Nicole Atkins brings beauty and wonder to Milan
The stage is deserted. Music can be heard a few yards away, by the mixer. The singer stands in the middle of the audience, wearing a black dress with tiki prints, her hair elegantly gliding over her shoulders. People surround her, they’re surprised. She plays an acoustic guitar and sings with no microphone an hymn to the faded beauty of her Neptune City, 4,000 miles from here. It’s such a wonderful way to start a concert. Nicole Atkins did it at the very beginning of her first Italian gig as an headliner. She had already performed in our country in April 2013 opening for the Eels. She and her hollow-body guitar against the whole Alcatraz waiting for Mr. E and his “gym friends”. Tonight’s different, not only because guitarist Davey Horne and drummer Mike Graham will come up on stage. Tonight we’re here to remember that music is not what we listen for thirty seconds on YouTube. We’re here to remember the power of the human voice and the communicative force of rock music. We’re here to be heartbroken and euphoric at the same time, during the same song.
Wonder is everywhere. It’s in the vibrato of her voice. It’s in her musical style, that stretches from intense electricity to old style melodies. It’s in her sense of humour. It’s in the way she engages the audience. It’s in the use of two microphones that make her voice sounds like a compassionate caress or an heartrending howl. It’s in the devastating version of Lee Hazlewood’s My Autumn’s Done Gone, a shoot in slow motion of a breakup. It’s in the way she looks for connection. It’s in The Way It Is, a song that breaks hearts and cure any pain tonight. Whether they speak of pheromones or the Moon falling into a river, wrong relationships or hurricanes, friends or vultures, these songs are haunting and emotional. They’re not pathetic, nor crippled by self-pity or predictable. They’re empowering. Everything here is redeemed by beauty.
«I wish I was born in 1948, not in 1978», she says introducing a song about not knowing what country music is today, but knowing what it was. She teaches the audience how to sing it and we do it in our so-and-so English. We’re not sure what rock music is today, but we perfectly know what it was. It was not fashionable, nor gossip. It was not a cynical comment or cheering crowds. It was an amazing form of communication, it was unconventional beauty. Nicole Atkins has reminded us what it was and what it might be during one of those rare concerts that continue to resonate within you as you go home, and the next day, and the one after that. Before saying goodbye, she’s back amongst the audience for one last song. Someone down there is chatting. «If you have to talk,» she says with a smile, «do it in the key of D.» Then she starts singing an impassioned Crying by Roy Orbison as if we were thousands of people. Never seen such a thing.
Nicole Atkins performed at the Biko Club in Milan, October 8. Barbara Cavaleri was opening. Photos by Alessandro Zanoni.