Nicole Atkins @ the Rock N Roll Hotel, 11/6/09

I am a believer in the restorative powers of a good rock show. Most nights, some combination of DJ, MC, and whatever samplers or instruments are lying around will suffice, as the pulsing rhythms of electronic music or the flow of a skilled rapper gets a party going. But sometimes, what you really need is the catharsis only provided by tried-and-true rock and roll, a genre that has been declared dead (and subsequently revived) more than hip-hop.

Such was the case this Friday, as Nicole Atkins descended on the Rock N Roll Hotel, headlining a bill of straight-up rock music. Opening the night was Foley, a New York based singer-songwriter who treated the audience to some bluesy coffeehouse rock, including a pleasant cover of the Beatles’ “Something in the Way.” The simplicity of a man and his guitar set the tone for the rest of the show. Scott Liss and the Sixty-Six continued the festivities, engaging the crowd with some psychedelic folk rock, showing the DC audience what’s brewing in the Asbury Park scene.

Of the openers, the standout band was definitely The Hymns. Opening their set without fanfare, they launched right into some jangly, psychedelic rock, with front man Brian Hardings’s vocals drenched in reverb. This decade has been overrun with bands that are determined to re-visit the Beatles in increasingly tiresome ways. The Hymns, however, look instead to the Rolling Stones, mimicking the raw, rollicking sound of the anti-Beatles. At times, the Brooklyn four-piece also owes a lot to the Eagles and the Band, relying on dual riffage and harmonies that evoke a simpler age of rock music. Their set was a slice of Southern-fried blues rock (not surprising, considering their North Carolina and Texas roots), aesthetically and sonically reminiscent of the Kings of Leon, before their GQ makeover and Top 40 success.

As Krisma’s “Black Silk Stocking” played overhead, Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea took the stage. Bathed in thick smoke and green and purple lighting, the ambience was perfect for an evening of “noir pop,” the descriptor that the Jersey-based songstress has given to her melancholy, orchestral stylings.

As a front woman, Atkins is unparalleled in engaging the crowd. She’s a singular force on stage, making every single person feel like she’s singing directly to and only for them. With new backing back The Black Sea, Atkins played a set that introduced the audience to the songs that will appear on the follow-up to her breakout album, 2007’s Neptune City, while hitting the highlights of her early work.

From the walking bassline of “Kill the Headlights” to the Queenesque sing-along “Brooklyn’s On Fire,” the songs of Neptune City take on a new dimension in a live setting. The spaced out riffs are pitch perfect, bending and pulling directly on your heartstrings. Atkins’ voice, a sultry mix of Patsy Cline and Jenny Lewis, is seductive yet vulnerable throughout. New songs like “Civil War” and “Cry Cry Cry” are thematically consistent with her discography, retelling tales of failed relationships and broken hearts in the language of soulful pop songs, equal parts Motown and Nashville.

On “Maybe Tonight,” Atkins sings, “Search the dial for what I need to know / They don’t play those songs on my radio,” which perfectly encapsulates the plight of modern rock music. If you have two ears and a soul, Nicole Atkins should be on your radio.

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