Grace Potter & the Nocturnals Light Up the Night.

Grace Potter knows what Pittsburghers want, and she’s determined to give it to them. On the morning of her and the Nocturnals’ performance at Stage AE, the 29-year-old songstress tweeted, “Pittsburg!!! [sic] Good to be back my friends. Whadda yinz wanna hear tonight?”

Creating “all-request” set lists is one of the band’s trademarks, as is its practice of engaging fans via social media. Potter has recently started posting video footage she takes from the stage on Twitter and Facebook. Her penchant for delivering exactly what her fans ask for, combined with her superior showmanship —She’s gained some attention for her tendency to ditch her high heels and leap barefoot around on stage—and her impressive musical talent are turning her into a powerhouse rock star.

The crowd at Stage AE was small and relatively unenthusiastic for most of the opening set by The Jag, who did their best to heat things up by shaking their shaggy hair to Led Zeppelin covers and howling over acid rock originals. “Come on guys,” implored lead singer Aaron Tyler King, “We traveled a very long way to see you clap!” After Jag finished unsuccessfully urging the audience to get down, late 70’s disco hits played for a full 30 minutes while the multi-generational crowd grew, kept the bar busy, and danced.

The lights finally dimmed and the crowd cheered as Grace Potter and the Nocturnals sauntered onstage to the tune of the 20th Century Fox theme song, which fittingly let the audience know that it was in for a big show. Gold lights flickered around Potter, who wore black leather pants, a massive gold necklace, and her signature Flying V electric guitar. Her golden hair swung with impressive force while she ground out 70’s rock riffs  on the Flying V and warmly greeted the crowd. After opening with a hard rock rendition of “Stop the Bus,” the band smoothly transitioned into a slightly more alt-country style with “Never Go Back,” a favored single from the 2012’s The Lion the Beast the Beat. Guitarists Benny Yurco and Scott Tournet chimed in with smooth vocal harmonies. And when Potter put her hands over her head and instructed everyone to clap, the house obliged.

The band followed “Never Go Back” with the 2007 single “Ah, Mary,” during which Potter ditched her guitar to bang on the organ. On this soulful track, Potter showed off her vocal range by traveling from low, sweet notes to soaringly high ones, singing from behind a curtain of disheveled hair. She isn’t alone in her love of showmanship. When the song ended, drumsticks flew high into the air and the crowd cheered.

“Goodbye Kiss” opened with heavy bass and an unexpected reggae beat that found the audience bouncing and sloshing their beers. Tournet traded his electric guitar for a harmonica, and during his solos, the lights dimmed as he rocked out like a true blues man in a hazy spotlight. At the song’s close, strings of big, old-fashioned carnival lights glowed into focus behind the band, and Potter’s country twang found the spotlight, inspiring the audience to sing along to the 2007 single “Apologies.” After each song, band members tossed their guitar picks into the crowd where they were excitedly snatched up.

In one of the evening’s highlights, drummer Matt Burr slung a snare drum over his shoulders, Yurco and Michael Libramento donned acoustic guitars, Tournet reclaimed his harmonica, and Potter took up the tambourine for an intimate, foot-stomping rendition of the blues classic “Mystery Train.” The whole band gathered in a semi-circle under a single spotlight while Potter engaged the crowd in a call and response of “ooh oohs” that sounded like a soulful train whistle. Potter’s voice escalated from sweet and smooth to a raspy scream before circling back to the soulful refrain.

Potter channeled an angrier, sassier Carrie Underwood with the twangy breakup song “Keepsake” before stepping behind her keyboard to play the opening chords of the band’s 2012 breakout single “Stars.” The stage dimmed as starry blue and gold lights moved dreamily across the ceiling. Potter’s high notes on the heart-achy chorus are even more moving live than on the album. The crowd seemed to be collectively holding its breath, and the room stayed quiet for the duration of the song.

The band cranked the energy level right back up with “Time Keeper,” which transitioned smoothly into “The Divide,” and then unexpectedly into a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Potter donned a long, flowy black sheath, leaping and twirling around on stage like a witchy 60’s waif until she slipped and fell, taking her mike stand with her. But she jumped right up, laughing and dancing like nothing happened while a stagehand crept from the shadows to reassemble her stand. Ever the showman, she smoothly acknowledged the fall when the song ended: “Well, that was embarrassing. I totally just ate shit on stage! I wish I could fall down Beyoncé style, down a flight of gold stairs or something. God, that was so not graceful.” The crowd shouted affirmations that Grace’s fall was indeed graceful, and she ended the exchange with “Well, I think after that we need some honky tonk music. I should probably hide, but I want to dance. Do you want to dance?” The crowd did dance, right along with Potter and the rest of the band, to the honky tonk sounds of “Sweet Hands,” which transitioned seamlessly into a super funky cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Very Superstitious.” they ended the set with the 2010 single “Medicine,” a rock ballad that had Potter back to swinging her hair and vaulting across the stage with dizzying force. By the end of the song, the whole band stood gathered around the drum set banging away in a rhythmic cacophony of bass, symbols, snares, and wood blocks.

Once the band members moved back to their guitars and the jam session was restored, the spotlights swung toward the crowd and Potter took out her cell phone. The roar from the room was punctuated with excited shrieks, and hands everywhere leapt in a frantic, collective wave as Potter panned the room with her phone, taking a video of the crowd.

The band didn’t waste much time before resuming the stage for its encore, which included the title track “The Lion the Beast the Beat,” a rowdy call and response version of the 2012 single “Paris (Ooh La La),” and a solo performance of the soulful gospel tune “Nothing but the Water.” The band rejoined Potter for a big, funky reprise of that song, and Potter pranced around the stage, somehow still endlessly energetic as she introduced each band member. One by one, the musicians put down their instruments as Potter led the crowd in clapping and singing along to the chorus of “Nothing but the Water.” The band marched off stage in time to the beat, tossing its the final round of guitar picks and leaving the crowd singing the song without them.

There’s no question that Potter is talented. She’s also an impressive self-marketing machine. Her irresistible invitations to participate in her musical experiences, whether through social media or her infectious stage energy, make her fans feel like they’re part of something big. She might be misspelling Pittsburgh, straddling a few too many genres, and falling on her face on stage, but Grace Potter is so utterly charming that as long as we feel that she’s got us by the hand, we’re excited to be along for the journey. Her brief video of last night’s crowd can be seen on Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ Facebook and Twitter pages.



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Rick Handler

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