Let me get the lede out of the way right at the top: Grace Potter & The Nocturnals and The Avett Brothers are two of the hardest-working, hardest-rocking live bands you can see at any venue, any time. When they’re both on the same bill…well, that’s a show to seek out – particularly because they tend toward medium-size venues – your House of Blues, or old theaters like the Beacon in New York, the Wiltern in LA or their brethren around the country – venues where you can still get close enough to see the sweat flying off their brows.
GPN and the Avetts topped the bill on the second and final night of the Grand Point North festival, an annual event hosted by Grace Potter & Co. at Waterfront Park on the shores of lovely Lake Champlain in Burlington, VT. This is the second year of the festival, a decidedly small-scale, Vermont-flavored affair. Attendance at the two-day event runs around 6,000. I caught Day Two, which brought to the stage bands from as near as Burlington (Waylon Speed), and as far as California (Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers), Montreal (Sam Roberts Band) and New Orleans (Galactic).
The Avetts and Grace Potter & The Nocturnals are well acquainted with one another – they played Red Rocks together a year ago, and will be together down in Alabama next month – and each band seems to push the other to raise its game. The Avetts stepped onto the stage at the start of their hour-plus set with the kind of swagger that comes from mixing moonshine and weed. For those whose only exposure to the band is via album, their live shows most definitely take it up a notch. Musically, they draw from a lot of wells, and over the course of different songs can echo early Beatles, The Band, the Dead (circa Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty), all the way to something closer to the Clash (if that group had been raised in the woods of North Carolina rather than the alleys of London). If there is a signature Avett Brothers kind of song, it would be a raucous, foot-stomping rocker, and they opened their set at Grand Point North with a pair of them: “Distraction #74” and “Paranoia in B Major.” Sure, the instruments there in their hands – banjo, acoustic electric, piano, stand-up bass, cello – might lead one to think they were a country outfit (and truth be told they do have a fair amount of country sensibility, not all that different than The Band or the Dead), but in their soul they want to rock.
The Avetts’ stage shows are high energy. Brothers Scott (banjo/piano) and Seth (guitar) are in motion nearly the whole show, and bring to their performance a passion and commitment rivaling that of Bruce Springsteen. They believe unashamedly in the power of music to redeem and uplift. They are joined by Bob Crawford on bass, Jacob Edwards on drums and the irrepressible Joe Kwon on cello. A way to tell if you’re in for a good night with The Avett Brothers is if Joe Kwon is rocking out, swinging his cello around his head, playing it like a guitar, shredding his bows – as he was Saturday night in Vermont.
The Avett Brothers blazed through a 15-song set at Grand Point North, highlighted by spirited versions of “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” “Go To Sleep,” “Kick Drum Heart,” and “Live and Die,” – the last of these being the first single off of their most recent album, The Carpenter, released just last week. To be sure, this is a band that’s not afraid of the straight, unadorned ballad; “Murder In The City,” a stark homage to family and faith sung alone on stage by Scott Avett, is a popular staple of their live shows, and “February 7,” another new track off of The Carpenter, was well-received by the festival crowd. But, like Springsteen, the Avetts don’t like to go too long without getting people back up on their feet. They closed out their set with “Talk of Indolence,” a brash country-punk rocker that shifts speed about four different times and includes a refrain that may just sum up The Avett Brothers better than anything I could come up with: “Because we had to/Because I loved you/Because the damned alcohol/Because what ever at all.”
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals is a band with vintage rock and roll blood coursing through its very heart. If there are those unfamiliar with the band, or who think it’s just a glam chick band, or are under the impression that all they play are ballads of the kind featured on Grey’s Anatomy or Dawson’s Creek, I have come to pass down The Word: live on stage, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals will rock your gypsy soul.
If you need a Dead connection, look no further than Potter joining Bob Weir, Warren Haynes and others on stage at the newly reopened Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY two weeks ago for a jam that included “Jack Straw,” “Bird Song” and several other tunes. The Dead may be on the outer edge of Grace Potter’s repertoire, but GPN is a band that seems to have been created from magic pixie dust that fell off a host of the Dead’s contemporaries – the Stones, The Band, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin and other gods – and reconstituted itself decades later in the form of a young, hard-rocking band up in them there Vermont hills.
Potter & Co. came out rocking Saturday night, about an hour after the last rays of the sun disappeared over the western shore of Lake Champlain. They opened their set with a slam-bam pairing of “Medicine” and “Stop The Bus,” the latter tune featuring Potter on a signature Flying V created for her by the Gibson Guitar Co. They mixed a good half-dozen or so songs from their recently released The Lion The Beast The Beat, including “Never Go Back,” “Parachute Heart,” “Loneliest Soul” (co-written with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach), and “The Divide” (reportedly written by Potter under the trance of some magic mushrooms).
If Potter is the band’s Mick Jagger, the focal point of most of the attention on stage, then guitarist Scott Tournet is its Keith Richards, keeping GPN tethered to its rock and roll roots. The best songs the band does are the ones that let Tournet and fellow guitarist Benny Yurco stretch out and jam. “Stop The Bus” is definitely one of those songs, as is the title track from The Lion The Beast The Beat, which more than lives up to its name in live performance.
Potter brought Phish keyboardist Page McConnell on stage to help out on a cover of…wait for it, no not a Phish song, but the ZZ Top classic “Tush” (“lord take me downtown, I’m just looking for some tush”). GPN is a band that loves to do covers, and they didn’t stop with ZZ Top. Near the close of their set, they teased (if my Led Zeppelin serves me correctly) the opening guitar riff to “Over The Hills And Far Away” for a minute or two before launching into Heart’s “Crazy On You,” a song that fits this band like a glove. They followed this with “White Rabbit” (there are those mushrooms again!), a cover GPN often features in their live shows, and a version of which they recorded for the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland. The vampy rocker “Paris (Ooh La La),” a song that lets Potter strut her stuff across the stage, closed out the set, before GPN brought The Avett Brothers and some of the day’s other performers back on stage for a sing-along version of the Beatles “All You Need Is Love.”
Grand Point North (the initials are GPN, get it?) is a nice, easygoing festival, and one hopes Potter will keep it going next year and beyond. The weather cooperated for the most part, although Friday night was apparently a little on the (understatement alert) breezy side. Friday evening’s line up featured, in addition to GPN, sets from Dr. Dog, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rich Robinson and others.