Show Review: Nicole Atkins, Cotton Jones, That Ghost at Cafe du Nord, 2/16/11

by Raffi Youssoufian on February 20, 2011

The beautiful Nicole Atkins and her much more beautiful hat.

Earlier that day, not knowing who Nicole Atkins was, I listened to two songs on YouTube.  On record, she has a strong, beautiful, and towering voice.  I would probably like it to Stacy Dupree, the lead singer of Eisley, every bit as pretty and powerful, but just a tad lower and a little more soulful.  It was enough for me to decide to check out the show that night.  I walked in expecting a well-defined showcase for that wonderful voice and a fairly relaxed atmosphere.  I’m not sure I received any of it,  but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

There’s always a war within a smaller venue show for an artist with a great voice.  Do you soften up everything else and let the voice shine, or do you just say forget it, and rock out?  I’ve seen both sides of the equation many times and have been disappointed by both.  Most often, I tend to side with the showcase of the voice.  When a voice is gorgeous, it almost feels  like a waste for it to be muddled by guitar, bass, and drums that are turned up too loud.  But tonight was a night for rocking, and that is, exactly what happened.

Things kicked off with a short opening set by Sonoma County’s That Ghost. This four piece band played what I would have considered to be “typical” indie rock, in the vein of Built To Spill or Modest Mouse, but they had an amazing secret weapon. Their bass player is a monster! I couldn’t find his name on the internet, but his skill is astounding! He played some pretty ferocious riffs, with a bass style that combines elements of Peter Hook, Mike Watt, and Lemmy, all under the guise of indie rock. In a few years, once the rest of the band catches up to this fellow, this band is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

Next was a set by Cotton Jones. I’ve known about this band for a number of years, but I’ve only had limited experience with actually listening to them. I feel that I’ve been missing out something seriously! Their set opened with vocalist Michael Nau singing an acoustic, bluesy number that was charming and silly. Then the rest of the band came in, and we got one of the most fascinating 70’s am radio pop throwbacks that I’ve ever heard. The crowd was amp’d, and hanging on every note. Nau knows how to work a stage, and the way his voice blended with female harmony singer Whitney McGraw was amazing. At the end of their 40 minute set, the crowd was begging for more, and I was certainly won over by them.

Nicole appeared on stage to a very anxious crowd that was ready for some action.  It almost felt as if most of the audience hadn’t seen her live before, so no one knew what to expect.  With her drummer, bassist, and guitarist, Nicole seemed perfectly comfortable on stage and in her own skin, ready to have a good time.  Already setting a fun and fast pace with the first song, she sang part of it wearing her tambourine on her head as a crown.  Flipping between guitar and the mic stand as her instrument, they plowed through a fourteen song set.  The band really seemed to happy up there playing together.  That type of attitude really reflects onto the room.  Nicole was a lot more engaging and funny than most artists on stage.  Cracking jokes, dropping a few one liners, and even a few bad puns!

The songs ranged from bluesy rock, like “You Come to Me” where Nicole started off by joking it was a Violent Femmes cover, and then started singing a VF song on top of it, to a more alt/country “Brooklyns On Fire” with a bit more of a twang, to one of her singles “Vultures”, from her newest album,  which was a  little bit more of a structured spatial alt/rock song.

I must take a moment now to compliment the guitarist.  I apologize, but I can’t seem to find her name anywhere, but she just flat rocked.   Ok, I admit she was very cute, and it’s hard not to crush on a fantastic female guitarist, but she handled her instrument with nothing but authority and grace.  Basically playing the part of three guitarists, she excelled in just about anything asked of her.  She: played slide effectively; soft picking with a great touch, handled the crunching rock with flare, I could really go on for a while, but you get the idea.  I’m sorry I don’t have as much to say about the bassist and drummer, but I did catch myself just watching the guitarist for periods of time during the songs.  Kudos!

The set had two covers, including a heartfelt version of “Monterey Honey” by Cotton Mather by herself on guitar.  Her last song during the three song encore, “Neptune City” was more a sing-a-long with the crowd.   Surprised by the amount of people singing along, Nicole flashed a few big happy smiles.

I would say a part of me was disappointed that we didn’t get to really hear Nicole’s voice at its best.  You could still hear how great her voice was, but there’s just no way you could hear all of its subtleties over the instruments.  I would imagine an acoustic show, or one a bit more constructed around her vocals would be unbelievable.  But a large part of me was a lot happier to rock out, and see everyone  rock out along with me.

All Photos By Marie Carney

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous February 21, 2011 at 6:58 pm

I first heard Nicole Atkins when she opened for The Long Blondes at 330 Ritch a few years back. Strong voice, awkward stage presence, generally sounds better on her albums. With that said, I still think she’s awesome! And it seems like hopefully she’s gotten more comfortable onstage over the years. Good review (and good photos, Marie!).


Don February 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Awful review. Do your fucking homework.


Anonymous February 23, 2011 at 5:24 am

Please explain.


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