It’s All Hallow’s Eve and San Diego’s Gaslamp District is a bustling vortex of costumed revelry. There’s all manner of Halloween fans moving up and down the strip of bars and clubs on Fourth Street and a stranger would be hard pressed to guess it’s a Wednesday night.
Rock ‘n’ roll fans are in for an extra treat with Grace Potter & the Nocturnals playing at the House of Blues. The enchanting rock diva and her cohorts aren’t quite a jamband per se, but they have some of those influences and they’re known to intermingle with other bands in the jam scene. This makes Potter sort of a sonic bridge between pop rock and jam rock, a relatively unique place to reside. The Nocturnals will do some jamming here and there, but the focus is on Potter’s infectious vocals and the hooky tunes. But the band’s affinity for psychedelia means that extra tricks and treats are surely on tap, because Halloween is a traditional jam rock holiday where bands always take the opportunity to stretch out with some musical costumes.
Potter & the Nocturnals are touring behind her new album The Lion The Beast The Beat and it’s another good one. They said they had “cracked the code” with 2010’s eponymous LP that won the band a higher level of acclaim, and the new one follows suit with Potter shining in a variety of musical directions. Bassist Catherine Popper is no longer with the band though, which is a shame since she had helped the group pump up their live sound with her dynamic low end and improv skills. Why she left is a bit of a mystery, but the show must go on. Potter has established herself as a captivating performer, moving back and forth between electric guitar and keyboards, or sometimes just playing the front woman. There’s little she can’t do, so it’s always fun to see what she has in store.
The band doesn’t wait to get into the Halloween spirit, hitting the stage in silver space suits that recall the classic Lost in Space TV series. They open with the new album’s high energy title track and the party is in motion. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” is the first cover treat, setting the tone for a show that will shift back and forth between modern rock and classic tunes from another era. It’s been a staple of Potter’s shows since she recorded it for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland soundtrack, and it’s certainly appropriate here. Some of her younger fans probably aren’t too hip to the Airplane, so Potter performs a much needed service with her intermittent sessions on Classic Rock 101.
The psychedelia continues with what sounds like the intro to the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years From Home”, but it turns out to be just a tease leading into “Oasis”, one of Potter’s own showcase tunes. The band mixes it up with a section that seems to have an almost hip-hop flavor and it’s interesting to see Potter experimenting with her own songs. This is another part of the jam ethic that Potter brings to the mainstream, helping to deliver the needed message that a song doesn’t have to be performed the same way every night. The new “Time Keeper” then features Potter in a sultry, bluesier mood. The energy comes down a bit, but Potter continues to captivate. “Parachute Heart” is another new gem, with a shimmery Fleetwood Mac kind of sound that seems like a lost track from the mid-70s. Critics can debate whether a talented musician like Potter might drift a bit too far into the pop realm at times, but there’s no denying she’s got a diverse repertoire.
Shocking Blue’s “Venus” is the next Halloween treat with Potter taking the audience on a retro flashback that makes it feel like an Austin Powers dance party. It’s one of those tunes you would never expect, but which fits the party just right. “Mastermind” and “Stop the Bus” find the band rocking out on perennial crowd pleasers that showcase Potter’s dynamic range. The earlier Stones’ tease comes full circle with a take on “Paint It Black”, which keeps the party rocking with another great retro psychedelic selection. “The Divide” is one of the best tracks on the new album and it stands out here with slow burning verses that Potter uses as a launch pad for a soaring trip about exploring the edge. The sexy blues rock of “Paris” and “Medicine” find Potter cutting loose in full on rock goddess mode, raising the energy to conclude the set with a bang. There’s always been a shortage in rock of women who actually rock, but Potter is doing her best to rectify that in this era while mixing in a stylish flair.
A holiday show like this needs an extra bonus and the band delivers with a themed multi-song encore of more space treats. Potter’s own ethereal ballad “Stars” starts off the trip, with a longing vulnerability that she does so well. Then the tricks start with a great psychedelic jam on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that leads into a stunning rendition of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”. Potter cements herself as one of rock’s great chameleons here, seemingly able to stand in for almost anyone – Grace Slick, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Chris Cornell… is there anything she can’t sing? It’s another one of those great curve balls that the crowd eats up. Then guest Rayland Baxter joins Potter for a mesmerizing duet on Elton John’s “Rocket Man” to close it out.
It’s been a long strange trip that goes well beyond your standard rock show. And that’s just what one would expect from Grace Potter & the Nocturnals on a special occasion like this. The band is not quite jamming like they were with Popper on bass, and Potter would seem to be at a bit of a crossroads as to which direction she really wants to go in. But with talent like hers, the results should be compelling either way.