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The New State of Grace

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Grace Potter has mastered the fine art of getting famous. It's all in how you get dressed: Strap on some cowboy boots and blue jeans, then humbly -- yet glamorously — toss a boa around your neck.

When most 24-year-olds are hoping for nothing more than some money to their name and maybe some milk in the fridge, Potter wakes up every morning in a tour bus, her name scrolled across its flank. Despite finding fame at a young age, she genuinely admits that it's no shocker. Somehow she also sounds modest.

"I've always been ready for this," says Potter. "This has been my dream. In fact, I'd be disappointed if we hadn't gotten to this place by now."

Backed by her all-male band, The Nocturnals, she's seen a radical career climb from the quaint jazz festivals in Vermont's countryside to a high-profile performance at the 2007 Fuji Rock Festival in Japan. When Grace Potter and the Nocturnals came through Toad's Place last October, they opened for Gov't Mule. For their return trip March 5, they're co-headlining with the Benevento Russo Duo. A subtle shift, perhaps, but evidence that their presence is growing.

As a singer and songwriter — and let's not forget guitarist and master of the Hammond B-3 — Potter has truly come into her own in recent years. So, too, has the band's sound.

The band came out of upstate New York's St. Lawrence University in 2002, a jazz-jam band like so many others from the maple syrup states. Since then they've shifted gears to a blues-rock sound, Potter's purr drawing comparisons to the likes of Bonnie Raitt and music channeling Neil Young. Potter says that their latest CD, "This Is Somewhere," perfectly captures where they are now and how far they've come.

"For the first time, we've really found our own sound," she says by phone before a sold-out show in New York. "This blues-rock album is inherently who we are, and we couldn't be something else even if we tried."

As far as lyrics are concerned, Potter seasons her intensely personal subject matter with some ambiguity.

"Sometimes I'll receive letters from fans saying how much my song meant to them and asking exactly who or what I had written about. But part of me doesn't want to tell them," says Potter. "After all, 'Brown Eyed Girl' could have been written about a farmer's damn cow for all we know."

But no matter how far the tour bus lures her away from her roots, she continues to temper the Grace Potter of Vermont with the Grace Potter whose name is on a bus, wearing a little black dress across performances on late shows with Jay Leno and Craig Ferguson, earning a respectable spot as 28th best album of 2007 in Harp magazine and upgrading from smaller jam shows to the monstrous Bonnaroo. And that's simply because both Graces are one and the same.

"On stage, my personality tends to be a bit amplified — I'm louder and more tart, but I think the core of who I truly am definitely comes out as genuine," she says. "And you always have to fight with yourself — I act and speak the same way I always have, but I'm also learning to hold my tongue."

Unless it's for critics who pigeonhole her music or review her hair color instead of her talent. "I did use to sit down and think about how I wanted to appear in the media. But if the music is suffering because of image, then we have to go back to square one and start all over," Potter says.

The girl's got charisma — she's edgy yet sweet, unfiltered yet gracious, beautiful yet grounded, a far cry from the tragic Spears personae. Still, Potter will be the first to admit that being 24-years-young and thrust into the limelight has certainly come with its fair share of obstacles.

"There's a balance that needs to be struck between getting big and keeping your integrity," says Potter. "I sometimes zone out onstage and play with my eyes closed to keep my focus on the music."

She's traded blue jeans and flannel shirts for the glamour of cropped dresses and trendy hair — but not for the fans.

"The new image is me all the way. It's not new, but it's just kind of sprung into my public life," claims Potter. She's become accustomed to the transition from lounging in men's sweat pants, wearing no makeup and taking jabs from the guys — "You're such a dude" — to the creature on the headlining stage, on the way to splashes in music magazines and, probably soon, men's magazines. "I'm a fucking glamazon," she admits.

Maybe her success is in knowing how to manage the two sides of Grace, the Zen of fame. "I don't focus on my image or obsess over it — sometimes I even come out with jeans and cowboy boots," she says. "Both sides are me. What I wear usually just comes down to what's clean in my drawer and what I feel like wearing." S



Grace Potter & The Nocturnals co-headline a show with the Benevento Russo Duo at Toad's Place Wednesday, March 5, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $13.50-$15. Call 648-TOAD or visit www.toadsplacerva.com.





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