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Interview: Grace Potter’s magic


Florida Times-Union — If the name Grace Potter and the Nocturnals sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you caught the band opening for Robert Cray on Thursday night at the Florida Theatre. Or opening for Soulive a few weeks back at Freebird. Or opening for Cray last year. Or on the bill for this year’s Springing the Blues festival.

They call what the New England-based performer is doing “market saturation.” They also call it still a really good way to get people to remember your name.

• Grace Potter and the Nocturnals – Nothing But The Water (1).mp3


All of 22 with an infectious giggle, Grace is out to make herself the world’s most famous Potter since that magician kid, gig by gig.

Reached en route to a New Orleans show on what sounds like a beast of a van ride (“We’re not a tour bus band yet,” she says with a laugh), Potter lets on that it’s a big night. She even bought herself a present for the occasion: a 1957 Gibson she picked up in Austin, Texas, a day prior.

“I only pay money in towns that I like,” she said. “I’m a Gibson girl, so I went in for a vintage one. I love it. It’s a really sexy little thing.”

Potter played guitar when she started about a year ago, but she spends most of her time these days behind the Hammond organ, which, not counting a crazy good a cappella performance of Nothing But the Water, is the main thing you take away from one of the band’s shows.

“According to the guys in the band,” she laughs, “there are no chicks in the country that knew how to play it. They said, ‘Come on, it’ll set you apart from all the sad girls with pianos.’ So it’s sort of become the centerpiece of the band.”

Potter gets compared to Norah Jones, but where Jones’ supple voice tends to quietly kiss her notes, Potter goes full steam ahead with her funky blues/rock, hence slots opening for Dave Matthews, Trey Anastasio and Derek Trucks. The production speaks to that, as well – she and the guys (guitarist Scott Tournet, drummer Matthew Burr and bassist Bryan Dondero) recorded their most recent, Nothing But the Water, in a New England barn. The work is a mix of gospel and funk and rock and plenty of the blues that helped secure her place in the Springing the Blues festival this weekend.

Jacksonville enjoys a special place in Potter’s heart. It was here that her band first opened for the relentlessly touring Cray last year, a performance that, by most accounts, brought down the house.

“[The 2005 Cray concert] was one of the most big-deal shows we ever had,” she says. “We were such a baby little band, and he called us up and said, ‘Hey, here’s a random opportunity to play in front of 2,000 people.’ ”

Until that show, Potter says, the band stuck mainly around its northeastern base. They formed at St. Lawrence University in New York, when they all met regularly to do what music people do when it’s too cold: plunder whatever vinyl shops they can find and sit around and play records.

Potter was into Joni Mitchell and Patty Griffin (“Total chick music” she says), but she already knew that wasn’t her direction. When she met “the boys,” she found her heart was in something a little more rocking.

“We all got into the same sounds, late ’60s and early ’70s rock that nobody, for whatever reason, was paying attention to anymore,” Potter said.

And once the band started picking up, she quickly pulled the plug on school – “I’d always planned on not going for the full four years,” she jokes – and the band relocated to its native Vermont, where it still makes its base.

“If we’re not touring, we all kind of sit around there. And if there’s no money to buy groceries, we have my mom make us up some catfish soup.”

There’s a little more money now. The band recently signed to Hollywood Records, which will re-release a spiffed-up version of Water on May 2.

“It’s not really a big-shot deal, but it’s a great opportunity for us to open up creatively and brush off this record that was recorded two years ago to see if there’s something about it that’s worth putting out again.”

Plus, it’s a pretty great prologue to a summer that’ll include a stop on Bonnaroo and more touring. World domination is still a ways away for the muggle Potter. But at least maybe her mom can take a break from whipping up the catfish soup.

Live review: Nine Inch Nails reclaim their empire of dirt in Jacksonville

Florida Times-UnionHow much can you blame a band for its weaker, subordinate offspring? How much can you hold into account the inventor of a cliche if it was novel when he thought of it? Is it fair to blame Pearl Jam for Creed? And is it fair to blame Nine Inch Nails for the tiring parade of industrial-rock welterweights who ungraciously jammed the airwaves during the post-Downward Spiral mid-’90s? (Don’t make me come over there, Gravity Kills).

Trent Reznor certainly deserves his slice of the pie for conceiving some of industrial metal’s most inspired moments — all of Spiral, most of Pretty Hate Machine and its follow-up EP, Broken. But after Spiral in 1994, things got itchy. Following a trademark Reznorian layoff of slightly more than a presidential term, he returned with 1999’s sprawling two-discer The Fragile, an unspectacular work that occasionally slipped into unintentional comedy and left many wondering if Nine Inch Nails had peaked and would be ladling up Sin to the state fair circuit before long.

Happily, last spring’s With Teeth laid to rest those worries, and Nine Inch Nails’ 21-song tour de force Friday at the Arena finished shoveling dirt on them.

Proving that he’s lost none of his punishing power, Reznor reclaimed that industrial title while proving that, at 40, he’s still got what’s probably a medically worrisome capacity for apocalyptic but often danceable rage, delivered with the cobweb-free precision of a guy who’s newly clean and sober and knows he’s getting his belt back. Might have been the strobes, but I think I even caught a little smirk there during March of the Pigs.

Much of Reznor’s enduring appeal lies in his ability to use synapse-reprogramming industrial songs and their darkly erotic sonic underbellies to disguise insanely catchy pop hooks (Closer and Head Like A Hole chief among them). The overwrought Fragile got away from that, but With Teeth brings it back. the anti-Bush screed The Hand That Feeds bounced along on a bassline that was almost merry, and new single Only is the closest thing he’s birthed to Pretty Hate since the late-80s, a piece of bent metal with a slithery synth riff and hook you can bob to (though it also works in that album’s most aged trait, predictable lyrical mumbo-jumbo about being “less concerned about fitting into the world — your world that is.”)

But the hooks and the noise were both at full throttle all night, punctuated by a crack band as adept at handling Reznor’s often-convoluted song structures as they were rocking grotesque guitar-god poses. Nine Inch Nails paused occasionally to let mists of piano-driven melody drift into the maelstrom, particularly during a de facto intermission of the more meandering Eraser, Right Where It Belongs and Beside You In Time. But for most of the night, they left the nuance and color to the CD and used the live setting to generally throttle the soundboard.

Predictably, Pretty Hate went largely unheralded, save for Head Like A Hole, the obligatory set closer; Terrible Lie, whose blippy late ’80s effects were retrofitted for extra bang, and a small tease of The Only Time dribbled into Closer to keep the overplayed latter something approaching fresh. This was a show designed for maximum output– You Know What You Are roared, March of the Pigs blazed and the blackly sexy Reptile created a mass of sound that threatened to break out of the arena and take over entire sections of town.

Moreover, Alex Carapetis, who stepped in when original drummer Jerome Dillon was forced out off the tour for heart troubles, was a gallant knight. It’s not like Carapetis was filling in for BTO or something – Reznor had him juking and time-shifting as much as he had him thrashing to the noise, and the new guy stepped up like a pro.

One exception to the noise was Hurt, which Reznor, taking a welcome cue from Johnny Cash, performed alone at his keyboard, welcoming the crowd participation and letting their contributions wash over him — “If I could start again a million miles away, I would keep myself,” he and everyone in the house sang. If the rest of the night was a industrial catharsis for them; one got the sense,that hearing their responses was an equally potent catharsis for him.

Stoner-rockers Queens of the Stone Age made some fans of their own in an inspired, workmanlike opening set that gained steam with every passing minute. Frontman and potential Craig Kilborn stunt double Josh Homme drove his four-piece through new-era psychedelia that touched on thunderous ’70s rock, trippy-but-efficient jammy detours and some hooks of his own (Little Sister, No One Knows).


Interview: Atmosphere’s Slug steps outside himself

Billboard — Six albums into a career that has mobilized and polarized the indie rap underground, the Minneapolis rapper Slug, one-half of acclaimed Rhymesayers duo Atmosphere, is finally stepping outside himself.

Something of a superstar in that indie-hip-hop galaxy and possibly the least likely teen-girl idol currently producing popular music, the 33-year-old Slug (Sean Daley, to his parents) has spent years airing out his journal entries on wax, rhyming at length about what sounded like a couple hundred therapy sessions’ worth of lady-friend problems and harvesting a large female fan base in the process.

But Atmosphere’s sixth and most accomplished record, “You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having,” includes a few choice couplets that seem designed to make some longtime fans do a double-take and punch the back button on the iPod. Like this one: “I’m returning this bleeding hearts club membership card,” Slug raps in “Say Hey There,” “because I want no motherf***ing part of it.”

It’s not that Slug has reached some sort of sun-splashed plane with the ol’ personal life — “she’s drama, I’m drama, we’re drama” the newly mohawked rapper admits from a Detroit tour stop, with the sighing-but-not-unpleased resignation of someone who’s cool operating under that definition for the time being. It’s just that everything isn’t necessarily filtered through the holes in a broken heart anymore.

“And I don’t know why that is,” Slug admits. “In the past, I wrote so much about myself because I didn’t want to project. I wanted it to be: If you’re gonna hate the story, then hate me. But I’m learning it’s OK to project as long as I’m offering at least a closure, or an opportunity for [listeners] to dialogue with friends. With where my life has gone, I’m able to tell these stories without putting them through the relationship factory. And I’m happy about that.”

In a speed-talking interview that manages to reference Billy Joel and folk songwriter Shawn Phillips, Slug is, as his hip-hop persona would indicate, wide-open and stream-of-consciousness chatty. But he’s writing now with the grounding of someone who’s got some miles behind him, and nuggets of aged-sounding wisdom and self-awareness creep into his monologues.

“It never was about ‘Look at me and my self-centered world,'” he said, “But I found a path of writing where I was able to personify any problem I saw as a relationship problem. So what happened was I was making all these songs about dysfunctional co-dependent relationships, when the song was about George W., or how I feel about the gentrification of [Chicago’s] Wicker Park, for Chrissakes.”

Slug attributes that externalizing to two factors: the severe reduction of his “self-medicating in general” and his adoption of a slightly more distanced role in his writing. “I’ve always been sitting in the watchtower observing,” he said, “But now I’ve totally climbed into the observer mode, as ‘This is my job.’ I watch people, and form ideas and bulls*** opinions about people, but I never wanted to come off as that guy on the soapbox preaching to the choir, because for so long, the kids that come to my shows are the choir.”

Between Slug’s lyrical stretches and Ant’s melodic, big-beat production, “You Can’t Imagine” represents Atmosphere’s best shot at breaking out of that underground to date. Not that it’s anywhere within shooting distance of mainstream — tracks like “Little Man,” a generation-jumping look at father-son relationships, are still more likely to pop up on NPR or a blog than radio. But “Watch Out” bangs like old LL Cool J (who gets a glancing lyrical half-shout) and “Get Fly” cribs a joyous gospel sample to underwrite its cautiously sunny worldview: “I can’t fight your war until I’m finished with mine.”

“I do think this is probably our darkest release, but, you know, it goes hand in hand with these being probably the darkest two years of my life,” Slug said. “I’d have to say that Ant, even probably more, had duress on his shoulders over the last two years than normal as well.”

But, he added, they never set out to make a dark-soul-of-the-night kind of record, or anything more than their usual “concept” of “following this guy Sean around.”

“[Ant and I] get together on Sunday and Saturday and have a great time making new songs about having a bad time,” he said. “It’s a really odd situation. And we sit around and laugh and try to make each other react to what we’re doing and when we’re finished we look at it and go, ‘It was a lot more fun to make that record than it is to listen to it.'”

“Panic Attack” bears that out — it’s a shuffling, fuzzy beat about America’s desperate overrealiance on medication. “Say Hey There” has a sing-song-y hook and verses in which Slug tries to step out of the image he’s created for himself. But the album’s best evidence of that is “That Night,” which opens sounding like a club banger and turns into a thanklessly tragic tale about the 2003 murder of a teenage fan after an Atmosphere concert in Albuquerque, N.M.

“When [Ant] sent me that beat, I said, ‘What do you want me to rap about? This is a dance song. I can’t come in here and be all aggressive.’ And he literally told me go and write a song that you’re not supposed to write, and that was the one song I’ve been afraid to write for two years now. I didn’t know I’d be able to write a journal about it, much less a song.”

It came together quick. “I went home that night, wrote it, took it back and said, ‘Here’s what I got.’ It’s the first time in my life that a song was only alive for under 24 hours and still made the record.”

Still, Slug, true to his hip-hop persona, is quick to launch praise for helping structure the record, from its old-school-tinted beats to its unmistakable sense of trying to find a balance.

“His deal was to be careful to always make sure to throw some lightness on, especially on some of the darkest songs,” Slug said. “Instead of being on some like ‘The world’s gonna end and we’re all gonna die’ s***, he’ll bring a pop sensibility to the music. That he thinks like this is amazing to me. To me it’s like, ‘There’s the beat, dog. Rap.'”

But Slug’s also got the unmistakably shifting priorities of a guy who’s getting older. “My son’s 11,” he says, “and last night in Chicago, there were kids that couldn’t have been old enough to have a learners’ permit. And now I think I’m growing in my position and I want to do the right thing with it. Maybe in a room full of 1,000 kids, I might just be able to divert two of them from becoming future frat-boy date rapists. And I think that’s why a lot of my writing has naturally refined itself. That’s kind of where I wanted to be all along — I just never knew it.”

Three thoughtful parenting tips from Alice Cooper

Alice Cooper is helping me raise my son. Yeah. I said it, stupid What To Expect series.

Florida Times-Union — As part of a job that many people rightly put quote fingers around while describing, I interviewed Alice Cooper by phone last week at my home about his upcoming show at the Florida Theatre — which will be very splattery and squishy and thick with the usual dark menagerie of snakes, beheadings, go-go dancers and what I’d guess to be many tongues of fire, nature’s lethal minion.

But since I have a Little Man whose attention needs must be sated while Daddy does what he guiltily passes off as work, I had to first fire up the usual distraction: Wah Emmo (pronounced “watch Elmo” by those of us with a full set of teeth). It’s a rock-solid safe bet for securing 15 minutes of Jeff Time, unless it’s the one with Mr. Noodle’s crazy binoculars, which Little Man is scared of. It’s OK, I reassure him. I’ve been sort of scared of Alice for years.

So when Alice calls — promptly, God love him — I answer, and for that first brief moment it occurs to me that I’ve got Mr. Welcome To My Nightmare on the phone, and over my shoulder, Elmo chirping out a song entitled Waddle Waddle Hop Hop.



Such a thing tends to throw one’s spine out of whack, but when I reported this to Alice, who is an unfailingly engaging and articulate guy, he merely comes back with, “I love the fact that you’re a daddy!” And we launch forthwith into a 20-minute chat about parenting.

It’s all about attention, Alice says. He and his wife of 29 years — whom he met when he hired her to perform on the Nightmare tour as (and I am not making any of these up) the giant spider, the giant snake, the dancing tooth, the mannequin that comes to life and the tap-dancing skeleton — “always spent all our time with our kids. They never felt insecure.”

Their three children grew up backstage, regarding the secrets behind Daddy’s fake guillotines, lighting and magic tricks “with big smiles” and routinely saying things like “Where’s Uncle Axl? Where’s Uncle [Keith] Moony?”

“They’d always travel with us on the road, and anybody backstage would pick them up and carry them around. They were like everybody’s kids,” he said.



Despite some of those uncles’ reputations, though, his kids turned out to be “the most balanced you’ve ever seen.” Regular churchgoers all, he said they’ve never done drugs, never stolen anything, never gotten into any trouble with Johnny Law, and he says it all in such a proud, paternal tone. “When you hear of Ozzy’s kids in trouble all the time, well, I mean, look at what the example is,” he said.

Now before I forget: Alice’s show is supporting his new Dirty Diamonds, and it’s a return to form, which means the props-heavy and mercilessly over-the-top spectacle for which he’s famous. Thirty songs, he says, and 28 of them are full-metal rockers. And it co-stars his daughter as, among other things, Paris Hilton, who in the end is viciously mauled by her chihuahua. “The first five or 10 rows get totally covered in blood,” he said. Sweet.

But what I take away from this brief and bizarre convergence of the Cooper family, their Uncle Slash, my Little Man and the little red Muppet that by then was frenetically counting ice-skating dogs, is this: When it comes to all this, Alice Cooper makes way more basic, focus-on-the family sense than all those parenting books we bought, all those articles that randomly change tack every few months (sun is bad! no, sun is good!) and all those scary-in-their-own-right ostensible-morality nuts like John Rosemond or James Dobson. See? And you thought Alice couldn’t shock anymore.

Movie Review: “The Island” — What kind of paradise harvests your organs?

Florida Times-Union — The Island is this summer’s second Ewan McGregor movie about clones, but there’s one big departure from Star Wars: In this one, he gets to emote!

Then again, since The Island is directed by Michael Bay, the auteur behind dialogue-driven indie flicks such as The Rock, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, most of that emoting is of the yelling-while-plummeting-off-a-skyscraper variety, with a little bit of the screaming-while-being-chased-by-helicopters variety and a small dash of the hollering-during-a-shootout-in-a-train-station variety.

A logic-free shoot-’em-up masquerading as a Matrix knockoff, The Island takes a slick idea and quickly scuttles it under action cliches — it’s the kind of movie that says: Why have a guy just fall, when you can him fall into a very large wine rack? As with anything Bay, it has plot holes the size of hot-air balloons, but the good sense to, if one of those holes becomes too obvious, blow up some cars.

Set in the near future, The Island kicks off with a neat hook: A legion of developmentally stunted white-clad drones work methodically in a self-contained colony that, they’re told, has been sealed off from an outside world that’s been “contaminated.” Their moods are monitored, their gruel-heavy diet is controlled and they toil in the hopes of being sent to “the island,” a futuristic Margaritaville you can only get to by winning a lottery.

But if you’ve ever read more than three pages of sci-fi, you know that winning a lottery is never, ever a good thing. Lincoln Six Echo (McGregor) is suspicious of the whole place, especially when his crush, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), becomes a lucky powerball winner.

And though Lincoln’s every step is tracked, he gets “proximity warnings” every time he spends more than 14 seconds with Jordan and his urine is always scanned for quality, he manages to sneak around long enough to uncover the truth about the place: Evil Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean, overdoing it) is growing extra humans that he harvests for parts for his rich clients. “You guys are just replacement engines on their Bentleys,” the “insurance policies” are told.

Bay sets it up nicely, and for a minute, he even lets you hope that The Island might be gearing up to make a statement on stem-cell research, or maybe the ethical limits of science or the fundamental nature of humanity. And then he punts the action outside to L.A. and stages a brain-rattlingly loud car chase.

From then on, there’s nothing you won’t see coming a mile down the turnpike. Action set pieces whiz by in flurries of jump-cut confusion (in many of the schizophrenic fistfights, Bay has to put glasses on one of his competitors so audiences have a fighting chance at knowing who’s punching what). Clone Lincoln seeks out his “sponsor,” Real Tom Lincoln, who, surprisingly, owns a very fast car. Steve Buscemi plays Steve Buscemi. Djimon Hounsou adds class as an assassin hired by Merrick to track down the “product,” but there’s never much drama about which side he’ll end up on.

And, sure, this isn’t the sort of thing that demands a lot of logic, but come on: There’s only one Tom Lincoln in 2019 L.A.? How does Clone Lincoln know how to handle a flying motorcycle, or, for that matter, a car, or, for that matter, his shoelaces? Who’s handling security in this bunker so badly that Lincoln gets to go play with a butterfly when he feels like it? And what of the clones? There’s a fascinating story to tell about the events right before the closing credits, but Bay pathologically steers clear of philosophizing, probably because that would require talking scenes.

Oh well. Johansson looks great at all times, although McGregor, as he did in Star Wars, totally mutes his natural roguishness for some reason (until the clones hook up with ultra-rich Real Tom, who’s a kick).

But you can’t help but get the feeling that 10 years ago, in the pre-Independence Day age, this would have been the summer blockbuster. This summer, scuttled at the end of July and without half the buzz of the Sith or the Batman, The Island is destined to be quickly wiped from your memory.

Jeff Vrabel: Bio

CONTACT: jeff@jeffvrabel.com

About me: I’m a writer, humor columnist, music journalist, father of a seven-year-old aspiring Disney World monorail engineer (and bacon aficionado), former Hoosier and Chicagoan, irrational Springsteen obsessive, “Weird Al” Yankovic scholar, person who runs long distances very slowly and print media apologist based on Hilton Head Island, SC.

Currently, the pieces that I optimistically refer to as humor columns appear weekly in GateHouse Media newspapers nationwide. (That’s right: A newspaper company. Business is going really well, thanks for asking.) My humor essays have also been published in Modern Bride, Elegant Bride, Paste, the Chicago Sun-Times, Indy Men’s Magazine, the WordPress.com home page, Hilton Head Monthly (where I’m currently editor-in-chief) and the Florida Times-Union.

My music writing has appeared in Paste, RollingStone.com, Billboard (for whom I covered Bonnaroo in 2009 and 2010), Playboy, No Depression, the Chicago Sun-Times, All About Jazz, the official brucespringsteen.net site, the preeminent Springsteen magazine Backstreets, the Florida Times-Union, the lively blog PopDose, the Village Voice (technically, four years’ worth of Pazz and Jop comments, but I’m counting them) and several dozen Neil Diamond message boards — wow, can those people not take a joke.

In this context I’ve interviewed and/or profiled the Beastie Boys, Gnarls Barkley, four members of the E Street Band, the Avett Brothers, the Drive-By Truckers, John Prine, Billy Joel and Tom Jones, among many others.

I’ve also interviewed Snoop Dogg while my son watched a Winnie the Pooh movie in the back seat, covered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in New York City, discussed “Elmo’s World” with Alice Cooper, covered SXSW and Austin City Limits, obtained parenting tips from Ben Harper, boarded Damian Marley and Nas’ fragrant tour bus, accidentally convinced DMC to drop a 20-second freestyle dedicated to my cousin, accidentally appeared on VH1 adjacent to “Weird Al” Yankovic, shook the lovely hand of Britney Spears, kicked a soccer ball around with Michael Franti, been mentioned by name on Hillbilly Jim’s satellite radio program, had a fine interview with an actual Wiggle (the yellow one), discussed reproduction with Maynard James Keenan, had the band Travis send my son a hug, engaged in one extremely terrible interview with Ghostface Killah and a surprisingly chill one with Mitch Hedberg, seen Jimmy Buffett at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, swung by Mose Allison’s house, discussed IU basketball with the Hold Steady, been indirectly insulted by Russell Crowe on Chicago talk radio and directly insulted by Brian May on his blog, exchanged Mick Foley stories with Johnny Knoxville, and asked Bret Michaels, Dizzie Rascal and Danger Mouse what song was playing when they lost their virginity (answers, in order: “something short,” he didn’t remember, and Jodeci).

Other profiles and interviews, most of which are available on this blog, include Linkin Park, Grandmaster Flash and Mele Mel, Slash, Jack Johnson, Henry Rollins, Mike Ness, Rob Thomas, Joan Jett, Grace Potter and many more.

Reviews include memorable shows by Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band, Neil Diamond, R. Kelly, Guns N’ Roses and many more.

Thanks to Ebert having much better things to do, I reviewed a few films for the Sun-Times, including the indie-rock doc “Dig!”, the original “Star Wars” trilogy on DVD and, memorably, “Jackass: The Movie.” (While at the Sun-Times, I also learned that if Ebert wishes to sit at your desk, even briefly, you sort of have to let him.)

My humor pieces have absolutely no connective thread whatsoever, but have involved a giant brushfire at my son’s birthday party, the night he vanished from the house at 1:30 a.m., the day he decided he was pregnant, the state of waiting areas of the Newark International Airport and fiascoes about handwriting. I have also been known to become emotionally invested in competitions regarding pierogies.

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