Grace Potter and the New Year

Where the rest of the world has New York City's epic ball drop in Times Square, Vermont has Grace Potter to ring in the new year. It's rapidly becoming an annual event, with several lead-up concerts at the Higher Ground to meet demand, and the overall event has become a highly anticipated run of concerts. I wasn't able to attend the New Year's Eve show, but I was able to attend the second concert on the 27th, with Alberta Cross opening up for the Nocturnals. All in all, I came away from the show pretty disappointed. The Nocturnals sounded great, played a number of newer songs, several covers and re-arranged songs and a bunch of old classics.

The group has been a popular one here on Carry You Away, and I've followed their rather extraordinary rise from small, local group to major-record-label one, and it's been a fun ride to watch. Their last album, This Is Somewhere, was absolutely fantastic, blending modern and classic rock, fantastic songwriting and with an incredible energy throughout their album and their live shows.

This show wasn't bad, it just wasn't what I expected, and it wasn't as good as other shows that I've seen from them. Part of this, I think, is because it was the lead-up to the really good show: New Year's Eve. With additional concerts added on, I have to imagine that the show was a bit toned down (even then, the energy was high), and that some of the really good material was saved for later.

The show that I saw, while good, was scattered. With a new album coming out later this year (from what I know, it's called Medicine), and with a new lineup, changes are to be expected, and some of the results were here - the band is certainly straying into more directions musically, which is very good, but with this concert, the group felt all over the map, from Classic Rock to Jam Band Raegge to Soul and regular rock. I'm interested to hear where they go, but the overall concert felt incoherent, poorly planned out and overall, that affected the entire evening for me. Music such as this is far more than just the musicians - it's their presentation, the quality of their music, how they play it, and how well thought out each concert is.

This leads me to two of Grace's opening acts, Alberta Cross and Josh Ritter, whom I've seen both open for the Nocturnals, and a good example of presentation. Alberta Cross, opening for Grace became a band that I'd rather not see again. I have their latest album, The Thief and the Heartbreaker, and I've liked a couple of the songs, but live, in person, the band seemed lax, sloppy at points and just not all that exciting to watch. On the other hand, when I was Josh Ritter in 2007, and recently again in 2009, they presented a far different appearance - they coordinated dress (and actually didn't go for the grungy rock star look), played a great set of music and clearly looked like they enjoyed themselves and put a bit of thought into what they were doing. This wasn't something that I got a good sense of with Alberta Cross, I'm sorry to say.

Similarly, I have to wonder if this was sort of the same deal with the Nocturnals, coupled with their rapid rise to local and national fame, and leaves me a bit worried for the future of the group. In 2009, the band's bassist Bryan Dondero left the group over creativity issues, leading the band to add on a new bass player Catherine Popper, as well as rhythm guitarist Benny Yurco- with new directions in mind. This sparked some worries that the group is going to be departing far more from what they've done before as they've become a major label band. Fortunately, the concert on the 27th, despite some of the issues that I had with it, seem to show that the group is still churning out good music, abit with a much larger variety of sound.

To be very fair, after listening to the NYE show, there were some improvements over the Saturday show - they were still a bit scattered, but sounded better, with much more energy and with a lot of good material to play. Here's to hoping that they will continue that trend in 2010.

Josh Ritter & The Low Anthem

Last week, I caught an ad in the local paper, Seven Days, and found one of the more fantastic deals for a concert that I've seen in a while: Josh Ritter and the Low Anthem at the University of Vermont: $10. And, it was the next night. Purchasing a ticket was an absolute no-brainer, and on Friday night, I went up to Burlington to see Ritter for a second time. The last show that I had seen from Josh Ritter and his band was in 2007, where he played with Vermont group Grace Potter and the Nocturnals on the Waterfront Park. It was a fantastic show, and Ritter was introduced in grand style. The Low Anthem was a band that I had yet to see, but one that I was familiar with - looking back over the archives here, I'm surprised that I haven't written about them yet. Low Anthem opened for the show, and over the course of the show, I have to wonder if it's a brilliant concoction of a bipolar producer. The group opened quietly for a couple of songs, including a great rendition of Charlie Darwin, a high, ethereal, sounding song, before launching into several other numbers that where loud and fast - Home I'll Never Be, in particular, is one song that stood out from this style. Low Anthem was good, but unpolished. Coming off of their first album, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, released earlier this year, this isn't necessarily something that was unexpected, but their sound was almost too raw, too varied, and had a very limited stage presence. I'm not sure that I saw them open their eyes on stage (that might have been the lighting though), but they seemed shy, hesitant until they began to play. While this obviously doesn't impact the sound, I've always felt that concert performances are more than just the music - it's about the entire experience and performance of the evening, music plus the band on stage. Fortunately, in this instance, Low Anthem's music, energy and drive really made their act shine over their appearance. Ritter, on the other hand, made the evening. From the start, Ritter practically jumped on stage, with a huge, boyish grin plastered on his face that didn't leave the entire time that he was on stage. This was one concert where I didn't take down a set list - I stood an enjoyed the show. The group played a wide range of songs, from some earlier albums, although mostly from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter and The Animal Years, as well as a number of new songs from next year's upcoming album. Throughout the set were a number of my personal favorites: Snow Is Gone, Wolves, Girl In The War, Good Man, Kathleen, Lillian Egypt, Rumors, Mind's Eye and a number of others. Ritter is one of the few artists that I absolutely love in person far more than I like studio recordings. When introducing his music to a friend recently, I told him to imagine the music about 10 % faster, and 90% louder, and you'll come up with an approximation to the intensity and mood of the evening. Ritter's group, all decked out in vests and ties, presented a polished, energetic and excited performance that will likely rank up on some of my favorite concert experiences. For me, Josh Ritter's performance epitomizes what rock music should be: It's fun, loud and full of wild energy by a group that seems genuinely excited and thrilled to be doing what they're doing. It's an added bonus that the group is brimming with talent - song-writing, musical expertise and sound is unmatched. If the band is coming near you anytime in the next couple of years, do yourself a favor and check them out.

Brian Stowell has a fantastic set of photographs from the current, ongoing tour - I highly recommend checking them out!
Wolves - Josh Ritter Lillian, Egypt - Josh Ritter The Curse - Josh Ritter Orbital - Josh Ritter Right Moves - Josh Ritter Snow Is Gone - Josh Ritter