TV’s “The Voice” star and her powerhouse partner play The Flying Stage in Barre, Nov. 21
by Ricka McNaughton
Before a concert, Nicole Nelson gets her mental prep work out of the way. Then she silences all the squawky feedback from the part of her performer’s brain concerned with set-up and self-analytics. During a show, she focuses on two things only: “The audience … my heart is with their hearts … and with the song. And that’s it,” she said, her hand emotively slicing the air, much as it does when she sings.
And therefore, when Nicole sang her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” competing on Season Three of NBC-TV’s pop-culture mega-hit show “The Voice,” her mind took a back seat. And as she wrung every gorgeously controlled drop of ecstasy and angst from Cohen’s sensual poem-hymn, it’s a fair bet that of the show’s 12 million or so addicted fans, a whole lot of them caught that perfect shot of musical adrenaline they crave. And when the camera cut from the knowing grins of the celebrity judges to the studio audience, their arms swaying overhead in rapt communion, Nicole’s brain was only half tuning it all in, because her heart was giving it all out. (Yes, you can find it on YouTube.)
“Yeah … thinking and music do not go together,” her musical partner Dwight Richter quipped appreciatively. Nicole Nelson and Dwight Richter have been playing as the band “Dwight & Nicole” for about a decade as versatile singers, songwriters and multi-instrumentalists. Lately they’ve paired things down to a powerhouse sound they call indie-soul and blues. They’ll also slip into jazz, pop or gospel. Some reggae or funk. Even a bit of country. But don’t fence them in.
No one could be happier for Nicole’s exposure on “The Voice” than Dwight was. The acclaim each gets as an individual artist floats both their boats. Before they formed their own group, he was drawn to her sense of melody, her range and depth of artistry. In her musical milieu, Nicole thought he was the most terrific thing out there. They started writing and performing together as friends, doing a wide swath of genres and feeding the love of improvisation that calls so deeply to both of them. And when that sort of thing works very, very well between two young, attractive people, you can guess where that might lead. So, yes, they’ve been a couple for a while, too.
They may do a hundred shows a year, mostly big venues and festivals in rarified musical company. They’ve shared the stage with Buddy Guy, Dave Brubeck, Trombone Shorty, Levon Helm, Norah Jones, Carly Simon, Dr. John and the Avett Brothers. In 2012, Nicole was crowned the Boston Music Awards Female Vocalist of the Year. The pair, and whoever they bring to play with them, rarely wrap without a demand for a standing “O.” But some things set them apart from their contemporaries.
They produce their own music and write a fair share of it. They jump genres. They never tire of an audience favorite because they just keep changing it up. In general, Big Commercial Music frowns on musical freedom. You want the star-making machinery? You stick with the niche they give you. But Dwight and Nicole prefer not to be pigeon-holed.
“There isn’t one style of music that can contain our range of influences,” said Dwight. Genes and geography have landscaped both their musical tastes. Dwight’s grandfather was in a big band. Count Basie, a large family influence, was born one town over from Dwight’s childhood home. On his mother’s side he hails from a line of Reinhardts, going back to the same region of France that Django’s people were from. Quite possibly a DNA trickle there.
Formerly based in hipster Brooklyn, New York and Boston, Dwight and Nicole moved to their cozy digs in Burlington four years ago. Usually, aspiring musical fish swim the other way. But the pair appreciate the Vermont lifestyle and social values. “The creative energy, the muse energy that exists here just seems better balanced,” said Nicole. They appreciate the state’s ardent, all-inclusive arts-loving communities. Nicole has now taken a seat on the board of the Vermont Arts Council.
On November 21, Dwight & Nicole will perform at Barre City’s newest and certainly its funkiest venue, The Flying Stage. [See event and online ticket information below.] The concept is the brainchild and newest project of ReBop Records president and musician Diana Winn Levine, of Marshfield. The Flying Stage lives in the rafters of its community partner ReSOURCE-VT, in a former granite shed. Before an event, the floor below the stage is cleared of the storefront’s re-salable merchandise and the stage “flies” down. Seating is brought in, including what used chairs and sofas ReSOURCE has in the store at the time. The Barre show takes its name, “On Top of the World,” from a song written for their “Shine On” CD. With both dark and light shadings, the lyrics prod that we all have something to say. It fits with plans to use the Flying Stage as a venue where many kinds of creative voices, from the local community and beyond, can have a place to be heard.
Two years ago, when Dwight and Nicole opened for Mavis Staples at the intimate, beautifully restored Barre Opera House, they felt something transcendent besides the presence of Mavis herself. They felt enveloped in an enormous warmth. They sensed that the audience there was all in with them. “To us the magic is in that concentrated attention [between the audience and the artist] and it’s healing for both parties,” said Nicole. “It was one of the highlights for us, musically, since we’ve been in Vermont,” said Dwight. So although they rarely play small venues now, Barre must rate an exception.
During the interview for this story which the couple graciously hosted in their kitchen, Nicole jumped up and beckoned the assembled to a west-facing window. Outside, a sunset was spilling ecstatic hues both over and onto Lake Champlain. It was important that we pause to enjoy the artist’s latest improvisation on a theme.