What Grace Potter learned from a year of socially distanced shows: 'The joy is still there'
It was March 12, 2020. Grace Potter's tour bus had just driven 2500 miles from Nashville to Vancouver, where the rock, blues and soul artist was set to kick off a 13-date tour of the west coast.
That same week, of course, the coronavirus was becoming a greater threat by the minute throughout the U.S. and Canada.
That afternoon at the city's Commodore Ballroom, the stage was set and the band was getting ready for soundcheck. Fans had already begun to line up outside the venue when an order from the city came down, banning all gatherings of 250 people or more.
But Potter and her bandmates didn't pack up their instruments. They invited the fans inside and asked them to spread out. Then, for an audience of roughly two dozen, Potter played the greatest soundcheck of her life.
"I'm telling you, it was like a two and a half hour soundcheck," she tells The Tennessean, laughing. "We went for it."
You can see for yourself — Potter posted a video of that one-of-a-kind gig, compiled from phone footage shot by her crew and audience. With the sunlight still pouring through the ballroom's windows, she gave it her all, leading that small audience to clap along in the same way she's commanded thousands at festivals, theaters and stadiums across the country.
"We knew it was the last waltz," she says. "Whatever version of tour we thought we were going to have was gone. We had to accept that. And then, if I had known how long lockdown and COVID was going to last, I think we probably would have played another few hours."
That's easy to believe, since for the last year, Potter has seized stage time wherever — and however — she could.
In the first months of the pandemic, she started her own livestream series, "Twilight Hour," from her home in Vermont. Last summer, she and her family — including her husband and record producer, Eric Valentine and their three-year-old son, Sagan — climbed aboard an RV and played solo acoustic shows at drive-in theaters across the U.S.
Now, she and her "family crew" have embarked on another tour of outdoor, socially distanced shows — and it will stop down the road from Nashville this weekend.
On Friday, April 30 and Saturday, May 1, Potter plays two solo shows at The Caverns Above Ground Amphitheater, a brand-new venue that sits on a hillside overlooking Payne's Cove in Pelham, Tenn.
"Playing these socially distanced shows has definitely been a bit of an experiment," Potter says. "And I’ve played literally all of them. If there’s an opportunity to play live music, even if we’re not sure if it’s gonna work, count me in."
"That’s how my career started," she continues. "Playing in strange venues that aren’t really meant to be music venues. It formed me into the artist that I am, so it’s really a return to form. I’ve always enjoyed exploring different ways in which we can adapt as humans."
While the setups and scenes have varied across the country on these tours, Potter says there's a constant running through all of the shows.
"The joy is still there. The emotion is still there. Sometimes even the all-out, ecstatic dance headbanging is still there. The only strange adjustment for me was learning that the sound of car horns blaring at me is a good thing."
Potter went solo in 2015 after rising to fame fronting Vermont rockers Grace Potter & The Nocturnals for more than a decade. In 2019, she released her most recent album, the amped-up, cathartic and soulful "Daylight," a title that represents "finding clarity, finally seeing light at the end of a long dark night."
The concert industry hopes to be singing a similar tune in 2021, after being almost completely sidelined for the past year — and outdoor events are leading the way.
The Caverns Above Ground Amphitheater is hosting more than two dozen shows in the next two months, including concerts by Margo Price, Trampled By Turtles, Crowder, Lettuce and Moe.
On top of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival planning a grand return in September, the venue's grounds will be used for seven big shows in the coming months, including Jason Aldean, Billy Strings, Jon Pardi and the Avett Brothers.
Tickets for Grace Potter at The Caverns Above Ground Amphitheater are $70-$90 and $140-$180 per person, and are sold in "pods" to groups of two, four or six. To learn more, visit www.thecaverns.com