Grace Potter & The Nocturnals make working a crowd look so easy it's almost disturbing, but you're not likely to hear any complaints.
At the Barrymore Theatre Wednesday night, Potter, who may be one of the most exciting voices in rock 'n' roll today, opened with "Turntable" off the band's newest album, The Lion the Beast the Beat, presumably to let the audience know that they'd be her toys for the evening. She'd be grabbing them by the collective shirt collar and pulling them off the ground, not letting them go until she and the Nocturnals linked arms for a final bow after a set that left the packed house dripping with sweat and screaming hoarsely for more.
For many of us who wish we'd been born during the Janis Joplin era, Potter seems the next best thing: a wailing, wild beast onstage, a woman whose voice seems unlimited in its power but who knows just when to use it, screaming like Little Richard here, pulling back there, rasping old blues and bellowing sweet country. After opening with two up-tempo numbers, she sauntered to the front of the stage, arms dancing above her head as if searching the skies for the source of the music so they could pull it closer, and announced, "This is what we call a 'slow jam.' Time for us to cool off a little. But I don't think things are gonna stay cool very long." As the audience screamed its approval she eased into "Low Road," which brought to mind Tina Turner's words, "We never, never do nothing nice and easy."
On her slower numbers, Potter was heartbreaking, her old-blues wail cutting deep as she accompanied herself on piano. Music comes out of her like a demon she's constantly trying to exorcise. When she doesn't have a guitar in her hands or keyboard keys under her fingers, she's dancing wildly, arms almost always high in the air, head tilted back in rapture.
Potter presented songs from the newest album and some old favorites. As she eased into one of the highlights of the night, the slow, sexy "2:22," with aching moans, the crowd seemed to hang on her every agonized note. She seemed to feel every beat from head to toe like a lightning bolt, sometimes dancing with abandon as though a mere puppet to the music, sometimes seeming to be creating every sound on the stage at once, finally challenging guitarist Scott Tournet to a call-and-response showdown towards the end of the number.
The Nocturnals, by the way, are no slouches either, and Potter steps back frequently to enjoy their jamming. At one point, they all formed a circle of guitars, at another, a banging drum circle. I got the sense that these musicians are genuinely happy to be in each other's company.
An encore was inevitable, and the band didn't disappoint with "Nothing But the Water" and a cover of "Gimme Some Lovin." They huddled, whispering, backs to the crowd for several deliciously tense seconds, then turned to the audience as Potter announced, "We're gonna do one more, but just to chill you guys off, because you are maniacs on a Wednesday night!" She then sat down at her keyboard for "Stars," as the stage lights, which were a phenomenal, psychedelic visual aid, shooting constantly changing beams of color into the audience, flickered white starlight onto the ceiling. Potter announced early in the night that Madison makes the band feel at home, and it showed.
As they left the stage, tossing their picks to the audience, they waved goodbye as if driving away from a family gathering.