Nicole Atkins’ Showpiece Pipes

Soulfully sober siren entrances Antone’s

A month into a tour cycle extending to next spring, Jersey-born Nashville singer Nicole Atkins proved to Antone’s Thursday night that it’s difficult to box her in.

Photo by Jana Birchum

Over the course of 90 minutes to a modest house, the 39-year-old Neptune, N.J., native showed off the pipes of a classically trained vocalist even though she’s not. Topics included drinking, the Garden State, and screwing up relationships, possibly all related.

Sometimes she dresses like Stevie Nicks, and sometimes she looks like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused. She’s been compared to Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline, and she’s opened for the likes of Nick Cave and the Avett Brothers. Springsteen’s a fan, as is David Byrne.

Because Atkins doesn’t fit into any clean category, she isn’t a household name, though she really should be. It’s also what keeps her forever fresh. In an era when most contemporary acts regurgitate the sound that broke them out, Atkins is free from such shackles, constantly reinventing herself and exploring new creative impulses.

Her latest impulse, inspired by soul music and getting sober, is her fourth studio album, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, a farewell to, as she stated in Rolling Stone last month, “her drunken hag alias.” And true to form locally, the singer left the audience stunned from beginning to end. It’s her voice.

Jarring in the best way possible, those pipes force an audience to reconcile that a voice that strong, that on point, that moving, could emanate from a human being. The way she grabs and twists each note ends up testing emotions you never knew you had.

While her crystalline intonation remains the showpiece, Atkins’ songwriting is nothing to sneeze at. The set list spanned all four of her studio albums and highlighted some of her best work. The Sixties pop of “Maybe Tonight” from Neptune City and Patsy Cline-inspired “A Little Crazy” from Goodnight Rhonda Lee stood out.

For a glimpse into where Atkins’ mind resided during the writing of the latter, the crowd needed to look no further than a “A Night of Serious Drinking,” a heartbreaking ballad about love overshadowed by alcohol. Frank in both her lyrics and stage banter, she’s unafraid of revealing herself, and in return, her Antone’s listeners hung on every word.

And oh did she reward them.

David Bowie’s “Heroes” has been covered by many, but Atkins mastered it. The pared-down encore, focusing primarily on her oscillating vocals, took the song to another dimension. Phones were out and filming in one hand, while the other wiped away a tear or two. Do yourself a favor and YouTube Atkins’ Postmodern Jukebox performance of the song right now.

In fact, do yourself another favor and just check out all of Nicole Atkins’ work if you’re not already familiar with it. You, too, will wonder why her name isn’t known in every household in America.

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Nicole Atkins, Stevie Nicks, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Nick Cave, Avett Brothers, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, David Byrne, Matthew McConaughey

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