Grace Potter aims to please. The 29-year-old Vermonter let the fans decide which songs she and her band, the Nocturnals, would play for Thursday’s show at the 9:30 Club, the first of four sold-out nights at the venue. And she spent 90-plus minutes delivering what she called an “all-request” set with a barrage of hip shakes, hair flips and closed-eye shrieks, the formula that earned her headliner status. Alas, nice as she was and hard as she worked, the show was surprisingly flat.
She banged her head on “The Lion, the Beast, the Beat” and “Stop the Bus,” both of which sounded a whole lot like the hardest Heart. “That Phone” was a kiss-off tune slightly more adult than Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” (Representative lyric: “It’s time for you to be alone / So I ain’t picking up that phone!”)
Potter often kicks off “Nothing but the Water,” her spiritualish song about getting cleansed inside and out by a river, a capella. But this arrangement began with Potter screaming over fuzzed-out chords that she banged out on an open-tuned Gibson Flying V. Her spare and distorted delivery could be a byproduct of recent studio collaborations with Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, who lives at the intersection of spare and distorted.
Potter, meanwhile, seems most comfortable in the middle of the road, as shown during “Apologies,” a breakup ballad of the sort that Bonnie Raitt might croon on a day she couldn’t channel any inner demons. It’s a fine song, highlighted by a Slash-like melodic-yet-crunchy solo by guitarist Scott Tournet, who was getting great vintage tones all night. But Potter’s package is so perfectly put together (on this night, a bare-skin-friendly ensemble of red miniskirt, boots and black lacy top from some designer’s Stevie Nicks collection), and she comes across as so happy and sweet, that it’s tough to believe all the pain conveyed in her lyrics.
For whatever reason, the audience rarely seemed engaged, and fans moved only when Potter demanded they dance or follow her lead in flailing an arm overhead. The disengagement was impossible to ignore during Potter’s attempt at the unplugged confessional “Ragged Company,” when those on the floor were talking at volumes that matched the performance.
Potter was able to conjure the party atmosphere her shows are known for during the encore, but it took a trio of can’t-miss covers (Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”) to get there. Whoever requested those songs deserves a prize.
McKenna is a freelance writer.