Nicole Atkins - Manchester Gulliver's
"You up for some more audience participation, Manchester? Yeah? That's so cool. If I try this back home in New Jersey, they’re like 'Yeah, go fuck yourself...'" Tonight, on her first headline tour of the UK, Nicole Atkins encourages the kind of stage-front involvement guaranteed to chill the bones of your average hardened gig-goer. Hey, lady – we pay, you play? Capiche? And yet this uncommonly involving experience shreds a goodly portion of that there rulebook; a cool take-down of our stiff resolve. By the end, we’re on our backs. Atkins is an infectiously blithe presence, all perma-grin, a sea of hair and white kaftan. She goes to work on us and we fold.
It's all kinds of crazy that, seven years after the release of debut Neptune, only now is she touring the UK and Europe under her own steam. Bar a handful of dates earlier this year with Arc Iris, and the odd support slot with the likes of Regina Spektor and Eels, we've hardly seen her. Manchester, as savvy as ever, offers healthy numbers and a raucous welcome. But then she grabs us from the off, stepping out from the back of the venue, parting the crowd and beginning the show with a tender, unamplified version of 'Neptune City' right there in the centre of the floor. Just guitar, that voice with its impossible, ringing vibrato and a hall of ardent helpers. A Moment. An unfamiliar crowd bagged in an instant, she skips to the stage, alight. Her two piece backing band offer most excellent guitar and drums. What more do you need? 'Maybe Tonight' opens the show proper. Bang. Her two 'biggest' songs dispensed in the blink of an eye. There's your brave, huh?
With the set split evenly between her three albums to date, she jaunts from the music hall pomp of her debut to the groove and grit of follow-up Mondo Amore. 2013's Slow Phaser should have made her a household name, its soul pop savvy suited to our current predilection for anything that sounds vaguely fucking old. No such luck, clearly, the dimwit masses opting for cloning rather than character and authenticity.
Everything tonight is heated and possessed, alive with black magic and wonder: the pulsing gospel of 'It's Only Chemistry'; a fiery reworking of 'The Way It Is'; 'The Tower' an epic, terrifying close-out, a three piece alive with the electro-shock therapy of a thousand Bad Seeds. She claims Lee Hazlewood's 'My Autumn Done Come' and the line "Let those 'I-don't-care-days' begin, I'm tired of holdin' my stomach in" crystallises much of Atkins' go-hang philosophy. Mocking both expectations and the lack of an actual backstage, she wryly annotates the end of her set: "So, two more songs and we're gonna walk off stage right through you all, straight to the back and we're not coming back for an encore. Because that's gonna look stupid." But, untrue to her word, she saves us our indignities by checking herself and settling once more into the heart(s) of the crowd. She smiles, takes a moment and then sings us home with a frighteningly accomplished and lovingly detailed capture of Roy Orbison's 'Crying'. Strong men crumble. It was, you realise, always this way.