The beginning of September always reminds me of those distant days of teenaged autumn evenings. Junior year of high school was just starting, and this was the time of year when my newly licensed friends and I would be squeezing in the final hours of late night weekend drives on deserted roads with the car windows down, someone rebelliously smoking a cigarette in the backseat, and all of us singing along to a very particular batch of songs that we had discovered during summer vacation.
It was the mid-1990s and we made mixed tapes with great pride -- generally seeing who could "out-obscure" one another. It was an interesting time for my generation; we were digging through our parents' record collections from the 1960s and 1970s, while desperately holding onto those final grunge years, and somehow trying to piece together our quasi post-GenX musical identity.
I can still remember the songs sprinkled on those tapes: The Dixie Cups' version of "Iko Iko," Creedance Clearwater Revival's, "Wrote A Song For Everyone," Blind Melon's, "Change," Janis Joplin's, "Half Moon," Santana's, "Everything's Coming Our Way," The Breeders' "Cannonball." At the time, this musical newness and expression was as much a part of our freedom as were the endless summer days and nights -- it was a soundtrack to our teenaged autonomy that changed the way we understood the world, changed the way we understood ourselves.
I don't often write about contemporary music, not because I don't enjoy it, but because it is rare that I would have as much of an emotional connection to it as I do with music that I grew up with -- the music that shaped my formative years in some way. But this summer I got lucky because I saw Grace Potter & The Nocturnals (GPN) in concert, and it reignited the kind of summer soundtrack that I hadn't even realized I'd been missing.
Just like those bygone rock 'n' roll bands that needed to make a name for themselves before the era of music videos and social media, GPN has been on the road for over 10 years, bringing their music into small towns, big cities, county fairs and blues clubs across the country, building audiences the hardworking way -- the loyal way. I saw GPN at a small amphitheatre in Albuquerque, and it was the kind of concert where the music is given completely to the audience -- where the only thing left on stage after the show is sweat and a loud, bluesy, soulful reminder of the simple power that live music can have on the human soul.
For years, GPN has topped the lists of "must see" live bands -- their concerts rooted in Grace Potter's Hammond B3 organ, Gibson Flying V guitar and raw, visceral vocals. Sometime over the years, GPN was grouped, somewhat misleadingly, within the jam bands scene -- maybe in part because of their Vermont roots; maybe because of the experimental spontaneity of their music; or maybe because no one quite knew where else to put a band that is not bound by their audience's musical expectations and assumptions. But this doesn't make a jam band; this makes a rock 'n' roll band.
When I got home after the concert, I created a GPN soundtrack that would bring me straight through these September nights. I spent days driving through the Southwest listening to GPN studio albums, live albums, bootlegs, and Grace Potter solo tracks. With each album, there was a "new" GPN, as though each album had a particular place in whatever musical tapestry GPN is weaving. One of the most challenging obstacles that musicians must face, even more so today, is the replication of success -- the idea that every song and every album will be just like the one before it. In these days of instant gratification and immediate downloadable singles, there are fewer and smaller windows for musicians to take their time, to find their Big Pinks in which to experiment musically and evolve quietly when no one is looking and listening.
But, when I listened to my GPN summer soundtrack, I heard a band that knew who they were and played with a sort of musical freedom that didn't subscribe to a predestined sound. There were soul songs and blues songs -- "Nothing But the Water" and "Toothbrush and My Table." There were country songs -- "Big White Gate" and "Ragged Company" that conjured up the Nashville of 30 years ago. There was "Stars," a poignant ballad about life cut too short, and there was "The Divide" a haunting 21st Century psychedelic excursion that makes you beg for just one more Kesey Acid Test. It was as though I were listening to a band that I had grown up with -- a band that created a bridge between the diverse music of our youth and the evolving state of rock 'n' roll today.
So, last night, as I drove through the mountains under the stars and the early autumn moon, I thought about my friends and I, jammed into my small car with one week of eleventh grade under our belts. I listened to GPN's "Timekeeper" from their latest album, The Lion The Beast The Beat, and heard an amorphous type of freedom imparted by our rock 'n' roll ancestors -- musical freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of thought -- filtered through GPN's contemporary lens, to create what may just be the purest form of rock 'n' roll today. The kind multigenerational, eclectic, rock 'n' roll that was once only dreamed about on mixed tapes so many years ago.
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals are headlining and hosting their Grand Point North music and arts festival in Burlington, Vermont on September 14th and 15th.