Nicole Atkins and her “band of Daves,’ as she put it – on lead guitar, electric piano and organ, bass and drums – played a soaringly eclectic, richly tuneful set to kick off this year’s outdoor concert series at Madison Square Park. What was most striking about the concert was the welcome absence of the cheesy keyboard textures that gunk up some otherwise excellent songs on Atkins’ latest album, Slow Phaser. Aside from a diversion into that on a swaying, funky tune early in the set, her keyboardist stuck to fluid organ fills and elegantly glimmering electric piano.
They opened with the new album’s first song, Who Killed the Moonlight, putting more emphasis on lingering, uneasy atmospherics than the disco bounce of the studio version. The bassist gave it a slinky groove as the lead player added terse, red-neon, noirish fills and bends. Atkins’ wounded outsider presence on the sardonic Cool People provided an edge that transcended all the purloined Beatles and Lou Reed licks. Atkins reaffirmed why she has such a devoted fan base, showing off a spectacular vocal range that she varied from low and apprehensive to some spine-tingling flights to the upper registers, adding subtle blues and soul tinges and then some grit at the end as her voice began to go ragged after all that exertion.
She and the band maintained the intensity with the organ-fueled ba-bump noir cabaret tune Gasoline Bride and its creepy slowdown at the end, then the slow, angst-fueled Vera Beren-esque 6/8 ballad The Way It Is, part darkly Orbisonesque Americana, part gothic art-rock. Atkins took that to a peak with the wickedly catchy Maybe Tonight, an anguished blue-eyed Motown hit as towering as anything Gary Usher wrote for Gary Puckett back in the 60s.
Girl You Look Amazing, another tune that’s pretty straight-up disco on the new album, took on extra bite with a more straight-ahead beat underneath Atkins’ sarcastic dig at a would-be pickup artist. Interestingly, they gave We Wait Too Long a swooshy, misterioso groove, in contrast to the album’s more direct, regret-laden version.
After the hypnotically loping, darkly bluesy Vultures, with its creepily twinkling electric piano, they tiptoed and swayed through the longing and bitterness of Red Ropes, the most luridly noir song on the new album.
Atkins’ cynical sense of humor came front and center on It’s Only Chemistry, a sardonic battle-of-the-sexes narrative, and then an aching take of The Worst Hangover, whose narrator is so miserable (and possibly still so drunk) that she ends up calling an ambulance. It was too bad that the lead player missed his chance to take The Tower – the crushing, potentially explosive anthem that’s sort of Atkins’ signature song – to a logically pyrotechnic peak, instead drifting unexpectedly into nebulously metal territory. After everything that had come before, it would have been the perfect way to end the show. It took a siren echoing across the park from further north to add just the right touch of horror as the song wound out. The Madison Square Park series of free concerts continues on July 16 at 7 PM with French jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson and his group.
And it was good to be able to catch about half an hour of a show that promised to be even better beforehand several blocks north at Bryant Park, where keyboardist/songwriter Greta Gertler’s lush art-rock band the Universal Thump aired out some of the soaring, often epic songs from their massive triple-cd debut album along with some tantalizing new tunes. Gertler’s elegantly intricate electric piano mingled with the otherworldly vocal harmonies of Las Rubias Del Norte‘s Emily Hurst and Allyssa Lamb over the terse pulse of drummer Adam D. Gold and bassist Byron Isaacs. Guitarist Oren Bloedow – the noir mastermind behind art-rockers Elysian Fields, and a longtime Jenifer Jackson collaborator – kept a low-key, blue-flame intensity going, finally rising to a savagely insistent attack as the show hit a peak right about at the midway point. And then it was time to head south.