Grace Potter is two hours into her summer tour and she’s already laughing. The woman who throws herself at a Hammond B-3 organ with a force that can only be described as feral retains her cheerful sense of rock and roll social awareness.
“Yeah, we’ve got a new vehicle,” she reports. “A sprint-er.”
It is a firecracker in her mouth, pronounced in a way to maximize the irony. But there is nothing ironic about Potter and the Nocturnals’ decision to jettison the standard tour bus for their mix of festivals, Dave Matthews dates and headlining shows, the latter bringing the band to Outerland on July 2.
“The engine’s by Mercedes, but it’s sold through Dodge. It runs on diesel and it gets great mileage. It just makes so much more sense than taking a bus out — both for what it costs and the carbon footprint,” she says.
Ms. Potter may be the closest thing to a genuine sexual firebrand on today’s realm of rock music: a woman who understands the horizontal hold as much as the hard core vertical of a locked-in downstroke on the flying V guitar she straps on to come down front, but she’s also deeply aware of the world around her.
With the almost weightless Apologies, from the band’s critically-heralded This Is Somewhere, arriving at radio now, it’s easy to take Ms. Potter’s intricate rock songs at face value. Certainly there are people who have yet to figure out that Ah, Mary, the first single, is a startling portrait of a fickle, spoiled girl that is actually an allegory for America’s place in the world.
“Well, if that’s what people get. . .” she allows as the miles fall beneath their tires. “But what I think is crazy is that every single from this record has had something to do with war, as well as something to do with love. You know, everyone’s suffering their own little crisis, and it’s pretty much the same conflicts internally as the issues coming from this war.”
Apology is a somewhat unlikely single. Never intended for the record — indeed, written when she was 17 — the song re-emerged during the Somewhere sessions in Los Angeles. “When I wrote this song, it was the torch of love and maybe the torture of being with the wrong person, but carrying that torch became something far more . . . The song grew into something with a lot more to say.”
With Ah Mary and Ain’t No Time already evoking an anti-war message, Apologies suddenly became a quiet ballad with a lot to say. Though Ms. Potter is necessarily one to preach, she’s not one to shy away from speaking her mind.
“Action is what people want right now; they want forward motion. After eight years of talking about what might happen . . . And it makes you wonder, what have we all become? We’re disappointed, but what are we going do about it? Write in your little blog and go to bed. That’s not going do it.
“Somehow the children and the youth of America are a little spoiled. If this were the Sixties, the young people would’ve been in the streets about the war, the environment, what’s happening with the economy.
“But instead of millions and millions of kids doing these great things, speaking their minds and saying this war is wrong, making a difference, it comes down to one man, standing up, giving us hope. But what are we going do with that hope?!”
She’s not a ranter, more a passion player. She gets just as worked up talking about the band Dr. Dog, British music magazine Mojo’s samplers’ ability to inspire writing jags, indoor plumbing at their Potterville home base, catering as community center on Dave Matthews’ tour and the state of touring for bands who have not quite broken through. It is the plight of the latter which hits the most personal.
“A lot of bands aren’t able to tour this summer,” she says sadly. “Some really good friends who were planning a huge festival summer, they just cancelled everything. They can’t afford to do it . . . and that’s bad because that’s where you build your fans. Instead, they’re going to stay home and work on their record.
“But the thing is: in this world, when you stop touring, it’s like you disappear.”
Not that there’s much chance of that with Potter and the Nocturnals. Besides DMB, they’ll be sharing stages with the Black Crowes and Government Mule, play some festivals and plenty of club and small halls. Not worried so much about being the next Fergie or Hinder, it’s about making solid music and supporting it the right way.
“I’d hope to work this record right into the ground,” concedes the woman who appeared in the final issue of Harp clad in only an American flag and beat-up combat boots, with another laugh. “There was so much critical acclaim, people were coasting on that for a while — and the record hit right as record buying really slowed.
“But this isn’t about how fast, but how solid you are. I want to write songs and play them with this band. I want to live life, too, because it’s important as a writer. I do, too; I try to live whenever possible. Get the most out of it.”
Somewhere in Northern Maine, a new string of dates beckons. Serpentine guitar parts, a serious back beat from the rhythm section made of rubber and concrete, this isn’t kids music, yet there’s such youthful freshness, it’s no wonder the Nocturnals stand out.
“To me, it’s important if you’re aiming for the stars, if you do it well, you can be proud,” she explains. “Look at Gnarls Barkley, they have the big hits and they can sleep at night. That’s the way to do it if you’re going to.”
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals play Wednesday at Outerland. Tickets are $30.