The hard-rocking Vermont-based band didn’t expect the opportunity to come by way of an opening slot on a coast-to-coast stadium tour with country music superstars Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, but you won’t hear them complaining.
“It’s really pretty hilarious, and it’s fascinating that Kenny invited us,” Potter exclaimed during a telephone interview with On Tap during a tour stop in Portland, Ore. “Half the time we get head scratchers in the audience and half the time we get fist pumpers.”
The confusion is understandable. The Nocturnals’ sound – a potent, organic mix of classic rock, blues and folk – is pretty far removed from the highly-polished, heavily-produced sounds of most contemporary country acts, including Chesney and McGraw. Potter said she is deeply grateful for a chance to win new fans, and relieved that no one asked her to compromise her musical vision to make it happen.
“We’re not going to pretend we’re a country band because we’re not a country band,” she said. “We just embrace the stadium and try to keep it honest for the fans. We want to give them a highly concentrated shot of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.”
The addition of Potter to the Brothers of the Sun tour, which comes to FedEx Field in Landover, MD on Aug. 12, makes sense, in a way. Last year she collaborated with Chesney – who is a fan of hers – on the smash crossover hit “You and Tequila.” The video gained heavy rotation on CMT and Potter sang the song live with Chesney at last year’s Country Music Awards.
“I didn’t know a lot about Kenny and country music, but I enjoyed that exploration,” she said. “Nashville has been unbelievably welcoming to me and the whole band.”
Since Potter’s collaboration with Chesney, the Nocturnals have released their fourth album, The Lion, the Beast and the Beat, to favorable reviews. The record, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, showcases Potter’s powerful, soulful voice while remaining rooted in the hard-charging, straight-ahead rock grooves on which the Nocturnals built their reputation. But the album also shows some willingness to experiment; a few songs are laced with electronic beats that seem almost club-ready.
“I enjoy those moments when you challenge an audience and ask them to take a journey they weren’t expecting to take,” Potter said.
Potter said she got to know Auerbach – the Black Keys’ frontman and guitar player, not to mention the reigning arbiter of “cool” in rock music – as they both played festivals around the country. Auerbach signed on to help produce the Nocturnals’ latest record after a series of backstage conversations with Potter. She said Auerbach opened up the band to a slew of new and unusual instruments, some of which found a place on her new record.
“We really went out of the box and played with so many instruments,” Potter said. “Everywhere we turned there was a new piece of gear and when you’re making a record you want to try everything once.”
While Grace Potter & the Nocturnals have earned plenty of rock-n-roll street cred by writing all of their own music and earning fans through relentless touring, one can’t help but think they could be poised for something bigger. Potter’s huge voice and tiny, glam dresses, coupled with her multi-instrumental talent and undeniable stage presence, conjures the kind of vision that record company executives dream about.
But how exactly, will they package her? Half-laughing and half-scoffing at the notion, Potter conjured up a scenario in which some major label would try to put her in a neat little box “right between Adele and Florence + the Machine.”
“There is none of that,” Potter said. “Even if somebody presented that to me and asked me to try, I’ve got to be true to what I care about the most, which is my band and writing a good song that feels good to play every night.”
That’s not to say Potter won’t grab a hold of mainstream fame and fortune if it presents itself. Potter said she “had a blast” doing the 2010 VH1 Divas show, after which new fans – many of whom were asking “who was that!?!” – crashed the band’s website. Potter, who has a degree in film, said she has also enjoyed dabbling in film and television soundtracks, which brings her music to an even broader audience.
“There is a lot of me that enjoys that (mainstream) side of it, it’s just that I don’t aspire to it,” Potter said. “I won’t sacrifice the quality and the integrity of our music in order to get there. I know that’s an easy road and I’ve actually written stupid, catchy songs that I’ve chosen not to record for that reason.”
Side-stepping pop music conventions seems to keep paying off for Potter. While most female guitar players wield acoustic or cutesy models, Potter rocks a black and white Gibson Flying V – an electric guitar often associated with 80s-era heavy metal. In July, Gibson announced it would begin manufacturing a signature Grace Potter Flying V in the musician’s honor. Potter said the low-slung guitar is perfect for her energetic stage antics.
“I love dancing onstage and I have a lot of movement – I’m not a shoegazer – and the V is built exactly the way my body is built,” she said. “It’s a muscular, sturdy guitar that stands on its own two feet, literally. There is something about the physicality of the V and it just feels good in my hands.”
Potter said she and her band, which includes her longtime boyfriend, drummer Matt Burr (sorry, guys), always look forward to playing in Washington. This summer is no different, Potter said, although she vowed to keep the after-party under control this time.
“DC is crazy, man! DC is nuts!” Potter proclaimed with a laugh. “Is there a strip club called Camelot there?”
Well, yes. As a matter of fact, there is.
“We had a night to remember there once,” Potter recalled. “There are certain places in DC I’ll try to stay away from now. I’ve learned my lesson.”
See Grace Potter & The Nocturnals perform August 12 at FedEx Field: 1600 Fedex Wy. Landover, MD; 301-276-6000; www.redskins.com. For more information on Grae Potter & The Nocturnals, and to check out clips from The Lion, The Beast, and The Beat, visit www.gracepotter.com.