Feature photo by Sarah Syman

Underneath the season’s first dusting of snow, quasi-scenesters flocked to the Congress Theater last Saturday to catch the flagship show of the three-day Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival, featuring Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. In the interest of titular integrity, the Congress’s ample lobby was made the site of a bluegrass side stage, which a small group of fans tarried to watch before continuing inside. What was performed by the headliners on the main stage that night may have had roots in both genres, but both had decidedly moved past them.

The Nocturnals took the stage first. Grace Potter and her band dove into an impassioned set of boisterous, bluesy pop almost as hard as I would into Grace Potter. Their commitment to rock-show exuberance was unflagging from the start. The frontwoman alternately wailed on an organ, chopped out rock-show guitar chords, and danced feverish, miniskirted, rock-show dances. Often she did any of these while absolutely killing it on vocals.

Grace Potter frequently ceded the center of attention to her musicians. Guitarist Scott Tournet was a notable showcase. His solos punched rock music in its pentatonic gut and his stylings on slide provided Potter lush support, much the same way her legs did. The center of attention, as always, was her voice. Singular, wizened, and expertly wielded, Grace Potter’s pipes may be the finest of our generation. Her voice is powerful, it is passionate, and it may or may not reside in someone who I’d nail so hard the NFL would fine me. Her songwriting errs on the side of simplicity, but provides an ample platform on which she can shine.

There were not many dynamic changes in the set. At times I got the impression that the Nocturnals were a cover group doing a good impression of a rollicking blues band. The musicianship supported the act, but there was something a little affected about the enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the reliable Potter put on an immensely entertaining show, due partly to the fact that if she ever invited me to her private room, whoever could pull me out would be named King of England.

Oh yeah: she’s hot. And she really, really wants you to know that.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros took the stage after an interlude set by the Shams Band, a performance in the theater’s side balcony that quickly lost an uphill battle for audience attention. Unfortunately, the Zeros were similarly unable to sustain excitement throughout their set. Give credit to frontman Alex Ebert for being the only person in the world who saw the Arcade Fire and thought, “I could do that!” The problem with having that many people onstage, though, is that without the intensely focused energy that distinguishes Win Butler’s crew, the members basically start to socialize with each other. There were times when the audience’s conversation was more audible than the aimless drone and shuffle beats the band was playing, as Ebert casually paced the stage, chatting up his band members off-mic, imagining himself a big enough deal that we would give a shit what he was doing. We did not.

Adrift in the dragging gimmick of the Zeros, I started to miss Grace Potter’s energy. Edward Sharpe did have his high points, though. Ebert may not have had Potter’s ebullience—although he tried his own hand at sexiness when he inexplicably went shirtless for half the gig—but his songwriting served the occasion perfectly and the dense instrumentation sounded beautiful. The big, open choruses of the material led to some veritably hair-raising moments, notably a rousing delivery of their single, “Home.” Singer Jade Castrinos stole the show with her soaring, earthy bellow. Her performance was animated by something her bandmates largely lacked: an unrestrained passion directed at the audience.

Grace Potter and Edward Sharpe left me feeling conclusive that the two weapons a rock band must own are authenticity and unpretentiousness. Potter is a bona fide rocker, and although she seemed to be imitating her predecessors more than channeling them, she understands what she’s good at, namely her incredible voice. Edward Sharpe, however, was a band looking for a direction and not finding it from gifted-songwriter-turned-impresario-frontman Ebert. His songs are more or less stellar. The Zeros just need to submit to a bit of conventional rock wisdom and show the crowd some enthusiasm. Tightening up their jams couldn’t hurt either. Overall, it was an entertaining evening with two acts I hope become more comfortable with themselves, and whom I would like to see again.

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