Nicole Atkins @ Drake Underground

. : : December 3rd, 2011 : : .

It seems like it’s been a really long time since I’ve seen Nicole Atkins live.

I first saw her in 2007, and then again less than three months later in the early part of 2008. I guess I took the proximity of her home state of New Jersey for granted, assuming such frequent visits to her northern neighbours was the norm. So, then, what’s the opposite of “when it rains, it pours”? When it’s dry, it’s drought? Well, there was definitely a Nicole Atkins drought in Toronto thereafter.

Breaking an unbearably REALLY LONG two year streak of absence, Nicole and her new band, The Black Sea, returned to Toronto to play The Horseshoe Tavern. I was looking forward to the show for months. Nothing would keep me away…right?

Well, excruciating back spasms had another plan for me altogether. Between the unbearable discomfort and being doped up on T3s and muscle relaxants, I was in no shape to leave my house. As much as it pained me — and, ohh, it pained me! — I was going to have to sit this one out.

Seeing her return to Canada for Ottawa Blues Fest later in the summer made me hold out a glimmer of hope she’d hit Toronto on the way there (or back), but ’twasn’t meant to be. Small tours continued to be announced, but no further Canadian dates. It was all but certain yet another year would go by without my Nicole Atkins fix.

As it turned out, the gods of fate would have pity on my poor deprived soul. A small, intimate solo tour was announced that would not only bring her to Toronto, but also to my favourite place in town, The Drake Underground. The atmosphere is amazing, the sight lines wonderful, and the sound? Oh, the sound is heavenly, friends.

When last I’d seen Nicole, she was backed by a solid band who did a great job of recreating the lush orchestrated noir-pop of her outstanding debut LP, Neptune City. In a solo setting, Nicole would have nothing to hide behind — a problem she brought up a couple of times, including when she obliged a request for one of her oldest songs, Bleeding Diamonds, and when she botched the lyrics to the first verse of her cover of Cotton Mather‘s Monterrery Honey.

I must admit, this would unquestionably be a very different Nicole Atkins that I was used to, and although I was excited, I cannot say I was without apprehension. What if her music didn’t translate to the intimate, stripped down format of the evening? What if, after all this time, I was disappointed?

My reservations were quickly struck down when Nicole stepped on stage and jumped into (and nailed) the opening track from the aforementioned debut album, Maybe Tonight. This was a different Nicole than I was used to, but it was still jaw-droppingly amazing. Although Nicole bantered that the acoustic singer-songwriter format would encourage “country versions” of her songs, her warm, bellowing and soulful voice ensured that the songs never strayed too far from what made them so wonderful in the first place.

Songs like Hotel PlasterThe Way It Is and The Tower threatened to break and re-break every heart in the room, and her powerful Kurt Cobain-flavoured cover of Leadbelly‘s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? threatened to walk off and steal the show as the night closed down, but set closer Neptune City, performed unplugged on the floor among her fans, might just have been the indisputable highlight of the night.

After the final chord of the evening’s final song, there was a lingering few seconds where Nicole clearly wanted to tightly knit audience to disperse as the show was clearly over but the audience silently stood their ground. Whether transfixed by the beauty of the evening or hesitant to let it go, I couldn’t say, but it was very telling of just how special a night Nicole’s return to Toronto was.

The recording itself it beautiful — better than I’d hoped! As usual with solo shows at the Drake, the volume in the room was fairly quiet so some compression was used on the audience’s applause. Only very occasionally do you any sort of audience chatter / sing along. Understandably, there’s a large volume adjustment and EQ change between the last two songs. Other wise, the recording is a fantastic capture of an amazing, triumphant set. Get this recording.

01. [introduction]
02. Maybe Tonight
03. [banter]
04. Bleeding Diamonds
05. Cry Cry Cry
06. [banter] > Monterrey Honey [abandoned]
07. Monterrey Honey [Cotton Mather]
08. [banter]
09. Call Me The Witch
10. [banter]
11. Hotel Plaster
12. [banter]
13. You Come To Me
14. This Is For Love
15. [banter]
16. Jubilee [Benji Hughes]
17. The Way It Is
18. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? [Leadbelly]
19. The Tower
20. [banter]
21. Neptune City

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The Way It Is (Live In Toronto) [MP3 sample]

Huge thank yous to Nicole Atkins, Frank Yang of, and the beautiful Drake Underground for an amazing evening.

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