Nicole Atkins reestablished that her voice is a marvel at the Outpost in the Burbs’ first OutpostFest, held at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Montclair on Sept. 23. (It moved there from its intended site, the grounds of the Van Vleck House & Gardens, because of the heavy rain that was forecast for that day, and that indeed came.) She sounded great on her opening song, “Neptune City.” But she coughed a little at the end of it, and then told the audience that she was suffering from bronchitis, and that “we’re going to see how this goes … I’m going to see how many songs I can get through without totally dying.”
She started another song, but abandoned it quickly, saying she need to play something that would allow her to sing in a lower register. “This is my worst nightmare,” she told the crowd.
She then sang “A Night of Serious Drinking” and, once again, sounded great, but also started coughing again. She made it through most of the song but then stopped abruptly. “I am really sorry,” she said. “I can’t do it.”
In a show of support, the crowd clapped loudly. She promised to come back, and thanked the crowd “for being so cool,” but then left the stage.
The end to the show seemed particularly disappointing since Atkins sounded so good when her illness wasn’t getting in the way. But it also was alleviated, to some degree, by the fact that the OutpostFest had already offered a lot of stellar music, by five other acts, on this rainy afternoon.
Joe Pug, performing solo, added covers of the late John Prine’s “Sam Stone” and the late Justin Townes Earle’s “Mama’s Eyes” to his own thoughtful, warmly sung, originals. Though his tone was usually serious, he got a little lighter for the jaunty standard “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)” and his own “I Don’t Work in a Bank,” a short song that many artists (and journalists, these days) will be able to relate to. He described it as a “tough love song” written after a fight with his wife, to express what he sees as “the nature of our domestic reality.”
“I don’t work in a bank, they’re not my beans to count/If you want proof, when I go broke, no one will bail me out,” he sang. “Don’t ask me where I’m going, don’t ask how much I drank/If you want answers, that’s just fine, but I don’t work in a bank.”
Freedy Johnston, who has been recording unassuming pop-rock gems for more than 30 years, was expertly backed by guitarist James Mastro (The Bongos, Ian Hunter’s Rant Band) and drummer Steve Goulding (Graham Parker & the Rumour). “I only play with legends,” Johnston said, as if awed, himself, by the musicians he was onstage with.
His set included older songs (“Bad Reputation,” “The Lucky One,” “This Perfect World,” “Responsible”) as well as some relatively new ones (“There Goes a Brooklyn Girl,” “Darlin’ “), mostly in his distinctive, reflective-but-still-catchy style, though there also was one stylistic outlier, “Remember Me,” which has a bit of folk-gospel flavor. (Watch videos of “The Lucky One” and “Darlin’ ” below).
Debra Devi and her band added some blues flavor to the show. Montclair native Matthew Smith, who performs under the name Hodera, generated some feel-good sentimentality by inviting his father, J.O. Smith, to join him on vocals and harmonica throughout his set, in the same room where he was baptized. (“When they said this was getting moved to the church, it was upsetting, but also, it was like, it’s a very full circle,” he said.)
And Adam Falcon, who opened, capped his solo set with a powerful one-two punch that seemed tailor-made for the day’s depressing weather, with the mournful ballad “Woke Up Crying,” featuring lyrics about tears falling like rain, being followed by the buoyantly hopeful “Sunshine (Woke Me Up This Morning).”
To check out the Outpost in the Burbs’ fall offerings, visit outpostintheburbs.org.
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