But before we arrive to Atkins' goddess-like voice and rocking band, on the Firebird stage spread the sensitive repetitions of hometown folkies Dots Not Feathers, comprised of Stephen Baier, Katy Durrwachter, Ryan Meyers and Ravi Raghuram. Enthusiastically received by the swelling crowd, their electric keys, delicate harmonies, guitar, bass, soft drums, even ukulele and banjo, all swirled us into happy receivers of their perfect pitch.
Fortunate to locate a booth in the dimly lit Firebird (almost every stool and booth were taken by the large turn out), I waited for the second band to take stage. What an unexpected, pleasing sound hit me when Cotton Jones rolled into its set. You owe it to yourself to check them out; they're amazing. Like a dish on the Food Network Show Best Thing I Ever Ate, the music from Cotton Jones hits the palate of the ear with a depth that left me drop-jawed. To hear them for the first time is to scream "Yes!" inside and then go with them on their American musical journey.
From Cumberland, Maryland, Cotton Jones is the vision of Michael Nau and Whitney McGraw, whose opposing vocals (Nau, the gruff poetic-bluesman; McGraw, the high octave, almost whispering, lovely female element) have vocal talent and passionate musicianship. As I was listening to them last night, I thought about the elements inherent within their sound and how unique it is to have those variations exist together, like the synth played by McGraw, which brings in modern aspects (a little Joy Division or New Order, but just slightly) and then is met by the barked poetry of Nau, who somehow brings it all back around to country, blues, folk, even echoes of late '60s soul. I thought of the hot-blooded vocals of Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse. Visually, McGraw presented herself on stage with oversized, trendy '80s glasses and fashionable attire while Nau and the rest of CJ arrived in sweatshirt hoodies, contributing to the sense of opposites attracting – and working.
At times earthy and twangy, the power of Cotton Jones' music entered through my chest and built a little a place for itself to live: the poetic details in the lyrics hit right in the center of my heart. "Somehow to Keep It Going" blew me away. "Once we were a rock rolling down a hill, now we are a hill trying to keep the rock still." The song burst into a hallelujah moment; if I wasn't so damn self conscious I would have raised my hands in the air to receive it like a prayer. "Come on baby," Nau sang, "let the river roll on." Nau's voice came through with emotional, throaty power; I wondered if this was what is was like to see Springsteen live in the small venues in Asbury Park before his fame.
As if the 2 opening groups of minstrels weren't enough to have my ears and heart ringing with that feeling that comes when experiencing transcendent, live music (there should be a word for that feeling: leave a comment if you have suggestions), next came the headliner from Brooklyn, NY: Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea. Originally from Neptune, NJ, Atkins cites the Shark River (technically a bay) as a major inspiration for her music. Her band is simple enough: bass, lead guitar and drums. Last night, the sound was pure rock & roll, with '60s girl-band feel to some tunes. Atkins has been aligned in the press with the Brill Building-era, and she does show songwriting range. Her covers also have range, notably "Vitamin C," by Can. I could hear that as a club hit.
What first struck me -- besides the stylishness of Ms. Atkins and her lovely bass player, and the '70s rock & roll look of her lead guitarist and drummer -- was Atkins' voice. In this age of Mc-Win a Singing Contest, it's refreshing to see a female performer with vocals that could put her on the winning end of any of these hyper-commercialized talent shows, but one who instead navigates a music career on her own terms. Just Google Atkins and you'll quickly the accolades for her 5 albums, the most recent being Mondo Amore, which she was excited to play from tonight. "And if you don't want to hear songs from the new album, we'll you're shit out of luck," she retorted to the crowd with spunk. She's been on Conan and she's a 2002 Asbury Music Awards winner. She even provided her voice for an animated film, Mars by Geoff Marslett.
Between her soulful, rockin', swayin', heartbreakin' (at times) tunes, Atkins engaged the excited crowd in a conversational, friendly manner. She told us that this was her first time in St. Louis and asked, "What's up with your restaurants being out of food by 8 p.m.?" The crowd shot back, "Mardi Gras." She smiled as if to say that was no excuse. Her song "Cry, Cry, Cry" seems most likely to hit mainstream; it's a perfect pop offering. She invited Nau and McGraw from Cotton Jones to the stage to sing back up for her on this one.
The crowd danced, and those who didn't dance soaked her sound in. I reveled in the sense of running some of her songs exuded, especially "Maybe Tonight" and "The Way It Is." Those Garden Staters always get that quality right: the musical translation of "let's get the fuck of here." Atkins handles desperation expertly.
It will be interesting to watch Atkins during these next few years to see if she does break into the mainstream. She has the makings of a pop star and seems to follow the women who paved the path before her: Joan Jett, Stevie Nicks and Ronnie Spector, especially. Perhaps as Ms. Atkins matures, she'll develop a knack for restraint; every turn of phrase does not require her soul to come out of her throat. Sometimes more can be expressed in what is held back than what is paraded forth.
But in the end, listening to Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea, as well as all of the musicians of the evening, allowed me to witness true talent, that stuff we are fortunate to come across every so often on a Saturday night in St. Louis.
Editor's note: The review originally identified "Vitamin C" as a Nicole Atkins song. It is a cover of a song by the band Can.