Nicole Atkins Is Worth the Wait

February 10th, 2011

Nicole Atkins & the Black Sea – The Bowery Ballroom – February 9, 2011

(Photo: Ilaria Conte)

(Photo: Ilaria Conte)

By the time Nicole Atkins & the Black Sea took the stage last night at The Bowery Ballroom, it was nearly 11 p.m. and the patient crowd was growing antsy. But from the first staccato thrash of Irina Yalkowsky’s guitar to kick off the opener, “Heavy Boots,” there was no doubt in any corner of the packed room that the wait was worth it. That tune is from Atkins’ new release, the excellent Mondo Amore, just out Tuesday, so the Bowery show served as a CD-release party and a tour opener. But it felt much more like a homecoming with a friendly crowd, guests referred to only by first name or “our friend” and plenty of banter with the band’s friends in the balcony.

Mixing the new stuff with plenty of old favorites, it took just two songs before the audience was bouncing, hands in the air and singing along with the kind of giddy energy reserved for the end of the workweek. There were dual forces working in tandem. First was Atkins’ voice, which recalls the key elements of some of the best female voices in rock and roll today—the haunting self-contained reverb of Neko Case, the pure rock and roll power of Erika Wennerston and the grit of Lucinda Williams—while still a unique thing all its own. Her voice was filled with dark energy and it popped out in three dimensions from the nine or 10 musicians backing her. Even sitting there alone with just an acoustic guitar, as she did late in the set on “Monterey Honey,” Atkins’ voice had the same intoxicating effect.

The second force was the Black Sea (bass, guitar, drums, keys, a two-woman string section and three backup singers), working as an incredibly tight-knit group. Sure, there was some tasty guitar work, with and without Yalkowsky’s slide, but for the most part they wailed as a single entity, each instrument complementing the others in perfect, raging harmony. Pulling together influences from Loretta Lynn country to Aretha Franklin soul to straight-up Rolling Stones rock, the group supplied its own dark debauchery while matching Atkins the whole way through. —A. Stein