By mid-February, NYC concertgoers have grown just about impervious to the slushy trek from subway to venue. Anyway, I wasn’t about to miss Nicole Atkins‘ set at the Bowery Ballroom on Thursday on account of what I’ll optimistically say was a “wintry mix.” It rained, it snowed, it rained again; puddles as deep as kiddie pools menaced every corner of every block, making street-crossing a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure where the worst case scenario always meant plunging calf-deep in ice bath (or falling in it, God forbid, which I haven’t yet seen somebody do, but I’ve heard stories). In the Lower East Side, I walked gingerly along the beams of some dismantled wooden packing crates an enterprising person had propped up as bridges over the teeming slush rivers. But all that would have been fine—standard, even—if the actual apocalypse hadn’t occurred on Thursday, about an hour and a half before Nicole Atkins was slotted to go on stage. For about ten minutes, the snowfall dipped into a theatrical, pummeling, rainstorm, with lightening that lit up the whole island and claps of thunder that brought one man flying at the door of his apartment building in a panic as I passed by. He thought we were being bombed.
I’m going to try my best to resist making puns about weird weather patterns and the absolutely killer set that was brewing over the Bowery—but jokes aside, Nicole Atkins’ performance was, uh, electrifying. In a seventies-inspired, color-saturated kimono, she took the stage before the (relatively) few but faithful to ecstatic applause, and launched promptly into the passionate, glamorous “Vultures.” It turned out to be one of the only songs of the night off Mondo Amore. The overwhelming majority of the set list came off Slow Phaser, the New Jersey singer/songwriter’s February 4th release. Next up came “Who Killed The Moonlight,” the opener off the new album, with all the vocal drama and tempo-pushing guitar work of the studio version. Atkins stuck to vocals for the length of the set, leaving instrumentation in the capable hands of her six-piece backing band, which featured a grand total of three Daves and two Zachs (!), as well as a rogue Sam. They kept in synch with each other—and Atkins—with the momentum of a single, powerful machine. Atkins brought back up vocalists into a track or two as well, adding to the playful surge of glam-rock power that has always lined Atkins’ work.
“Girl You Look Amazing” was a feel-good highlight of the night, as Atkins bounced around the stage and pointed flirtatiously at women in the front row as she sang the line from which the song takes its title. Atkins told NPR in an interview that she got the idea for that line– “Girl, you look amazing,” after half-singing her praises for a tasty-looking plate of sushi, and then had a dream in which the song had been turned into a dance hall glam hit. I imagine that might be typical of Atkins’ songwriting style—the numbers she performed on stage felt like kaleidoscopic collages of different snatches of imagery and turns of phrase, half experienced and half dreamt up. Slow Phaser comes across this way. It’s easy to submerge yourself in its powerful, sometimes otherworldly, orchestration, but at the same time, the focal point never drifts far from Atkins’ voice.
“It’s Only Chemistry,” followed by “The Tower” as an encore, closed out the night. As comfortable in the new material as she was in the old, Atkins made a virtual showcase out of Slow Phaser on Thursday. The endeavor was a little risky, but garnered enthusiastic response—the new album might be Atkins’ most ambitious, broad-spanning album to date, and the blazing vocal lines and catchy, powerful beats translated sparklingly to live performance.
Listen to “It’s Only Chemistry,” off Slow Phaser. This song made for a great finale on Thursday night, although I did miss the banjo line that only appears in the studio version: