Minutes before Nicole Atkins was due to take the stage at Philadelphia’s World Café Live on Thursday, December 18th, the venue’s lights abruptly shut off. As the crowd’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, silence swept over the room, the once unnoticeable noise of the electricity now piercing the air with it’s absence. One week before Christmas, the New Jersey born musician tiptoed down the side steps of the theater’s stage like a thief in the night, completely undetected by an audience whose gaze was fixed on the faint outline of the microphone stand ahead. It was only when a white-hot spotlight spilled over the venue’s floor that Atkins literally emerged from the shadows, smiling as those around her registered the thrilling promise of an unamplified, eye-level performance.
Surprising the night’s attendees by positioning herself within the audience, Atkins began her set with the poignant, “Neptune City.” Armed with just her voice and an acoustic guitar, the musician stood alone in the center of the room, deftly creating a communal atmosphere amongst a sea of nameless, unidentified strangers. Moving in a circle, she turned to face a different section of the audience with every passing measure, her voice eliciting a natural ease and clarity that reached every corner of the three-tiered music hall. The same serene environment echoed the gentle, melancholy beauty of a song punctuated by the tangible effects of bittersweet resignation.
“Our hearts are singing out, just for you
A cemetery song just for summer
And if we knew just what we could do
A cemetery song we’d not sing.
I’m sitting over Neptune City
I used to love it, it used to be pretty.
I’ll come down, walk around a while
Until I’m sure I can never go home again.”
After concluding “Neptune City,” Atkins joined her band onstage, taking her place at the same mic stand that had held the audience’s attention long before she ever came into sight. And though the group she led on this night was comprised of only an electric guitar and drums, the sheer savageness and muscle of their playing eliminated any trace of the previous moment’s tranquility, replacing the formerly rarified air with the brutish energies of a band on fire.
“This is about the world taking all it can get from you.”
After introducing “Vultures,” from her 2011 album, Mondo Amore, Atkins evoked the spooky mood of the album’s recorded version, while simultaneously embodying the all-consuming weariness of a person with their guard up, acutely aware of the world’s ability to reduce you to “dirt and bones.” With every note, the band replicated the vicious energies at play, channeling the type of unshakable resilience that can only be earned by experience. Although it was the solemn, powerful performance of “The Way It Is,” that most highlighted the genre-defying range of the musician’s catalogue. Appearing on her 2007 debut, Neptune City, the song serves as a stunning demonstration of heartache and anguish, thematically building to a climax that captures the unnerving, painful unease of a doomed love. Capturing a haunting air and agonizing grief, each verse held enough strength to part water.
Further magnifying the band’s spark, was the performance of “Gasoline Bride.” Appearing on 2014’s Slow Phaser, the song possesses a theatrical tone that allows Atkins to counter a sleek, dreamy production with the biting rock and roll attitude that is ingrained in nearly all of her compositions. With a surreal tone and rapturous melody, “Gasoline Bride” reflects on the process of metaphorically burning down one’s life to begin anew. And by delivering a lively, organic performance driven by a career-spanning set list, Atkins managed to create a completely different atmosphere for each song the band played…Burning down one life, only to dance in the embers.
Article by: Caitlin Phillips