Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea at the Turf Club, 3/1/2011

Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea March 1, 2011 The Turf Club, St. Paul

Nicole Atkins appeared onstage unceremoniously, said "Welcome" to the small crowd that had assembled before her at the Turf Club, and gave a short, self-conscious laugh before she tapped her tambourine and started in on the opening song "Heavy Boots." And just like that, her shyness dissipated as her steady, powerful alto soared through that first chorus. All at once, the audience was hers and she was very much in charge.

"You guys should all come up to front," beckoned Atkins after her first song. "Come on, this isn't a dinner club." She smiled a flirty little smile, and the thirty or so people standing moved closer. Atkins was perfectly irresistible.

Her second song, "The Way It Is," was a nice, tortured slow ballad, all bluesy and doleful but still a little alluring--lonesome in the "come hither" way. Atkins is like Patsy Cline with added venom and an electric guitar, and she knew exactly how to talk to the cozy audience she had. Throughout the evening, Atkins called out to members of the crowd, asking their names and giving props for withstanding the cold, and serving up hardy advice about not loaning boys you're dating money.

Atkins introduced her band, the Black Sea (formerly just the Sea, until she replaced her old band with the new band), featuring Irina Yalkowsky on guitar, Jeremy Kay on bass, and Ezra Oklan on drums. These three would prove, over the course of the set, to be far more than just another stock backing band assembled for the sake of having a band, and it was clear that Atkins knew it, and knew when to let her fellow players run away with solos. But it was Atkins who ran the show, who somehow charmed the room without being smarmy about it.

Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea at the Turf Club, 3/1/2011

"I've been sick," she announced to the crowd after a few songs. "Oh, don't cry for me, St. Paul, I'll be fine... I just don't want to get Irina sick. Could someone get Irina a tequila sunrise?"

"It's already been done!" shouted someone from the bar.

"Ah, service! Service in St. Paul!" laughed Atkins with her Jersey accent. "What's your name?" Atkins asked the dude who brought Yalkowsky her drink. "Shane? Everyone give Shane a hand!" The audience complied. "Shane to the rescue! All right, this next song goes out to Shane... not for subject matter, but just for, you know... chivalry." Atkins laughed throatily as she tuned her guitar. "Because this song is actually called 'You Were The Devil'... but you know... eh, it's opposite day." And with that, Atkins launched into devious song about temptation and desire.

Atkins has a sound that grew up on Roy Orbison and Carole King, and her February-released second album, Mondo Amore, might warrant comparisons to the ironic sometimes-twang of Jenny Lewis or the bursting emotional sound of indie-rocker Lissie, or even the crazy vocal tricks and creepy edge of Tori Amos. Half of Atkins' songs sound like they were crafted in a desert; they are all solitude and dust, and the divinely talented Yalkowsky on sliding guitar gave songs like "Hotel Plaster" a haunting, harmonic, steely bite that made Atkins' voice seem like it was echoing in canyons.

Atkins' lyrics are dark and confessional; she's got all those common themes of broken hearts and cheating boys, but her imagery is in devils and dark magic and vultures. Everything Atkins sings sounds desolate, but she sings it all with such a swelling voice that she makes even a three-piece band sound like a symphony.

Lyrics aside, Atkins is a little witchy herself. The Turf seemed to be having some technical difficulties, as just before Atkins' last song, the lights came up on the stage, blinding Atkins and her band.

"Are we getting shut down?" asked Atkins, bemused. The crowd moaned and yelled their displeasure.

"We're working on it," said a rumbling voice from the back. Atkins continued bantering with the crowd as it took the crew a few minutes to figure out what had happened.

"Just turn 'em off, man," Atkins directed whoever was figuring it out. "It's our last song, let's get intimate. Jeff," Atkins grinned with hooded eyes (in the direction of Jeff, who was presumably figuring it out), "let's get sexy."

Jeff managed to turn the lights down, and Atkins launched into "The Tower," a heavy-hitting rock ballad where Yalkowsky's electric riffs could blow your head off in the nicest of ways as she worked a crescendo up with Atkins' howling chorus.

A talent like Atkins' would need an encore, and of course Atkins and her band were called back on to the stage for one. She offered up one song--the intimate "Neptune City" where she started out on her knees at the edge of the stage and where she stayed for most of the song, apparently more comfortable at eye-level with her audience. It was brief, but the whole crowd was clapping in time. Atkins may not be filling selling out venues yet, but that won't always be the case--she's got a voice that could certainly fill auditoriums, and it won't be long before the rest of the music community catches on.

Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea at the Turf Club, 3/1/2011

Critic's Bias: Few things make me happier than a strong, independent woman with a great big voice rocking out with tortured lyrics about wising up to heartbreak. The Crowd: Comfortable, but not full. Atkins is not as well-known as she deserves to be, but for those who managed to make it out, she was a special treat. Overheard in the Crowd: "Prince believes the internet is dead," remarked my friend after Atkins announced that she had worn her Prince shirt in honor of the Purple One's home turf. Random Notebook Dump: Cotton Jones, the second opener (Buffalo Moon was the first) was a real gem of a band. Easy alt-country, psychedelic-tinged without the twang. For more photos: See our full slideshow by Tony Nelson.

Set list: Heavy Boots Maybe Tonight This Is For Love You Come To Me Party's Over Cry Cry Cry Vitamin C The Way It Is You Were The Devil Hotel Plaster Monterrey Honey Baby Don't Lie Vultures War Is Hell The Tower - Neptune City

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