Nicole Atkins on the Power of Live
photo credit: Barbara FG
In this moment of social distancing and turmoil, many of us are yearning for the collective inspiration and joy that is unique to the concert experience. In a special Power of Live section that appears in our new issue, a number of singular voices chime in with their thoughts on the importance of in-person gatherings.
In late May, Nicole Atkins released her enchanting new album Italian Ice, which evokes the spirit of the Jersey Shore across the decades. While she is still unable to tour behind the project due to COVID-19, the Garden State-bred singer has figured out ways to connect with her audience and share her new material via her Alone We’re All Together weekly livestream. So far, the program has featured Dean Ween, Lilly Hiatt, Hamilton Leithauser and many other guests.
What was the initial concert experience that led you down your current path?
The first concert I ever went to was Liberace. It was at Monmouth College and my dad was like, “This is Daddy Warbucks’ house,” because Annie, the movie, was filmed there. But seeing the dancing fountains and the rhinestone piano, I was just like, “Oh, my God. This is so grand.” And I was pretty sure this was going to be my life.
I remember going to a Jerry Garcia when I was 13 at the Meadowlands on Halloween. I had bought a Dead Comix T-Shirt just because I liked the artwork. Later, this older cook who I worked with when I was selling French fries at a beach kiosk asked me: “Do you like them?” And I was like, “Totally.” I’d barely heard any of their music, but I fell in love with the Dead because I liked the visual art. Then he took me to the show. I didn’t have a ticket, so he said, “Just stick up your finger” and some guy gave me a 12th row ticket. The entrepreneurship aspect of the parking lot—Shakedown Street—was madness. I never had a real summer job after that. I just drew my own Dead and Phish shirts, sold them in the parking lot and went to concerts.
You worked as a promoter early in your career. How did you come to start booking shows?
I had always played music but I never wrote my own. So when I moved back to New Jersey after college, I told Scott from The Saint in Asbury Park, “I wanna play a gig,” and he was like, “We only do live original music now. We don’t do covers.” So I lied and said, “Oh, yeah, I write my own songs.” Then he gave me a gig and I wrote eight songs in two weeks. They’re saying that small clubs are in trouble now and, man, that would be a tragedy. Those are the places where the music you love now was born.
I eventually moved to New York, where I started doing an open mic just for fun at The Sidewalk Café. I was getting crappy shifts at the restaurant where I worked, but I knew all these great musicians so they let me book some music. The first show that I booked was Langhorne Slim, The Avett Brothers and Regina Spektor. It was crazy. Then, we got a liquor sponsorship and, eventually, there was a line out the door. So I just figured that—until I can find a voice for my own music— I should turn people onto other stuff and promote my friends’ music. That’s kind of what I’m doing now.
How would you describe the power of live?
The power of live is a singular experience. It’s one moment in time experienced with a ton of strangers, who are all on the same beautiful level. I don’t experience that in any other way. Maybe people who like sports experience that as well. Growing up, I was forced to watch sports because the men in my family loved sports. And I’d think, “I just don’t know how so many people can be on the same level and be so passionate about something they’re not involved in.” But even before I made my own music, I was able to be completely present when I heard music.
I remember sneaking out of my house to see Blind Melon and The Meat Puppets at Roseland. I got my nose broken, but I didn’t care. When I got home, I just thought, “I need to do that again.” That’s a big reason why I got into music. I needed to be at the show.
I think it’s the most beautiful thing ever, and we’re all trying to figure out the current situation. The shows keep rolling online with various degrees of success and we’re doing the best we can. It’s not the same, but it’s what we’ve got for now, so I’m grateful for that.