Thursday, November 03, 2022

REVIEW Stevie Nicks in Huntsville "It was like a dream-sequence or something"

If you weren’t at Stevie Nicks’ Halloween concert, you missed out

By Matt Wake

It was like a dream-sequence or something. Beneath a crescent moon and wearing a witch’s hat, Stevie Nicks told us, “Well, this is the best Halloween I can ever remember having.”

Which is akin to getting a high-five from Michael Jordan after sinking a jumper, or Steve Jobs saying that new idea of yours is pretty good.

Did this really happen in Huntsville, Alabama? Oh yeah.

There we were, 8,000 people at Orion Amphitheater, getting mesmerized by Nicks, rock & roll’s ultimate witch. And we mesmerized her right back.

Nicks played a sold-out show at Orion on the most Stevie of all nights, Oct. 31. Backed by her ace eight-piece band, she radiated the talent that made her the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first two-time female inductee.

That voice. Those songs. The star-power. They’re still there and in no short supply. Nicks is now 74. But ever since she was a 25-year-old ingenue on the “Buckingham Nicks” album she’s always seemed simultaneously young and old.

Onstage at Orion, her aura remained ageless. And unlike many male classic-rock singers, including a couple of my all-time favorites, she still sounds and looks like herself. Her crystal-velvet rasp is a bit more head-voice than chest-voice than it used to be. But she’s retained her range and tonal vibe and hits all the notes.

Nicks’ set was introduced by a dear, departed friend. Her intro tape blasted “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the 1989 rock hit by Tom Petty, a collaborator and coolness colleague. It would not be the night’s last echo of Petty, who died in 2017 from toxicity-induced cardiac arrest at age 66.

The fact Nicks, who’s famously battled demons of her own, is still with us -- healthy, rocking and thriving -- is a gift. And there’s little doubt everyone at Orion last night, including her, appreciates that.

After house lights darkened, stormy visuals projected on an onstage video screen. Nicks’ band strode out and began grooving on “Outside the Rain,” a sashaying cut from her excellent 1981 debut solo album “Bella Donna.”

When Nicks walked out -- poised as you’d expect -- from the back of the stage, the crowd gave her a hero’s welcome. On her way to a scarf-adorned mic stand, she bid hello to her band and her audience. Her hair in long blonde curls, she wore a dark velvety long skirt and black top with spangles around the sleeves.

From the first note she sang, Nicks’ voice charged the electrons in the air. It’s a haunting, stirring sound. Even though she has her own rock heroes, including Janis Joplin, Nicks has never sounded anything like them. And no one since has sounded like Stevie Nicks either. She owns her frequency.

“Outside the Rain” is a good song. But when Nicks and her band segued directly into a great song, the Fleetwood Mac classic “Dreams,” the entire amphitheater seemed to levitate. All told, Nicks allocated five songs of her 16-song, hour-and-40-minute set to the band that first made her famous, back in the mid ‘70s.

Fleetwood Mac is a band full of supremely talented, unique musicians. But hearing Nicks sing a few Mac hits with her solo band made it clear whose magic put that band over the top, from blues-rock also-rans to stadium-crushing superstars.

[Before you angrily email me, of course I adore the musicianship of Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood too. But I’ve been to a Buckingham solo gig, in Los Angeles a few years ago right after he was sacked from Fleetwood Mac because of tensions with Nicks -- they were a couple back in the day, in case you’re from Mars -- and it was a spirited and good show. Buckingham’s a gifted, one-of-a-kind guitarist. But he didn’t leave his audience spellbound like Nicks does hers. After his ouster, Buckingham took a cheap shot in the press theorizing Nicks was envious he’d become a parent and she hadn’t. She might not have biological offspring, but her adoring fans are her spiritual children.]

As a live performer, there’s not much choreography involved with Nicks. Unlike many classic-rock sex symbols, female or male, she’s never been inclined to run around stage acting crazy or shaking it. At Orion, at the mic stand she’d flow her arms and sway as she sang. Whenever she grabbed the mic, she really meant business.

Other Mac songs later in Nicks’ Halloween set included a version of acoustic gem “Landslide” that turned the amphitheater into a campfire hangout. Keyboardist Darrell Smith played a poignant electric-piano solo on that one. The character in Nicks’ singing voice gives a line of lyrics a novel-chapter’s worth of imagery.

Before several songs in the set, Nicks told a background story about the next song, in that charming personality of hers. Leading into “Gypsy,” she said how sometimes she’d put her mattress on the floor to reconnect with the young woman she was before joining Fleetwood Mac. A groover laced with incense, blow and Beaujolais, the reflective “Gypsy” had the many ladies in the audience singing along.

Ditto, “Gold Dust Woman,” which featured an extended mystical intro and echoed vocal riffs. It was thrilling to see Nicks get lost in that nearly half-century old song, from Fleetwood Mac’s mega-selling “Rumours” album, like this was the first tour she’d performed it on. Ninety-five percent of the night she stuck to her original melodies. The few times she deviated, the subtle variations were as artful as Miles Davis trumpet fills.

It’s wild just how much Nicks’ fans, especially female, see themselves in her and her songs. At Orion Amphitheater, many of them echoed some of Nicks’ signature looks, with lots of top-hats, shawls, cowls, berets and black being worn out in the crowd.

Stevie Nicks ends up on a lot of bucket lists. The bucket lists of fans, many of whom at Orion were seeing her perform for their first time. It was definitely Nicks’ first Huntsville show.

More journalists than just yours truly were jazzed about covering the concert. Even the concert’s opening act Ingrid Andress -- a country songsmith who conjured Taylor Swift-meets-Miranda Lambert-on-solo-piano vibes on songs like “Wishful Drinking” -- told the crowd, who showed up early en masse, opening for Nicks realized a lifelong dream.

Since it was Halloween, there were some full-on costume-clad fans at the show. The best: a group dressed as the new-wave band Devo. The worst: the Caesar whose nonstop mid-concert loud-talking had a few rows of other fans ready to throw him to the lions.

Four songs in, Nicks hit an early peak with a rousing “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” her smash-hit duet with Petty. Waddy Wachtel, Nicks’ longtime curly-haired guitarist, replicated Petty guitarist Mike Campbell’s stinging leads. In addition to Nicks, Wachtel has been a go-to guitarist for stars like Keith Richards, Linda Ronstadt and Steve Perry, to name a few.

The “stage moves” Nicks does have are also more about getting lost in the music than hey-look-how-cool-and-foxy-I-am. Throughout her Halloween concert, Nicks would periodically execute some of her trademark twirls. Seeing her twirl in-person made me wonder if she was the inspiration for Lynda Carter’s transformative spinning on the “Wonder Woman” TV show.

At Orion, Nicks worked a tambourine during some of the set, another vintage Stevie visual. After singing the ethereal “Bella Dona” title track, she drew the crowd’s attention to the shawl she was draped in. It was the same blue one from that album’s back cover photo. Still in perfect condition, somehow.

In addition to the hits, Nicks’ set highlights included “Enchanted,” a boogie off radiant 1983 sophomore LP “The Wild Heart.” Drummer Drew Hester’s kickdrum sounded like Godzilla steps during a hard-rock version of 2011 track “Soldier’s Angel.” Nicks dedicated the song to Ukraine. The stage lights turned to Ukraine’s yellow and blue flag colors and a QR code for donations to Ukrainian war relief was shown on the video-screen.

As thrilling as it was hearing Nicks sing Mac monoliths, the solo stuff ruled. Particularly how this quintessential ‘70s rocker utilized synthesizers during the ‘80s. At Orion, “Stand Back” pulsated with neon simmer, courtesy of keyboardist Ricky Peterson. Guitarist Carlos Ruiz sliced slinky rhythms and peeled off a hot solo. During “Stand Back,” Al Ortiz’s bass rearranged Orion into a dancefloor for both fans and Nicks, who rang up at least nine twirls during that song alone.

The overall sound mix was crisp and warm throughout the show. You never once had to strain to hear Nicks’ vocals, and everything was expertly balanced and sonically articulate.

Set-closer “Edge of Seventeen” opened with an extended drums and guitar intro. Wachtel, who played the simple-staccato groove on the song’s original recording, stretched out for bluesy licks, before the whole band returned to lock in. The backing vocal ooh-baby-oohs, so integral to “Edge of Seventeen,” were done onstage by Sharon Celani and Marilyn Droman, who provided angel textures all night.

Before her first exit from Orion’s stage, in lieu of announcing the band, Nicks walked to each band member and bowed to them. Band intros can be a cool gesture. But it was noticeable last night how better a show flows without them. And really, audience members rarely commit the backing musician names to memory. Whether announcing them or not, showing the band appreciation is what matters. Nicks obviously appreciates hers.

After Nicks and band walked off, the stage returned to dark. The crowd roared and applauded, and not the typical level of encore-inducing appreciation either. This was louder. More urgent.

A few minutes later, the band and Nicks returned. After “Edge of Seventeen,” where do you go from there? The answer, at least tonight, was a heartfelt cover of Tom Petty’s signature song, “Free Fallin’.”

A photo montage of Petty and Nicks together over the years heightened the moment. For the “Free Fallin’” choruses, Nicks had 8,002 backing singers. On the side of the stage, Nicks’ roadcrew had donned Halloween costumes. They were reveling in the moment too.

After the Tom Petty tribute, Nicks told the Orion crowd not to leave yet because she had a Halloween surprise. A few minutes later she and band returned, all wearing witch hats. They then unfurled the tribal beats of “Rhiannon,” Nicks’ witchy Fleetwood Mac classic.

The audience became cats in the dark and then we became the darkness. Nicks donned a flower-crown she picked up off the stage floor and floated across the stage like the May Queen.

The band jammed the song out a bit. Then, Nicks bid a fond farewell. She sounded eager to return Huntsville, where she’d spent the last three days leading up to the show.

Right before Nicks’ set, a video message from the city’s music officer, Matt Mandrella, proclaimed Oct. 31, 2022 as Stevie Nicks Day in Huntsville. The Orion crowd roared its approval. During the concert, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle could be seen at his floor seat using his phone to record some of Nicks’ performance.

After the second encore, the house lights went up. A tape of Tom Petty’s cautionary-Hollywood hit “Into the Great Wide Open” eased fans out of the amphitheater.

The Nicks concert put an exclamation point on the state-of-the-art Orion’s first season. After a year-one lineup boasting stars like Jack White, Dave Matthews Band, Chris Stapleton, Earth, Wind & Fire and others, it’s intriguing to think what year-two will be like.

No one who witnessed Stevie Nicks’ Halloween show at Orion will forget it anytime soon. And it was humbling for her to say -- before fading into the night -- she’ll remember us too.


Anonymous said...

Well-written review!

Lil Deb Nazaroff said...

Such an Amazing experience! Great writing, establishing everything Stevie wanted to bring to this particular show! I look forward to coming to Huntsville, Alabama every Halloween from here on out. What a Great storyteller Stevie and Matt have been for this Wonderful, Mystical, All Hallows Evening

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