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Singer Grace Potter returns to St. Lawrence University

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MASSENA - Soul-rock diva and former St. Lawrence Unversity student Grace Potter returned to her roots Sunday night, blazing through a hard-rock set with her band the Nocturnals at her alma matter.

The night was like a VH1 Storytellers performance, with Potter stopping in between songs to recount her past, the history behind some songs and how her successful, rising music career all began at SLU.

The story was a familiar one for area students and residents who have been following this fiercely-powerful soul singer, with backing from a mean American rock band in the Nocturnals.

In 2002, Ms. Potter, an SLU student and amateur singer from Vermont, performed during an open mic night at a student coffeehouse called The Java Barn on campus. There she met fellow student and drummer Matthew Burr, who was so impressed with her performance that he was inspired to start a band with her.

After recruiting additional musicians to play guitar and bass, that band became known as Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Since then, the group’s mixture of hard-rock, soul and country have slowly caught on with listeners and critics alike, with help from festival appearances and tours with the likes of the Dave Matthews Band and The Black Crowes. Like their more artful overseas contemporaries, Florence + the Machine, the band’s music is relentless, uplifting and has a kind of arena-sized grandosity to it.

Potter and her band opened Sunday’s show with the hard-rock stomper “The Lion the Beast the Beat,” the title track of her most recent album, which peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Playing an electric Gibson Flying V guitar most of the night, Potter straddled a sort of middle-ground between Pat Benatar and Janis Joplin, blasting the crowd of several thousand with a combination of hard guitar-meat and one incredibly powerful set of pipes. Her small-town, country upbringing was evident in songs like the hard-rocker “Hot Summer Night,” the cheerfully suggestive “Sweet Hands” and the quaint, country-flavored ballad “Goodbye Kiss.”

Songs like “Medicine,” “Runaway” and a cover of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” gave her band the chance to jam through its intense and far-encompassing hard-rock styles. For others, like “Timekeeper” and “Stars,” Potter sat at a piano on a darkened stage, belting out heartfelt notes as the audience held up phones and swayed their arms side to side.

In all, the show offered a balanced mix of material from all four albums released throughout the band’s 11-year history, and the response from the diverse crowd suggested many were familiar with all their material.

In addition to a steller performance, the night was also a look-back of sorts for Potter, who told of her own anxiety at going away to school in the cold and rural North Country. She commended SLU for providing the venue for her to meet Burr, and urged current students to come back and visit in the future.

She also explained how Burr had initially chosen to start a band with her after he’d heard her perform “Apologies,” which has since gained much-needed exposure for the band through features on TV shows. She then sat down to perform the beautiful piano-driven love ballad. It was one of those moments when the crowd becomes very quiet, still and attentive.

Potter and her band-mates briefly left the stage after the pummeling hard-rock breakdown of “Medicine,” and shortly after she returned to perform a moving rendition of the miss-you ballad “Stars,” while stage-lights cast star-like images across the walls of SLU’s Newell Field House. Afterward they played an extended jam of “Stop the Bus,” followed by a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” with help from SLU music professor Michael Farley on saxophone. Farley’s wailing sax fit very nicely into the band’s groove, and many might call that piece a highlight of the night.

Potter and her band closed out the night with “Paris (Ooh La La),” a fun, catchy pop-rock single that helped push their 2010 eponymous album to No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100. The tune gave the younger audience members something to dance to, and showed older concert-goers how far the 29-year-old has come from the SLU student who wowed her fellow students with her song “Apologies.”

It leads one to wonder what the next 10 years have in store for this talented and hard-working group of musicians.

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