Why the world still has yet to catch on to what they’ve been missing all these years in Nikka Costa is a mystery to me, and frankly has been for more than a decade now. That said, though I wish her all the success in the world, I don’t really mind that she has a small-but-dedicated cult following rather than fans to fill arenas, because it allows me opportunities to see her in small venues like the Roxy in LA, the Independent here in SF, and this past weekend, the absolutely tiny Red Devil Lounge. Better still, I’m finally learning that if Ms. Costa is going to have an opening act, it’ll likely be a musician or band she’s chosen herself, as was the case with last night’s opener, Terraplane Sun.
Ducking in out of the Sunday night rain, it was easy to see right away that I’d made the right choice in opting to skip the Saturday night show in hopes of a quieter crowd. I say this because while I’m sure Saturday was a rockin’ good time, it seemed that the people who’d come out in the rain on (as Nikka would later put it) “a school night” were those who are the very most dedicated, hardcore fans – like me. I hadn’t seen Nikka since she toured in support of her album Pebble to a Pearl more than three years ago, and as always I was dubious about sitting through an opener’s set.
Happily, though, it didn’t take long for Terraplane Sun to win me over. Even before frontman Ben took to the microphone, a sticky, Delta blues backbeat was impressing me. The first song was full of tambourine and mandolin, which were exchanged for guitars in the second. All through their set, the keyboard player switched instruments: from keys to trombone to steel guitar. My favorite song of their set was either “Friends,” which we were told was yet-to-be-recorded, but will be on their next EP, or a wonderful cover of “Funnel of Love” with a great Latin vibe to it. In addition to the impressive array of instrumental skills (bass, drum, aforementioned multi-talented key player, the lead singer played guitar, tambourine, and the harmonica; the lead guitarist also played the mandolin) was a solid lead vocal and some nice harmony throughout the set. Another highlight: a great cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Overall, this band killed their opening spot, and I can’t wait to see the world’s reaction to the neo-Southern-rock by way of Venice Beach that is Terraplane Sun.
Before long, Nikka’s band filed onto the itty-bitty stage, and soon after she followed to much applause. Every time I see her, I’m reminded of just how diminutive she is, especially because I know what a powerhouse voice she possesses. Even in heels, she couldn’t have been much taller than 5’2″, but her voice is more than enough to fill the entire Red Devil Lounge. She started with the title track from her most recent EP, Pro*Whoa! and then welcomed us to the evening, saying that San Francisco “never disappoints.” Her next song was one I’d never heard (perhaps a cover?) called “Hurricane,” and was followed by “Nylons in a Rip,” and then “Can’tneverdidnothin’,” which featured an impressive trombone solo from band member Elizabeth Lee. After “So Have I for You,” Nikka paused to address those in the front who were filming her, asking us to “do me a kindness” and “edit that shit!” Her biggest concern? Cameltoe, she admitted, but from the angle of the floor to the stage, she also worried about having “800 chins.” I couldn’t help but laugh, appreciating her candor. She’s a beautiful woman, and I couldn’t imagine any of this being an issue – it certainly isn’t apparent in any of my own shots.
Up next was “Head First,” and then the older “Tug of War,” which was a treat (especially because Elizabeth’s trombone performance prompted me to take the note “bad ass bitch on trombone”). Chatty Nikka then stopped again to talk to the crowd, explaining that she always visits Haight Ashbury when she’s in town, though partly because the Wasteland is so great there. She also said she liked the food, and the “colorful people.” When she asked the floor how many first-timers were in attendance, a modest cheer rose up. But when “how many have seen you before?!” was shouted back, the room positively erupted. She appreciated the love, and was then promptly interrupted by the band, ready to start the next song. She turned around to give the drummer the most loving “what the fuck?” expression, and continued on with the conversation, asking how many of us have ever seen her “box.” It’s her YouTube channel, “you perverts – not my actual vagina!” After a water break and a little more “getting to know you,” she declared “NOW I’m ready” and launched into “Keep Wanting More.”
During “Keep Pushing,” the band stopped to break it down. Nikka explained, “if you come to a show, you’re in the band.” She wanted the crowd to sing, and to “get loud – like me!” She said we should be proud to have a “big ass mouth,” and if you happen to also have an ass, “be proud of that shit!” (This statement was punctuated with Nikka pushing out her own booty and showing it off, swaying in a way that, really, I think only she can.) Heading back into the song, she explained that it was one about perseverance and not giving up, and then began to point to the crowd as the song rolled on, expecting us to sing when she did. The first time she tried, though, she said it “sucked ass,” and told us to try again, to really “blow the roof off this motherfucker!” The breakdown continued on this way for some time as Nikka got the girls in the crowd (who she called “bad ass bitches,” explaining that this was fully intended as a compliment) to chant “you’d be lucky, you’d be lucky… to have a bitch like me!” When we complied, she concluded with, “that’s fucking right!”
Of course, then it was the guys’ turn to chant with her. “You better show up,” she warned them. She went on to explain that if they’d come to the show with a lady who wanted to see her, that this particular woman needs a “grown man with balls. No crybabies!” When she finally asked them to chant “uh, uh” with her, she said “wow…I’m so sorry ladies!” in response to their lack of volume, but gave them another chance, which she deemed better, and finally she wrapped up the song to a happy crowd. During the next song, “Some Kind of Beautiful,” she asked if someone wanted to dance with her. At first, no one seemed to be responding to her offer, but then out of nowhere two men were climbing over us in the front (from either side) to oblige…and then two more. And I stopped counting when there were more than seven people up on that little stage with her, though she didn’t seem to mind. (She did, however, mention that she could honestly say it’d never happened like that before.) After the song, she asked the crowd to “give it up” for her dancing companions, and then said “now get the fuck off my stage!”
“Pebble to a Pearl” came next, followed by old favorite “Everybody Got Their Something,” which included another breakdown so that Nikka could introduce the fantastic members of her band. After it, she asked, “y’all want some mo’?” Someone shouted from the audience, and Nikka quickly retorted, “this ain’t yo’ band, you can’t just call out…” and then began “Can’t Please Everybody,” which included a breakdown I can only describe as ‘taking it to church.’ She explained that though she wrote the song several years ago, it’s still true and is always a nice reminder, that she wants to always reiterate: “find what you love, who you wanna love, and do it. Don’t worry about everybody else.” She warned us about all those that want to bring us down, and after a warning against what Nikka calls the “unfriend” (that person who’s toxic but that you keep around anyway for days when you want to see a movie and don’t want to go alone): “get rid of your toxic friends. Fuck them. Find people to support you, and go to the movies alone!” On that note, they finished up the song and left the stage.
After a few minutes’ break, the band filed back out from the green room for the encore, and when Nikka followed she was holding a birthday “cake” (that was actually a giant chocolate donut) for her key player’s birthday. After getting the crowd to sing him “Happy Birthday,” she played her first big hit, crowd favorite “Like a Feather,” followed by one of my personal favorites from the evening, “Happy in the Morning,” which had every last one of us on the floor dancing. It was a perfect end to a fantastic set. Of all the things I love about Nikka, one of my favorites is the way her shows make me feel. I would go every chance I had just to watch her stand in one place and sing – she’s that good. But of course she doesn’t do that. She talks to the crowd like we’re old friends. She moves her body all around the stage in a way that is mesmerizing to every single person in the room (gay, straight, male, female – it doesn’t matter. I challenge you not to be enthralled when you’re in Nikka’s presence). And perhaps best of all, she reminds you not to let anyone talk you out of pursuing your dreams, and to live unapologetically. What could be better than a great show that ends on such a note?