Nikki Lane. Bluebird Theater. 12.06.15
My wife and I got married on a cold December night in Denver, Colorado. We went down to the courthouse, said our vows, and then found our way to the Grizzly Rose to meet some friends. A young country artist named Miranda Lambert performed that night. The honky-tonk off I-25 was pretty packed, but nowhere near capacity. Lambert was 26 years old at the time. She had two albums under her belt, but her latest single was a duet that appeared on her boyfriend’s album, Startin’ Fires. The album, credited to Blake Shelton, also featured a song penned by an unknown songwriter named Chris Stapleton. Lambert would go on to marry Shelton, and they would become one of the most well-known power couples in Nashville, but their marriage wouldn’t last. It dissolved when Shelton left Lambert for a pop star, which just happened to be around the same time Chris Stapleton lit the CMAs on fire with a pop star guest of his own. Fortunately for my wife and me, our marriage has fared much better than theirs. So it was that we found ourselves being entertained by another young country artist on our sixth anniversary.
Nikki Lane traded the white hat and black romper she wore in Hollywood for a black hat and skinny jeans in Denver, but she still had the boots, the guitar, and the attitude I remembered from the show at the Roxy. She also opened things up with the title track from her upcoming album, Highway Queen, just as she did on the Sunset Strip. That’s where the similarities end though. The Bluebird is a much different venue than the Roxy, and Denver is a much different place than West Hollywood, but it was the crowd that made the show so much different. The California performance was in front of a packed house, with many of Nikki’s friends and family in attendance. She could be found bouncing around the VIP section while John Moreland and Daniel Romano warmed the stage for her. It was a family affair and it felt more personal. In contrast, the Bluebird set started out all business.
After a rowdy set from Nashville garage rockers Clear Plastic Masks, Nikki and her band took the stage just after 9:00pm. “Highway Queen”, “Good Man”, and “You Can’t Talk to Me Like That” were all performed back-to-back before a word was spoken. When those first words came, they were used to address the elephant in the room, or the lack thereof. “How’s it goin’ Denver? They scared us earlier by saying we were going to have to move to a smaller venue because only 60 tickets were sold. Were they lying? Or did y’all just show up at the door?” There were more than 60 people in room, but even with the balcony closed off, there was plenty of space to stretch out…even up front. It must have been a bummer to spend all day on the road, only to arrive in a city that didn’t seem to appreciate you, but vocalizing her disappointment seemed to lighten her mood quite a bit. So by the time she dedicated “Man Up” to a girl in the audience named Mary, the fired-up Nikki Lane I’d seen in California was once again present in Colorado.
After saying goodbye to her hometown, as she does every night with “Gone, Gone, Gone”, Nikki admitted to almost cancelling the tour after Vegas because she was so drunk and tired. Luckily for us, she also drank some water and that made her feel nicer. She also took that pause in the set to have us all introduce ourselves to each other. “Everyone in Denver can’t know each other.” After what seemed a simple lesson in civility, she asked if we found each other attractive, “because this next one is about fucking someone you don’t know yet.” It’s comments like those, and songs like “Sleep with a Stranger” and “Wild One”, that earned her the title ‘queen of outlaw country’. And in a venue not known for having the best sound, everything was on point as she solidified her status with those selections.
Never one to forget her excellent band, introductions followed. Ben Eyestone was keeping time on the kit while the newest addition, Alex Muñoz, was holding things down on lead guitar. She was also joined by a female guitarist/backup vocalist, Lauren Barth, who really shined as her partner in crime center stage. The award for best intro goes to bassist Eric Whitman though, as stories from the road were shared, we became privy to his plethora of sexual partners, as well as an unfortunate toilet accident that earned him the nickname Poop Tooth. His public humiliation was followed with a chance to redeem himself as a Dan Auerbach fill-in on the duet “Love’s on Fire”. I have to say he performed the task with style, but I think people will still continue to think about the time he lost his tooth when they see him next.
Feeding off a crowd who knew every word to every song, Nikki Lane just oozed confidence the entire set. Even when we were treated to a handful of songs from her upcoming album, she had us mesmerized…dancing and singing along once we got a handle on the chorus. She made a point to comment on how great the Bluebird Theater was as well. It was her first time there and she was impressed with the cool sign and the fact that she had a lighting girl (“so I can see y’all and figure out who I want to hang out with later“). The latter half of the set consisted of a Waylon Jennings cover and a couple new songs thrown in around the All or Nothin’ tracks. And the whole thing wrapped up with the guys from Clear Plastic Masks joining the band for a wild rendition of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. I didn’t expect an encore after such a strong close, but the queen came back out to bless us with another preview of the new album. Then the night truly ended with “Walk of Shame”. The song came with a thank you and a warning. She thanked us for coming out on a Sunday night and warned us that we were going to be hurtin’ tomorrow. She wasn’t kidding. The set only lasted an hour and a half, and I’d had more than my fair share of bourbon during that time, but even then I knew a headache would be a small price to pay for the fun I was having.
Nikki Lane doesn’t have the Nashville apparatus behind her yet, but she has enough raw talent (and style) to fill the Bridgestone Arena. So although the Bluebird Theater had tickets to spare, her personality occupied all the open space. She didn’t let the size of the crowd get her down either. That attitude is going to be key in her longevity as a performer. People like Lambert and Stapleton had humble beginnings in the Mile High City as well…and look where they are today. Nikki Lane just needs to be heard. Stapleton was given a podium this year. Hopefully he uses it to sing the praises of those who deserve the exposure, because I seriously believe Nikki Lane is is only a late-night television performance away from achieving the type of fame where her music is not only played on country radio, but her relationship status is discussed before the commercial break.
You Can’t Talk to Me Like That
Gone, Gone, Gone
Sleep With a Stranger
Love’s on Fire
All or Nothin’
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Walk of Shame