“Grace Potter? Holy crap!”
It’s a phrase that has probably been uttered hundreds of times in the Green Mountains over the past three years. Potter’s ascent from college dropout to festival favorite to national starlet has been well documented: Hardly a soul in her home state hasn’t heard of the Waitsfield-born songstress. But it’s still startling to hear those words from a star-struck stranger at the Dunkin’ Donuts Newport Folk Festival while Potter and her band, the Nocturnals, regale an eager crowd with an impromptu acoustic set. And his reaction indicates just how far they’ve come.
Potter, 24, has been written about ad nauseam, especially locally. So why drive 300 miles to cover the familiar ground of her musical success? Well, for one reason, I’ve got a date.
The idea for this story was to go for a night on the town with Potter and explore her status as Vermont’s reigning — perhaps only — sex symbol. Eager as a teenager before the prom, I gussied myself up, even getting a haircut prior to the big night. The idea of dating a budding celebrity seemed too good to be true. Visions of wild celebrity parties, bouts with paparazzi and general glitz and glamour danced through my head as I made the journey from Burlington to Newport. But, as I would soon find out, you can take the girl out of Vermont, but you can’t take Vermont out of the girl.
I arrive in the stately seaside town of Newport, Rhode Island, with roughly an hour to traverse the crowded downtown and find the historic Fort Adams State Park. The site has long been home to the legendary stage where Joan Baez was discovered and Bob Dylan went electric. This weekend, it’s where a sultry brunette from Vermont is staking her claim to rock stardom.
The plan is to rendezvous with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals following their early-afternoon set on the Main Stage — but even with an hour to get there, it’s going to be tight. Traffic is backed up from the fort to the Claiborne Pell Bridge. Plus, my A/C crapped out in Boston, and the air is close and soupy.
An hour and a half later, I finally pass through the front gates of the festival and hear the familiar strains of the band’s new single, “Ah Mary,” booming over the loudspeakers. Apparently, there was a slight delay in the start time, so I haven’t missed much. Which is great, as it’s never good to keep a woman waiting.
I turn the corner to find an undulating sea of people. Several thousand folks of all ages, shapes and colors sit enraptured by GPN’s performance. A small but enthusiastic throng clogs up the middle of the grounds, gyrating as the band rips through an uncharacteristically raucous set.
Having seen Grace & Co. at various venues in Vermont, I’m genuinely surprised at how rock-heavy their new material is. The crown jewel is an unreleased song, “If I Were From Paris.” Nearly half the crowd is pumping their fists and nodding their heads by the time Scott Tournet, 30, tears through a Jack White-esque guitar solo. I’m struck by the number of people who seem to know the words, even though the tune won’t appear on an album until the second pressing of the band’s Hollywood Records debut, This Is Somewhere.
Closing their set with “Nothing But the Water,” the title track of their first, non-label album, the band gathers around Matt Burr’s drum set midway through. Burr, 27, keeps the beat before exploding into a fiery solo; the rest of the band rejoins him for a raging finale.
The crowd erupts into a lengthy ovation as the band leaves the stage. Glowing, Potter addresses the crowd: “Thanks, guys! It’s been a blast. Stick around. We’ve got The North Mississippi Allstars, The Allman Brothers and, uh . . . some other bands! Thanks!” Exiting stage right, she stumbles over a monitor and falls out of view. As she collects herself, she runs into one of the “other” bands, the John Butler Trio, waiting to take the stage. They are not amused.
My cellphone rings as the disgruntled acoustic-jam threesome grinds through a problematic sound check. It’s Burr who informs me that Grace needs an hour or so to collect herself before re-emerging — Burr and Potter, who took a red-eye flight from Boulder, didn’t arrive in Newport until 9 a.m. and are exhausted. We make plans to meet up afterward, and I hang up just as the dreadlocked Butler introduces his band to the crowd. “Hello, Newport! We’re the John Butler Trio and we’re all about peace and love,” he shouts. “Are you with us?”
I’m not, but a healthy percentage of the crowd responds with hoots and hollers. I decide to wait out the interim in the beer tent, as bouncy jam-pop fills the air. Folk fest, eh?
One hour, two Coronas and $14 later, my phone rings again. I’m told to convene with the band at the Gibson Guitar Tent, a small side stage and Gibson guitar museum, away from the commotion of the main stage. Finally, my date awaits!
I approach the stage and adjoining black trailer that houses the museum and notice a middle-aged singer-songwriter sitting forlornly behind a microphone stand, his guitar — a Gibson, of course — resting on his lap. A jostling crowd has gathered in front of the trailer. I can make out the soft strums of acoustic guitars and a soulful female voice wafting over the knot of folks blocking the entrance, their necks craned and their cellphone cameras at the ready. This must be the place.
I wander around to a side door, where I see a lanky guy in tight black jeans and a wide-brimmed hat clutching a plush doll. Matt Burr strides toward me, goofily grinning from ear to ear, oddly reminding me of both The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson and Paul Pfieffer from “The Wonder Years.”
“Hey, Dan!” he exclaims, holding the doll out to me. “It’s great to see you.” As he moves closer, I recognize the fuzzy thing as Animal from “The Muppet Show.” “Here, have some,” he says, still offering it. I’m puzzled until he reaches into Animal’s nether regions and produces a bottle of Woodford’s Reserve. “We’re not really supposed to have this,” he informs me as I take a swig, “but it’s a happy day.”
I wipe my mouth with my forearm and return the bottle to Animal’s posterior as Burr ushers me into the trailer. There I get my first glimpse of Grace. She’s seated with Tournet and bassist Bryan Dondero, 29 — each with sterling Gibson guitars — who are playing the opening chords to the Allman Brothers classic “Come and Go Blues.”
From inside the trailer, the circus at the far end of the tent is even more remarkable. Now I can make out faces whose expressions waver between gawking adoration and straining concentration, as their owners try to keep their footing on the inclined ramp. Back off, jackals, she’s mine.
The band eventually decides to take the act outside, and the crowd reforms around the tent. The amateur paparazzi jockey for position. In a matter of minutes, the crowd swells from roughly 20 to about 200. I imagine there must have been several more “Grace Potter? Holy crap!” moments in between.
GPN alternates between originals and covers, the intimate setting lending itself to an easy back-and-forth between Potter and the crowd. She chides the inevitable “Freebird” guy, and relates that, while touring, she and the band often use empty Dunkin’ Donuts cups in lieu of rest stops. The latter statement prompts tour manager Jen Crowell, 24, to hide her face in her hands and shake her head. “No filter,” she laments.
At the set’s conclusion, Potter is inundated with autograph seekers and photographers. It’s a lengthy, chaotic experience, but throughout, her magnetic smile never falters. Though she’s clearly tired, she cheerfully obliges every request. I manage to accompany her backstage, and we chat briefly before she’s whisked away again for more meet-and-greets. Damn!
I spend the next hour or so with Burr, strolling the festival grounds with Animal by our side. We talk about life on the road (wild and exhausting), up-and-coming bands in Burlington (Farm) and the origins of the whiskey-smuggling Muppet. “He’s my idol, my inspiration,” Burr reveals. “I saw this incredible duet with Animal and Buddy Rich when I was a kid and said, ‘I wanna be that guy.’” Pointing at the doll, he clarifies, “Not Buddy Rich. Him.” I nod sympathetically.
We walk past a couple of elderly women who remark, “Nice puppet.” We both chuckle and swig a bit more of Animal’s illicit cargo.
Burr and I are wandering toward the VIP tent, discussing GPN’s remarkable growth, when we’re interrupted by thunderous applause: The Allman Brothers are taking the stage. I’ve never been a huge fan of their Southern-rock stylings myself, but the diversity of the crowd suggests their still-wide appeal. It’s an intriguing blend of concert-T-shirt-wearing professional types, aging bikers and youngish hippies. We watch for a while, and then — just as I’m beginning to wonder if my date has been forgotten — we get the call. I pop a breath mint, run a hand through my hair, and sprint with Burr toward the backstage area. We blow past the security guards, through a jumble of aging Allman groupies, and back to the Press Tent.
From a distance, I can finally see her. She’s radiant, she’s stunning, she’s . . . with the entire band. And her parents.
Resigned, I reach for my voice recorder and notepad and prepare for an interview, brushing past the corsage hidden in my bag.
“Nobody turns down the joint except for Grace,” Tournet is explaining as we enter the tent. “Grace goes fetal when she’s high.” From her perch on the plush white couch to my left, Grace nods in agreement, shrugging her shoulders.
The band is taking turns telling the story of how they were invited onto The Red-Headed Stranger’s tour bus at this year’s South By Southwest Festival. “We didn’t realize that everyone gets invited onto Willie’s bus. We thought we were special,” says Grace, prefacing the story.
“. . . so, like, high-school stoned,” Tournet continues. “But then, it was Willie Nelson’s weed. So, out of nowhere, Willie reaches round and, without looking, flicks on the stereo and is, like, ‘Check out this new CD I’ve been working on,’” Tournet recalls with a smile. “It was his reggae album, but at the time, we thought it sounded great.”
Dondero tries to interrupt: “So, I can barely see, my eyes are so closed.”
Potter cuts him off. “Dude, you can’t tell the real part; you were barely conscious.”
“So, here’s what I remember,” says Dondero, undeterred. “I’m standing there and, right when Willie turned up the music, I remember looking at Scott and we just both had this kind of ominous recognition.”
Tournet laughs, and Dondero continues, “So, we’re listening, and it’s like, This sounds cool, this sounds really good. But then I start to feel this really weird sensation, like the blood draining from my face. And I’m starting to sway.” He puts his hands up and begins to mimic himself swaying on the bus. “All of a sudden it’s like, bam! I go headfirst, right into this pole that’s in the center of this crazy bus. I grab the pole before I completely fall over, and all I remember is, just as I look up, I see Willie’s face and him being like, ‘Whoa, man. Are you all right?’”
The entire band and I are laughing loudly at this point, causing quite a stir in our little corner of the Press Tent.
As people begin looking in our direction, Dondero goes on: “I’m like, ‘Yeah, Willie, I’m all right.’ And then, boom! I did it again. It was terrible.”
The obnoxious Vermont delegation erupts in hysterics at this point, including Peggy and Sparky Potter — Mom and Dad. They’ve been sitting just outside the circle, looking on in fawning approval, even as Grace discusses her first experience with psychedelic drugs and lecherous music-biz honchos.
The conversation soon drifts to GPN’s recent appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” — who, according to Grace, “has the most beautiful blue eyes.” Adds Tournet, “I wanted to hate him, but he was so nice and accommodating. But the thing with Leno is that he wears the same thing every day. He wears the Canadian Tuxedo. I shit you not. Denim shirt, denim jeans. Every day.”
“Claire Danes was nice,” adds Potter. “Very skinny and kind of cold, but nice.”
Burr jumps in, “Bob Saget was hysterical.” The whole group nods heartily in agreement as the drummer continues, “He kept trying to, like, pimp his daughter on us.” To which Tournet interjects, “Was that Mary Kate or Ashley?”
“But he and Jay were rocking out during our song,” Burr concludes. “It was pretty cool.”
Later in the tour, GPN had a run-in with an aircraft carrier full of appreciative sailors while they were playing on a boat in San Diego. “I thought it was a private party, so I’m on stage dancing around in basically a bathing suit,” explains Potter, “when all of a sudden there’s this huge boat behind us and, like, hundreds of sailors whooping it up, twirling handkerchiefs. It was pretty embarrassing.”
Lucky bastards, I think, my date fantasies evaporating in the late-afternoon sun.
We discuss Potter’s recent photo shoot for Glamour. “Oh, God,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I didn’t do a shoot, they just took a photo.” She was obviously not favorably impressed by the experience. “And then they fucking made my lips a completely different color, and they made my skin look green. It was really weird,” she says, visibly bewildered. “I guess green skin is hot, according to Glamour magazine.”
Glamour gave The Nocturnals the No Doubt treatment, cropping the band from the original photo. “I hate it,” laments Potter. “The whole band was supposed to be in the photo, but I guess that’s how it goes in Gwen Stefani Land.” A hint of bitterness has entered her voice. But then she rebounds, saying, “Honestly, I don’t think the guys really mind not being in Glamour.” The photo was also used by the music mag Harp, which included the entire band.
It’s no secret that sex sells in the world of major-label rock music. Though some may shy away from that fact, Potter seems genuinely to embrace it, giggling when I mention the term “sex symbol.” “I think the thing that people don’t know about me, being from Vermont, is that I’m a total glamour-puss,” she says. “It’s a side of me that’s always been there, and I’m really having fun getting back into that side of myself. I mean, on ‘Leno’ I was wearing a fuckin’ sparkly piece of underwear,” she goes on. “It was so much fun. I feel like myself.”
If there’s a fear of hometown backlash, Potter doesn’t let on. “I think people’s perception of me has always been a wholesome one. You know, well covered up. A jeans-and-cowboy-boots kind of girl. But I’m getting more comfortable getting back to my roots,” she says.
We talk about the new disc’s first single, “Ah Mary,” which is Potter’s first political song, a condemnation of American foreign policy. “Everybody is asking me about that song and whether I’m a lesbian,” she exclaims, exasperated. “They’re like, ‘So, who’s Mary? Is she your girlfriend, or your girlfriend?’ I’m like, ‘Listen to the fucking song again, idiot.’” She eases up, adding, “It’s cool, though. In the context of the song, it’s either about a girl and I’m a lesbian, or I’m a terrorist,” she laughs. “Either way, it works.”
From there, the conversation gradually devolves into topics that are, for lack of a better phrase, off the record. All the while, Potter’s parents look on as if we’re discussing her performance in a middle-school production of Annie. It’s striking to me, though not to anyone else here; the group’s openness and honesty about who they are and what they do is refreshing, even touching.
We discuss an ongoing feud with electro-jam outfit The Disco Biscuits and a skirmish with John Mayer that may or may not develop. The band name-drops and dishes dirt on a slew of other bands, referring to them in Nocturnals code-speak. GGBB = Good Guys, Bad Band. BGGB = Bad Guys, Good Band, and so forth.
The group begins to dissolve after a brief photo shoot — in which unspeakable acts are committed with Animal, much to Burr’s feigned chagrin. Dondero leaves at the behest of his girlfriend, Burlington singer-songwriter Aya Inoue, 24. Potter and Burr return to the stage area to double-check that all their belongings have been collected.
Grace’s younger brother, Lee Potter, 20, produces a Frisbee and tosses it to his dad. I watch them go back and forth, Potter the younger running feverishly around the grounds. Distracted by a rowdy crew of workers playing whiffleball at the far end of the field, I hear Sparky Potter’s voice yelling in my direction, “Heads up!” A streak of orange whizzes through my peripheral vision. “If you’re on the field, you’re in the game!” he howls. Chuckling, I grab the disc and fire it toward Lee.
We continue to play as band members file back. Grace attempts a number of throws that sail off in various directions. Burr goes long, mimicking wide-receiver routes while Tournet runs in to break up the plays. Any other weekend at Fort Adams State Park, this would look like just a group of friends and family on an outing. Which is exactly what it is.
Potter’s family, though unconventional in some respects, is an important support system and grounding influence. “Sparky is such a humble man,” Grace says of her father, a professional sign maker. “I’m not exactly the most humble person, but he’s a good reminder of staying true to yourself and not falling prey to all the hype.” She adds, “He’s also given me a reinforcement of my own character.”
As the band makes more waves nationally and internationally — they recently returned from Japan — Grace Potter’s character will surely be put to the test. Under the voyeuristic celebrity spotlight, imperfections come into sharp focus, and that sometimes leads to a negative reaction, especially in an artist’s hometown.
That phenomenon has already begun in Burlington, and Potter is keenly aware of it. “Everybody will always want to get in their little jabs, because everybody wants to be the first person to discover the band and the first person to start hating them,” she grouses. “I’ve actually had lots of conversation with Trey Anastasio about that, too,” Potter adds, referencing the former Phish frontman’s well-documented troubles. “I’ve seen how affected he’s been just by reading what other people are saying about him.
“It’s exciting when stuff starts getting written about you,” Potter continues, “but it’s really the ultimate form of narcissism. Honestly, I like looking at the pictures, but the content can be scary.”
With hugs all round, I part ways with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. The sun is setting as I make my way through the large iron gates of the old fort, and I can hear the shouts and laughs of a family at play.
Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll? Sure, whatever. But at this moment, little Gracie Potter is as close to home as she’s been in a very long time.