Nicole Atkins began her first headlining coast-to-coast tour with a big Sea-side party at the sold-out Bowery Ballroom. Fresh off the release of her debut LP, Neptune City (QRO review), the Asbury Park native filled the stage on Friday, January 25th with her band, The Sea, and more than once proclaimed how happy she was to be there (and not in Asbury Park, Monmouth County, or New Jersey). The shoreline singer/songwriter even repeatedly expressed surprise at the turnout, asking “Who are you people?” and claiming that she just thought it would be friends & family, “Italians and the bartender – And there’s at least a couple hundred of you that don’t look Italian.” While some of that modesty might have been faux (they were all just two weeks removed from playing Late Night with Conan O’Brien…), Atkins certainly was amazed and delighted at the crowd, and the whole night.
With a boardwalk fair mural projected up above them, Nicole Atkins & The Sea opened with Neptune’s title track (and managed to fit in every song on the album). This let the group to start things off slow and orchestral, sort of wafting down upon the crowd. It also set the stage for Neptune’s explosive opener and single, “Maybe Tonight”, which obviously had the crowd enraptured. After bantering a bit about the amazing reception, Atkins hit up “Carouselle”, from 2006’s Bleeding Diamonds EP; while stop-start piece was good, the shift from the best-known song of the evening to the least-known was a bit jarring.
Curiously, “Party’s Over” was not the night’s finisher, but fell early on in the set, along with other Neptune tracks “The Way It Is”, “Cool Enough”, and “Kill the Headlights”. Of particular standout were the back-to-back “Way” and “Cool” (the same one-two order as on record); the old-school diva expanse of “Way” literally filled Bowery Ballroom, while the grooving “Cool” played intimate, like it was one of her old residencies at little Piano’s (QRO venue review), not the first date of a big tour. Following those, at about the center of the set, came a new number, “I Wait For You”; the diva was more rock, but despite the interesting, dark, restrained procession in the middle, “Wait” didn’t feel quite as inventive as Atkins has been.
Atkins & The Sea brought help for their return to Neptune City, in the form of some tambourine work from Stephen Warwick, i.e. Charlotte, North Carolina’s Secondhand Stories. Atkins made a point of highlighting Warwick’s tambourine ‘experience’, joking that he’d been studying & teaching the tough instrument, “15 years?” (“15 and a half” corrected Warwick). She also switched to (plugged-in) acoustic guitar, saying, “We’re gonna play songs like we used to, before all the bells & whistles.” However, what really brought things back home was the following “Brooklyn’s On Fire!” Okay, it might have been a bit more classic had it been at Music Hall in Williamsburg (QRO venue review), but Manhattan’s Bowery (QRO venue review) still exploded with the rollicking, riding number, and its yell-along chorus, “Fourth of / July / Brooklyn’s / On Fire!”
With all that goodwill from the crowd, Atkins felt comfortable enough to lead in to the next number with this conversation:
How many of you went to high school in the nineties? [big cheers] You know how, when you were in like eighth grade, it was really sweet to like The Doors, but when you got to high school and started listening to Pavement and Sebadoh, you said, “The Doors fuckin’ suck!”, even though you still liked them? I’ve come to a revelation: The Doors are good.
Atkins & The Sea then launched into a raucous version of The Doors’ “The Crystal Ship” (from the band’s self-titled debut, and also the b-side to the hit “Light My Fire” single). Sea guitarist David Hollinghurst really got to rock on the cover, and the axe got even more practice on the following new number, “Teen Creep”; the guitar-wail cool was really different than prior Atkins & The Sea, great as a change on the evening. Leading into their last number before the encore break, Atkins remarked on the surprising number of non-Italians in the crowd (who weren’t the bartender), before admitting, “I do know some people [here] who aren’t Italian…” The pressing “Love Surreal” played more dance-like as a finisher.
Nicole Atkins & The Sea playing “Love Surreal” live @ Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY:
When Atkins & The Sea returned, they not only brought Warwick back on stage, but seemingly everyone from openers Craig Wedren and The Parlor Mob. All the men on stage did leave Atkins a little overshadowed, with Hollinghurst and fellow guitarists (including Parlor Mob’s Paul Ritchie, Atkins’ boyfriend) cranking their axes on “War Torn” and some more sixties/seventies-rock, including The Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”. Even excited Sea keyboardist Dan Chen finally got a chance to stand up and shout (though that did leave violinist Gillian Rivers, the sole other XX on stage, now completely obscured). The ending of the night was a little confusing, but you can’t say it wasn’t fun.
It’s a bit difficult to grasp how Nicole Atkins – Billboard Heatseeker, subject of a major label bidding war, coast-to-coast headliner and late night fav – could have been surprised at the sell-out, but there she was, and there they were (albeit Atkins did see some people she went to high school with…). It was almost as if she had to pinch herself that this was real; returning for the encore, she even inquired, “You guys had a good time, right?” No need to ask, no need to ask…