If there was one evening that epitomized everything that was great about live music, and the difficulties our favourite artists face in bringing it to us, it was this evening’s show by New Jersey singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins. Tackling a tour schedule that takes her across the length and breadth of the country in just a few short days, clearly tested her bandmate’s van and she was forced to abandon ship as it sputtered to a halt near Lockerbie mere hours before she is due on stage at the wonderfully evocative St. Mary’s church in the heart of Chester.
Roman Candle Promotions really know how to pull out all the stops though. If managing to attract an artist of Nicole’s quality was not enough, they manage to bring Tom Blackwell over from Manchester at short notice to deliver yet another pitch-perfect performance of solo Americana for a handful of songs. Deciding to go electric this evening does not disguise his most potent of instruments; his voice is immense and the gravelly tones of the genre are augmented by moments of soaring intensity which demonstrates a real passion which can’t be faked, despite his admission that he was flipping burgers just a couple of hours previously. Needless to say, he slipped into character effortlessly this evening.
Tom’s impromptu slot provided the time required to get Caleb Elliot into Chester and on to the stage. The solo singer/songwriter from Muscle Shoals, Alabama provides an exquisite, slightly more subtle exploration of the Americana genre. Offering insights into his upbringing in-between songs adds colour to proceedings and despite the downbeat tone which most of the material possess, Elliot’s golden vocals saturate his vignettes. Performing the final track of the evening on the cello adds a different, sophisticated dimension to his crestfallen tales.
One tour van has been divided into two smaller cars and the band arrive in the nick of time, but still no Nicole. After Caleb Elliot departs we wait eagerly in front of the stage for signs of movement. Then all of a sudden there is a distinctive American voice somewhere towards the rear of the venue. The crowd parts allowing Nicole through and she stops in the middle of the dark venue, guitar in hand and performs an absolutely flawless unplugged version of ‘Neptune City’. After we’ve got over the initial surprise of her entry, the crowd all contribute to the lofty chorus. Our fears that she wouldn’t perform at all have been allayed in some style.
We get more from her debut album in the form of the towering ‘Maybe Tonight’ when she finally ascends the stage and this is followed by the more recent ‘Brokedown Luck’. After the subtle opener, these tracks demonstrate the vocal force of nature that is Nicole Atkins. She brings together a range of musical genres and eras effortlessly and they’re all bound together by a voice that manages to be powerful and jaw-droppingly beautiful all at the same time.
There’s a distinct ’50s groove to latest album Goodnight Rhonda Lee and this is particularly evident on the title track along with the timeless beauty of ‘A Little Crazy’ which we’re informed was written in collaboration with Chris Isaak. The easygoing stroke of ‘Sleepwalking’ follows, maintaining the golden surge of these most recent tracks but perhaps disguising more introspective themes.
The tone is enhanced by the marvellous Davey Horne on guitar who gets his own moment to shine on ‘Sentimental Horse In The Rain’ and he also contributes in some style to tracks like ‘My Baby Don’t Lie’. It was only nine months ago that Nicole played the same venue in a shorter support slot and this evening provides her with an opportunity to air even more of her most recent and cathartic record. ‘A Night of Serious Drinking’ is a smoky insight into the Asbury Park native’s personal troubles, and the darker tone is maintained with Patti Smith’s ‘Pissing in a River’ before an a capella ‘Over the Rainbow’ in the encore captivates us all.
The fraught journey to get to us may have tested her temper and a persistent mobile phone flash is clearly pissing her off but Nicole Atkins demonstrates her utter musical professionalism in Chester this evening, proving once again that she has one of the most powerful, musical voices in the industry. Chester was left enthralled!
Words & Images by Iain Fox