You couldn’t think up a more sublime opening, or ridiculous ending, for Nicole Atkins’ Saturday night concert at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park.
Atkins, who also performs at the Hope Concert at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank tonight, opened with an unamplified, solo version of the slow, haunting “Neptune City,” sung from the middle of the Pony’s floor, with just her acoustic guitar as accompaniment. It’s the kind of move that few of her contemporaries could pull off, but Atkins has the vocal power to make it work.
In sharp contrast, she closed the show, which was billed as a holiday concert, with the kitchiest seasonal song of them all: “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” Atkins joked that she chose a Christmas song about death since so many of her song are about that topic.
Certainly, most of the songs that came between “Neptune City” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” were closer to the dark, moody tone of the former than that silliness of that latter. On the three albums she has released since 2007, Atkins, who grew up in Neptune, has carved out a niche for herself with music that seems more rooted in the ’50s and ’60s than pop’s present, with rapturous melodies and feverishly melodramatic lyrics that are perfectly suited for her big voice. She was backed by just two musicians at the Pony, guitarist Scott Metzger and drummer Jonny Rogoff (plus, on just a few songs, backing vocalists Amy Malkoff and Jillian Taylor), and sometimes used vocal effects to create layers of sound; throughout the show, she managed to generate a big, emotionally gripping sound.
Despite the seriousness of her music, she has a warm, relaxed stage presence, and chatted amiably between songs. She introduced “War Torn” by saying she’s going to perform it on “Late Show With David Letterman” on Jan. 9, and explained that a new song with the lyrics, “I don’t know what country is, but I know what country was” was inspired by her hate of modern country music.
One of the show’s covers, Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” was not much of a surprise, given how much Atkins seems to be influenced by Orbison. But another one, Lee Hazlewood’s melancholy “My Autumn’s Done Come” — preceded by Atkins’ statement that Hazlewood is her favorite songwriter — was far more obscure, and just perfect for Atkins’ voice.
Songs by Anthony D’Amato, who presented an opening set (and joined in for “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”), ranged from the galloping country of “Was a Time” to the almost jangly pop of “Cold Comfort” and the stately soul of “No Not Tonight.” “Ludlow” was moody but pretty; “On the Banks of the River Where I Died” was inspired by Woody Guthrie, he said. His dense, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and punchy harmonicas solos often seemed inspired by Bob Dylan.
He said Atkins asked him to open the show after hearing one of his songs on the radio. He didn’t have much in common with her, stylistically — he’s as scruffy as she is polished — but it makes sense that he she would be enamored of his music. The depth of his songwriting and his utter lack of interest in following modern trends — not to mention his Jersey roots (he grew up in Blaistown and attended Princeton University) — makes him a kind of kindred spirit to her.