Hitting The Trunk Road: Grace Potter & The Glass Ceiling

At the 2006 Jammy Awards in New York City, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals were named the New Groove of the Year, a (regrettably) antiquated accolade that essentially served as the jamband version of Rookie of the Year. Despite her ostensible youth, the then 23-year-old Potter hardly seemed like a neophyte as she joined Joe Satriani, Steve Kimock, Reed Mathis, Willie Waldman and Stephen Perkins for a smoldering rendition of Neil Young’s Cortez The Killer. Fast forward to the present – where the vivacious leader of the Nocturnals serves as the focus of seductive Esquire video pictorials and merits the VH1 Storytellers treatment – and it seems an eternity since Potter & The Nocturnals were one of the jamband scene’s rising stars. While GPN have never disowned the support of the jamband scene that was quick to recognize their remarkable talent, they have wisely refused to wrap themselves snugly within the hemp-sewn hoodies and tie-dyed sundresses of their roots. Always savvier beyond their years, Ms. Potter and her band have always known the dirty little (not so) secret of the music industry: to fall within the penumbra of the jamband world places a glass ceiling on the heights of any potential success.

[Grace Potter and the Nocturnals 2012]

No matter the strength of the grass roots movement that fuels the surge of a jamband’s renown or the speed with which goodwill catalyzes, for the large majority of jambands that can objectively be deemed successful, the upper reaches of their popularity plateaus at the theater stage. Reliably filling two to three thousand person venues in major metropolises will result in a satisfying and often-profitable career. However, it’s an upper limit set off from the rest of the music industry’s Holy Grail by the virtual glass blockade. In a realistic sense, the career apex for any modern day jamband would be hosting and curating their own destination festival like moe. with their various throe-downs or Warren Haynes and his annual Mountain Jam.

Unquestionably, Phish and the Dave Matthews Band have managed to break through the transparent barrier and there’s probably a good argument to be made that My Morning Jacket’s success surpasses the expectations for a band that made their bones at Bonnaroo. Nonetheless, bands like The Disco Biscuits, String Cheese Incident and Umphrey’s McGee have likely reached the peaks of their popularity. Barring some fortuitous flirtation with the mainstream akin to the appropriation of Michael Franti’s positive vibes to sell beer that requires fruiting, the fanbases of those bands as well as those similarly situated aren’t going to spontaneously spike in numbers. Given the realities and limitations of embracing your jamband essence, can any band be faulted for exploring their other artistic impulses or seeing what the other worlds have to offer?

Hardly complacent, GPN has always strived to keep their connection with the jamband scene while gauging the temperature of the mainstream. Unsurprisingly, such moves have inspired various levels of criticism, especially as GPN’s popularity grew. Jamband fans may proclaim that they like variety but they predominantly hate change. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals are neither blind nor deaf to the grumblings of those that ruminate wistfully about the changes to their little band from Vermont. That said, they don’t seem to be willing to coddle those that don’t wish to see them evolve into a more substantial force.

[Grace Potter and the Nocturnals 2006]

The divergence from the glass ceilinged path originated with the release of their self-titled third album. In addition to changing the lineup and broadening the sound with the additions of guitarist Benny Yurco and bassist Catherine Popper, the band underwent a conscientious change of image. In place of the flannel shirts and blue jeans were glamorous mini dresses with rising hemlines (for Potter) and stylish suits for the men. All but the most subtle traces of hippiedom were expediently erased. As with any change, the backlash was inevitable. Where did our little granola-tinged rock band go? Why the emphasis on Potter’s sex appeal? Why isn’t the focus on the musicianship of the band? Who are these people at the shows that aren’t “real fans?” While valid questions to pose (well, not the last one), they were and still are myopic, self-serving and blind to the realities of the music business. It’s also the mindset that helps apply Windex to the glass ceiling.

Then, two game changers. The first occurred in December of 2010 with VH1’s airing of Divas Salute The Troops. On a show featuring Katy Perry, Paramore and Nicky Minaj, all the discussion was about the starlet in the Tina Turner dress that played the Flying V and swapped verses with Heart’s Ann Wilson. The set was truly a starmaking performance. Once the show aired, GPN’s popularity reached near ubiquity; their Web site crashed under the increased traffic and Grace Potter & The Nocturnals (the album) outsold each and every Beatles re-release on iTunes. The second tipping point took place over the summer of 2011 when Kenny Chesney’s You And Tequila, which prominently featured Potter, became a bona fide sensation winning numerous Country Music Awards, scoring a couple Grammy nominations and raising Potter’s profile within the tightknit circles of the country music world. As any fanbase does when the rest of the world comes across their early discovery, they squawked and cried sellout.

With the recent release of The Lion The Beast The Beat, their summer stadium tour with Chesney and Tim McGraw and the second iteration of their Grand Points North festival in South Burlington, Vermont, GPN is treading not-so-circumspectly into many different musical worlds. With The Lion The Beast The Beat (an album title that will make grammarians scream for commas), the band seems to be making an effort to appease the various ears that will be sampling their latest wares. Sandwiched between the epic title track that opens the album and the Kashmir-like progressions that underscore The Divide are a slew of power ballads and simplistic rockers. One’s disposition towards the album is going to be directly linked to their expectations of the band, whether they are realistic or not.

Knowing their capabilities, the digressions away from roots-rock towards fare that feels more geared towards a mainstream audience are eminently notable. For every ingenious twist like the Talking Heads style sinuousness of Never Go Back, there is an effort like Turntable that comes across as a retread of Medicine. Where past efforts had a token ballad, The Beast is full of them with One Heart Missing serving as a worthy descendant of Madonna’s Crazy For You. Anyone who became enamored with the band over the last two years will not find anything on The Beast to discourage their newfound discovery. Anyone looking for a new start-to-finish GPN rock and roll album should search out the Record Day release of their sessions from Sun Studio.

As Grace Potter & The Nocturnals matures from a band into a brand, there should be less griping and more rejoicing. Too often, a fan base mistakes their wants for those of the band they follow and in doing so conveniently ignores the evolving artistic impulses that motivate any artist as well as the harsh rigors of the music business. Perhaps someday, GPN will release the modern day Crazy Horse album that lurks within their DNA. In the meantime, failing to appreciate their present success speaks more to a purported fan’s inner failings than those of any particular band. Rather than butt their heads against the jamband glass ceiling, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals have opted to move to a realm where there isn’t such a restrictive roof.

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6 thoughts on “Hitting The Trunk Road: Grace Potter & The Glass Ceiling

  1. jgordon Reply

    Dave,

    I wholeheartedly agree with the Nocturnals move into the mainstream, Country, and Disney films. However, this is not a good album. There are a few moments in each of the songs that sounds temporarily interesting, but none of them seem to come together into good songs.

    The lyrics also seem to have suffered on this new album. To go from the beautiful storytelling of Apologies and Big White Gate to this is a huge step back. Sure recent songs like Paris, don’t have the deepest lyrics, but as Grace says, that song is about sex and it works on its own level.

    Perhaps in their effort to show they can do everything they haven’t done anything particularly well. Other than the last two bonus tracks, The Lion the Beast the Beat, feels like a race towards mediocrity.

    BTW if anyone wants to hear the Nocturnals sounding good in multiple genres, check out their iTunes session with covers of the Beatles and Madonna among others. i haven’t had the chance to catch their version of Like a Prayer live, but I really think it would kill.

  2. lsMaine Reply

    Couldn’t disagree more with the first poster about TLTBTB. I love some of the new songs and like almost all the rest. I’ve been a fan of GPN for about 5yrs and am also a fan of many bands in the jamband world, but I truly do enjoy a wide variety of music so maybe my ears are more attuned to the sound of this album. Also happen to think Stars is an excellent new companion for Apologies, Big White Gate, and Things I Never Needed (one of my favorites).
    Agree that GPN has done some amazing covers, but I’ll take songs that belong to Grace and the Nocs over any cover any day (might have to except Cortez the Killer and Mystery Train though).

  3. GAmusiclover Reply

    no longer a fan. Once you go this far into the pop mainstream its over for you and I. Good luck with the rest of your musical careers!

  4. Michael Reply

    Sorry but selling 8000 copies of your cd in week 2 is not exactly indicative of a band about to blow through some imaginary glass ceiling. People can object to her clothes, not like her musical direction or whatever they choose but this cd isn’t going anywhere as far as having significant sales or being some big hit with the masses. Its in Brandi Carlile sales territory and I mean that in a not negative way. In other words she will have an audience that will make for a decent career but the Nocturnals have ZERO chance of becoming an arena level act.

  5. The Littlest Winslow Reply

    Dave – this is perhaps the best examination and commenting on GPN that I’ve read! Why does the Jam scene have to be so harsh on them!? It’s like a gang sometimes! How dare GPN progress! The band doesn’t deserve half of the flack they get. Sure, the image thing is a bit of a bummer, but like you said, people often mistake their own wants for the wants of the band they “supposedly” love, and that’s complete BS.

    GAmusiclover, and others like you: Grace Potter is hardly a Katy Perry or other similar Pop idol. People act like she’s friggin’ Avril Lavigne sometimes.”This far into the pop mainstream”?? Really!? That’s your opinion, I guess. So some of the new cuts are radio-friendly. Who cares. The new album packs a punch – the title track, Turntable, Keepsake, and The Divide are worth the purchase alone. Needless to say, there are even fans who viewed “This is Somewhere” as too poppy. An album can be Pop and still be extremely strong.

    I think GPN is heading in the right direction, and as long as they always have Rock and Soul in their hearts, at their core, they’re going to do just fine. Better than fine, even.

  6. G Reply

    The mainstream needs to be ROCKED and Grace will help make the world a better place.

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