The first most of the audience is aware of Nicole Atkins is as they hear her coming through the crowd from behind them, playing her acoustic guitar.
She stops in the middle of the audience to finish playing the title track of her 2007 debut album, and ode to her hometown – Neptune City in New Jersey.
It’s an effective trick, and one that means she already has the crowd totally won over before she’s even hit the stage.
The gig has been switched from next door’s Wedge to the smaller Edge, but it helps to instantly create a more intimate atmosphere, perhaps more suited to Atkins’ soul-bearing songs.
Over the past decade-plus, Atkins’ music has taken in numerous genres. Her four-piece band (including support act Caleb Elliott doubling-up on cello) are more than up to the task.
The smouldering songs of most recent album Goodnight Rhonda Lee are particularly effective.
And the funk of Brokedown Luck is pushed to the fore thanks to some fine bass playing.
The lyrics from the Rhonda Lee material may be about a testing couple of years in her life, but it’s Atkins’ voice behind those lyrics that really makes the material fly. It’s an incredible instrument in its own right, equally capable of a delicate croon or a full-bore soul-stomper.
There’s a rocky run through Cry, Cry, Cry, a standout from 2011’s Mondo Amore album.
Then there’s a dash of red-raw country with My Baby Don’t Lie: ‘a song about punching a woman in the face.’
Along the way we learn about the ghost of James Brown doing their laundry in a farmhouse outside Norwich, their soon-to-be departed tour van, how The Edge reminds her of a bar back in Asbury called The Saint, and why Atkins will never wear a hat while performing live again.
We also get to be guinea pigs for three new songs – the balladic Captain, Never Going Home about the craziness of life on the road, and a ‘Radiohead, Blur and The Beatles’-influenced rocker, Mind Eraser. The only downside to hearing the new songs is being told we’ll probably have to wait another year for the new album.
The set ends with a cover of a song, of which Nicole says: ‘I wish I’d written, but I’m just going to sing it like I did,’ and the band launches in to kindred-spirit Patti Smith’s Pissing In a River. Nicole finishes by walking off the stage into the crowd, as she arrived, still singing, and out the back of the venue, while her band build to a thunderous climax without her.
There is no encore.
Kudos also to Elliott. He may have been clearing up in a Nashville as the only session cellist in town before releasing his debut album, but his own material is more than worth a listen. Playing solo on acoustic guitar, except for the last two songs when he switches to cello and is joined first by Nicole’s guitarist and then all of her band, his set is packed with ‘uplifting sad songs’.
This son of a preacher man is an engaging character – by the end of the set, we’ve got most of his life story down. He’s one to keep an eye out for.