Review: Grace Potter & the Nocturnals at the TLA

Grace Potter on piano at the TLA It’s been a long time since I’ve gone to a show of any sort, let alone one at a bar.   But when I heard that Grace Potter & the Nocturnals were coming to town, I immediately mentioned to Shari that I wanted to go. I got my newly-married cousins Erin and Chas interested and they grabbed tickets even before we did. Then I got my cousins Mark & Lisa and their daughter Megan interested in going, too – next thing I knew we were 7 strong (9 after friends of Erin & Chas joined us). And it was still almost 2 months away.

Last night, it was finally time to go. We planned on meeting at Dmitri’s in Philly (one of my favorite restaurants – read my review), then heading down to South Street to get some drinks and then head into the TLA, a venerable South Street venue for all sorts of music. Well, Erin and Chas decided to forgo dinner, but the rest of us still made plans to meet.

Unfortunately, Shari ended up being on day 4 of a migraine and couldn’t make the show, which really sucked because I was looking forward to us enjoying the music and time together out being social. On the plus side, my stepson Blair decided to use her ticket and join us for a night out.


Dinner at Dmitri’s was good, as usual as Blair and I led the ordering with our normal menu: Greek Salad with Greens, BabaHummus (1/2 baba ganoush, 1/2 hummus) and our favorite – the grilled octopus. Mark and Lisa also ordered some grilled veggies, grilled scallops and a salmon dish. The salad and the Baba-hummus were delicious, as usual although for the first time I can remember they overcooked the octopus a bit. That was particularly dismaying because I had been talking up the octopus for days. However, some fried calamari we ordered more than made of for it – they were delicious!

Everyone seemed to love the salmon, although I don’t eat it. Mark, in particular, was raving about how good it was. I found the scallops to be mediocre and no one else really commented on them either, so I’m guessing they were decent if not overwhelming. Overall, however, everyone really liked the place and we hung out there for a couple of hours until it started getting crowded and we figured we should let paying guests use the table.

onto the show

The TLA (Theater of Living Arts) is one of the classic music venues in Philly, and has the added bonus of being on what was one of the most unique streets in town (that was then, now it’s more kitschy and Polo-ized). An old theater, it still has the old chandeliers hanging from the ceiling but other than that it is the quintessential band venue — lots of metal, all-ages area in front of the stage and drinking areas on the bottom and top floor. We chose to go upstairs because there was some seating. I won’t say I’m getting old, but I really enjoyed having a chair later in the night.

the Rustlanders at the TLA

We had gotten there before the doors opened at 8, and figured we would be waiting a while before the first act came on at the official 9:00 start. But we were pleasantly surprised when the Rustlanders came on stage at 8:30 and immediately launched into a great 6-song set of bluesy rock. Turns out that they are from State College (aka Penn State), which makes me like them just a little bit more. They reminded me a bit of Gov’t Mule – a little bluegrass mixed with catchy bluesy rock. They describe themselves as “Americana”, which is a pretty apt description, I guess.

Every song really went full tilt into a jam, and they were well up to the task. I wish I had a setlist, because song number 4 was awesome – very moody and it even got my hippie dancing started a little (luckily, that would stay in check the rest of the night). I think it was “Blind Faith” but whatever it was, they really did a fantastic job of getting our attention.


Cornmeal at the TLA The second opening act, Cornmeal, was a little more odd. Hailing from Chicago, they label themselves as “progressive bluegrass”, which seemed pretty apt. Taking the stage, the 5 members lined up behind an electric cello, fiddle, acoustic guitar, banjo and drums. From the start, they seemed much more bluegrass than the Rustlanders, which made sense considering their setup. But they would turn out to be much more than just bluegrass. All of the members of the band were obviously talented, but fiddler Allie Kral was simply amazing and driving the bus, as it were.

Their first two tracks fell more to the bluegrass side of things, but then they moved to a more blues tone and really caught fire. “Troubled Land” was a particularly fantastic song and as they pushed the pedal to the metal (literally – I think Kral was using a foot pedal with the fiddle, but I was hoping for a whammy bar). I love good jam bands and they gained stock in my book from those few songs they played.

the main act

After not too long a delay, the headliner came on stage – Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. They immediately jumped into “Mastermind”, one of the better tracks on This is Somewhere (although all of the songs are good). Grace was strong at the piano – her natural setting – but the rest of the band kept pace with her (and would for the rest of the night). The first song was done very well, but you could tell that there were some minor sound problems and it came across a little metallic. But they fixed the problem quickly, and by the time they jumped into “Treat Me Right”, things were going a lot better.

I went downstairs quickly to catch up with Blair and Megan, who were standing about 3 feet from Grace at the front of the stage. Their set was simple but had some amusing touches to it. A figurine of a squatting gnome taking a dump sat on one of the amps, and an Obama bobble-head had a place next to one of those owls you put on your roof to scare pigeons. Even better, drummer Matt Burr’s drumset had a stuffed “Monster” from the Muppets on it, and every time he hit the bass drum, one or both of the legs would kick out. Simple, silly but really amusing. On her piano, Grace had an battery-powerd candle to set the mood – I guess open flames are a no-no now after that Great White show. I tried to get some pictures; however, although the iPhone may be many things it is NOT a good camera phone. Oh well. So I chatted with Blair and Megan briefly, hoping that Grace would turn toward the crowd, but for the first 3 songs she steadfastly never looked out at us and I decided to head back upstairs.

Just as I got back to the group upstairs, wouldn’t you know that she turned toward the crowd for the start of “Stop the Bus”, one of my favorite Potter tunes. And they really did it justice – really amping up the volume and the heart of the music. They followed “Bus” up with two songs I didn’t recognize but really liked, especially the second one having Grace come out on guitar. But what was really fun was seeing her pull out a Flying-V guitar to rip it on “If I Was in Paris” – and she proved that she’s got licks with an axe as well as with the keys.

By this time our whole group was really getting into the show. The mood of the crowd was good, the music was jamming and they were hitting many of their better tracks, although they focused much more on her second album than any of their older stuff. She threw in a new track, “Sugar” which wasn’t bad but not as good as some of her other stuff.

Then they launched into my favorite original, “Big White Gate” and quite simply … it was awesome – completely mesmerizing as they pounded it out, added a jam and brought the house into a frenzy which continued as they moved into a cover of The Who’s “Gettin’ In Tune” which was just as good as “Gate”. The two songs together were just amazing and everyone was moving and tapping out the beat on the railing as they jammed. Sadly, the momentum was broken up as they ‘ended the show’ … only to come back out moments later for a 4-song encore that made for an exhausting finale.

“Joey” was the first track back, an angry blues song akin to the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl”. It’s a ‘fun’ song (in terms of the harmonies, not the story) but not one of my favorites. But the crowd was still responding though the response got stronger when they went into the gospel “Take Me Down to the River”, interjecting Grace’s raspy blueswoman voice into the song. Then, they finally reached back to the first album with “Nothing But the Water”, the first song that really got me interested in Grace Potter to begin with. Like an old friend, they slipped into sync and belted away at the song. Then, in the middle of the song, everyone but drummer Burr put down their instruments and and walked over to the drums. Guitarist Scott Tournet took up the main seat behind the kit, while bassist Bryan Dondero took position at the cymbals and Burr moved over to the high-hat. Grace moved to the front of the bass drum and they all started drumming away, staying with the tune but going completely drumline for it. It actually was quite interesting as I hadn’t expected a four-person drum circle on stage, particularly with only one drum set. As they finished up with the drums, they returned to “Water” but with a particularly funky twist to it which was a pleasure to hear – different from any other rendition I’ve heard of the song.

Then they ended the night with a fantastic cover of the Rolling Stones “Paint it Black”. I hadn’t heard her do this one yet but she and the band nailed it. They could have played it note for note and it would have been unique with her signature voice, but they added flavor to make it their own, and it really worked. As they were pounding through the last half of the song, the entire crowd was practically jumping with the energy of the room. Sadly, it had to come to and end all too soon.


Treat Me Right
Ain’t No Time
Stop the Bus
? Delta (found this on another live set)
If I Was In Paris*
Ah, Mary
Big White Gate
Gettin’ In Tune***
— Encore —
Take Me Down to the River
Nothing But the Water
Paint It Black****

*Grace on a flying-V! | **Unreleased track | *** orig. by The Who | **** orig. by The Rolling Stones

What a night

All in all, it was one fantastic night of music. All three bands were great, and Grace Potter was everything I had hoped she would be – although I would have loved another hour of music, including getting to hear them do their fantastic cover of “Cortez the Killer”. I would have also loved if Shari could have made it – I had to lie to her and tell her the show was decent, although since I suck at lying, she saw through that pretty quickly. Still, although I missed her I’m glad that I got to go. I got to hang out with Blair, got to see a bunch of my cousins and see some great music. I had forgotten how much I love to see live music, made better by Philly’s ban of cigarettes in bars so that I can actually walk out without wheezing from the acrid smoke.

But back to THIS show – if you have a chance to see Grace Potter live, I highlyrecommend seeing her. I’ve listened to her albums, listened to numerous bootlegs and neither can really compare to the live show. The TLA was a great place to see her, too, since it is a relatively intimate venue but anyplace that you can see the band and have a little room to move would be perfect.


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