Some old fans of Grace Potter cringed this year when she released Midnight, an album that not only shed her of longtime, blues-infused band the Nocturnals but delved into full-on, disco-fied pop. Yet the supposed Vermont hippie chick always made it clear that she grew up loving the Pointer Sisters and wanted to try different, more commercial fare. She signed to Disney’s Hollywood Records and sang with country-pop star Kenny Chesney.
So how did this all shake out at Friday’s first of two shows at the Orpheum Theater, where Potter told the three-quarters-full crowd that she’d attended concerts there in her youth and dreamed of being on that stage? It was a mixed bag of growing pains while showing the singer as an ever-fearless, inspired performer on the move.
Potter, 32, strove to marry her past and present grooves. Nocturnals favorites like a streamlined “Oh, Mary,” rock rave-up “Stop the Bus” and the brash “Medicine” (where she threw aside her high-heeled boots for a “dance party”) fit next to the disco beats of the funky “Met Your Girl” and “Delirious,” topped by her spacey howls.
The main problem, especially early on, was a new seven-piece band that added a second percussionist and third guitarist (Potter still rocked her electric Flying V as well as an acoustic guitar) but muddied up both sound and style, making it seem like the hyperactive singer was trying too hard to have it all. This proved especially true in the contrast when Potter cut to a duet of “Low Road” with Nocturnals guitarist Benny Yurco that reached a gospel-tinged vocal peak. Likewise, the singer turned up her guitar for a scorched-earth blast of “Nothing but the Water” backed only by drummer Matt Musty (capably subbing for her husband Matt Barr) as Potter lit into jaw-dropping screams within a flashy, criss-crossing spray of lights.
The sound mix seemed clearer when the full band returned, from the rousing new “Instigators” to a “Paris (Ooh La La)” finale that expanded on its usual full-band percussion breakdown where Potter whacked the bass drum. She remains the powerful center of a style-churning storm, even if she’s a self-defined work in progress.
Extra credit to Potter for giving well-deserved props to opener Charles Bradley, the 66-year-old Screaming Eagle of Soul who fronted his more subtle soul revue the Extraordinaires. Bradley’s raspy vocals exuded the feeling and experience of a man who survived years of scrapping by — as a James Brown impersonator — and even the shooting death of his brother, only to embrace a second life as a bonafide artist who knows the power of love.
Charles Bradley projects hard-won soul and love in his songs at the Orpheum.