“This is the weirdest night of my life,” said Nicole Atkins, mid-song, as two nearly six foot tall males pranced ballerina style in front of the stage. As Atkins nailed the alternating croons and belts of her emotional powerhouse “A Little Crazy,” the bearded men sashayed back and forth, legs extended, arms reaching toward the sky, encircling each other as if entranced by magic or some benevolent soul goddess. Atkins did announce a slow dance contest before launching into the Goodnight Rhonda Lee opener, but she probably wasn’t expecting a Swan Lake-style interpretive dance.
It was all positive vibes last week at Bridgeport’s Acoustic Cafe as the Nashville folk-pop-soul singer returned to Connecticut following a January opening gig for Umphrey’s McGee. This time, however, the stage was all hers, allowing more time for fan-favorite tracks off her debut album, Neptune City. Atkins and her band opened with a minimalist version of the debut’s title track, allowing her vocals to take center stage and captivate the crowd mere minutes in.
Often compared to a modern day Janis Joplin or Roy Orbison, Atkins’ music walks a tightrope, edging the lines that connect psychedelia, the Brill Building era and on her latest, the aforementioned Rhonda Lee, Muscle Shoals style alt-country. Though at heart, she’s always dished out luscious soul vocals, bending genres to make them her own. While her four albums are each distinct in their own right, her progression has been chameleon-esque, that soul-infused trill never failing to cut through.
The set had heaps of Rhonda Lee to go around (I don’t recall anything off Mondo Amore or Slow Phaser coming out to play). “Listen Up,” an upbeat soirée about learning from youth’s many mistakes, got the best crowd response, but some of the slower jams created the most memorable moments.
“We’re going to play a serious song now about messing up a relationship by drinking too much,” Atkins said queueing up “A Night of Serious Drinking.” “I wrote this for a friend,” she quipped, a tongue in cheek wink at her past life which serves as part of Rhonda Lee‘s narrative. The Atkins we saw on stage didn’t mirror the Rhonda Lee character at all, however. Atkins was confident, charming and on her game, which one would have to be to share such intimate personal insights with different crowds night in, night out.
Other set highlights included “A Dream Without Pain” and “Party’s Over,” but it was her cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” that was the both the figurative and literal showstopper. (She recorded this with Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox on their 2016 album PMJ and Chill—definitely check that out.) Besides the omission of “The Way It Is,” it was the biggest surprise of the set, the raw perfection of her voice, a powerful homage to The Thin White Duke.
There’s no question that Atkins is a talent that should be playing—and selling out— bigger rooms wherever she goes. Talking with others in the crowd, everyone had stories of where they last saw her last, times when she “blew us away” or “tore the roof off” previous festival gigs, after parties, etc. This performance at The Acoustic was yet another one of those intimate nights that attendees won’t soon forget.