attributes of my favorite singers – Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald. But with the edge of Robert Plant.””Tiny Light,” the first single from the album, actually does have its subtler facets, including an intro that is straight out of Southern blues. But toward the end, there is a thrashing, building guitar solo from Scott Tournet, coupled with some primal, unrestrained screams from Potter, the likes of which may not have been heard since Janis Joplin. Potter says that is just a hint of what the band brings to the live stage: “If you spend time at any of our concerts, you see it’s an unapologetic approach to rock ‘n’ roll.”Potter finds there has been a relative shortage of such expressions. “It makes me sad to see so little of that,” she said. “I love watching VH1, people just expressing themselves, doing something wild. I want to get back to that. It doesn’t have to be wildly original. I hate seeing people do things just for the sake of originality. There’s nothing wrong with two guitars, a Hammond B-3, bass and drums. I don’t mind that electronic factory onstage – but that’s not required.”••••Growing up in Vermont, Potter turned her back on her parents’ classic rock by tuning into the somewhat cheesier side of the ’80s: Phil Collins, the Nylons, Rod Stewart. At 11, she bonded with her father by going through his stacks of Led Zeppelin, the Who and Jethro Tull. She liked those aggressive sounds but, as a precocious kid who hung out with her teachers and wanted to project a mature image, she played music with a gentler vibe. And when she launched her career, after a couple of years at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, she still didn’t have a solid grasp on how she wanted to express herself.”I was suppressing the fact that I was a loud, obnoxious person who had a lot to say,” she said in an Aspen Times interview in 2006. “Those songs that made you want to cry – that’s not what I was. I was into that Sunday morning music, songs that make you want to go back to sleep. I didn’t think about whether it would be fun to play them live. I figured out it would be more fun to play music that you could kick around.”Listening to her early albums, Potter, who still lives with her parents in Vermont, said, “I actually hear a lot of other people’s ideas. That was my experimental phase. I love assignments, to be given a challenge and fulfill it. But at a point I realized I’m a grown-up woman and can do what I want. People want me because I’ve got a singular thing to offer. I can’t be singular when I’m listening to 13 other people’s ideas instead of my own.”Now, I’ve grown into myself more and stopped pandering to what other people wanted to do. I’ve found that core, that center that leads to myself.”The day of our conversation, Potter was in Austin, Texas, scheduled to play a concert the following afternoon at the rock hot-spot, Antones. Austin, known as the Live Music Capital of the World, was in the middle of South by Southwest, an unparalleled festival of rock. The setting – surrounded by scores and scores and more scores of bands – seems to have injected some optimism into the collective spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.”There are bands out there fulfilling my dream – Wilco, Spoon, My Morning Jacket, the Black Keys, Dr. Dog, Delta Spirit,” she said. “So there’s a revolution in the works. I just hope to be a part of it.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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