Ed. note: This is a guest post by Elizabeth Eckhart. You can follow her on Twitter: @elizeckhart.
No style of music is as conversational as the blues. It uses long-since established, intuitive structural formulas (like the 12-bar pattern) which most musicians have some level of familiarity with, as it provided the groundwork for virtually all variations of contemporary music. It’s also a style of music which, historically speaking at least, favors accessibility and raw expression over technical complexity. It’s also one of the most valuable oral traditions in the United States, where it originated, and it maintains an enduring influence in other corners of the world, too.
One band that is doing a lot in the present day to enrich that conversation is Grace Potter and The Nocturnals. The band pays homage to legendary blues acts like Etta James and John Lee Hooker, and like their contemporaries in Gary Clark Jr.’s band, their music exemplifies how much blues has influenced other musical stylings. Potter herself is one of the most charismatic female blues vocalists in recent history, with a raspy voice that evokes the likes of Janis Joplin, and Chicago’s very own Koko Taylor. In addition to her chops as a singer, Potter is also a proficient keyboardist and guitarist.
The band formed in Vermont in 2002, when drummer Matt Burr saw Potter, then a college student, performing at a local student-run venue. The two bonded over shared musical tastes, and ultimately decided to piece together a blues combo. It wasn’t long afterward that Grace and company where attracting national attention. They performed on the Jay Leno Show for the first time in 2007. They contributed their own rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” for the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. In 2011, they increased their visibility even more by performing on an episode of “Guitar Center Sessions” which was broadcast through DirecTV with segments of the show made streamable on their website. Shortly after that they began collaborating with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys in their album The Lion the Beast and the Beat.
What makes Potter’s band exceptional is that beyond merely rehashing standards and cliches, the band is contemporizing the blues, and making it palatable to a younger listenership. And it speaks to part of what makes the simplicity of the blues so wonderful: it makes the music accessible to an incredibly wide range of listeners. The blues established the basic framework for virtually all of popular music, whether we’re talking about hip-hop, jazz, rock n’ roll, or even heavy metal. Potter and the Nocturnals have even channeled pop, alternative, and most recently country (Potter reached an entire new spectrum of fans when she worked with country star Kenny Chesney on the duet “You and Tequila”) but still remains undoubtedly connected to the blues.
In its purer forms, the blues hasn’t exactly been fashionable for a while. Traditional blues music is enjoying something of a resurgence right now, and much of this could be attributed to artists like Potter who are helping to serve as a point of entry into the rich history of the blues.
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