In the past three or four years, the LIC Bar, located on the end of a now bustling stretch of Vernon Boulevard, has developed a reputation for hosting some of the neighborhood’s best singer/songwriters – including Little Embers, whom I’m wild about, Jeanne Marie Boes, Gus Rodriguez (aka Silbin Sandovar), Brian Meece, Shelly Bhushan, Megan Kerper and others. With increasing frequency, some of the metropolitan area’s up-and-comers have stopped by to play sets such as the wildly talented Vanessa Boyd and others. I’ve seen a handful of shows at the LIC Bar and based on my own observations and conversations musicians seem to really enjoy playing at the venue – they rave about the sound system, which management has improved; they’ll mention that audiences there tend to come for the music and are lovingly supportive of the musicians; and musicians will rave about the intimate and informal performance spaces. In fact, I’ve heard some compare the LIC Bar to the Rockwood Music Hall, down in the Lower East Side. So when I heard that local indie sensation Nicola was playing her first of hopefully many gigs in Queens, I had to catch her – first because it had been about a year since I had seen her perform live and second, because she’s a phenomenon live. And considering the week I had before, I needed something to start my week off right. But I’ll get into that in a moment...
I’ve known Nicola for some time now, going back to when she introduced herself to me on MySpace. I listened to the tunes she had up and was blown away by that voice – it’s confident, soulful, sultry and powerful. What a voice! And before I saw her perform live, I had this visual sense based on hearing her on albums that she was an Amazonian; that she had to be at least six feet tall but when I saw her perform for the first time at Piano’s, a couple of years back, I was struck by her diminutive size. But she has a commanding, confident presence that’s simply unforgettable. I’ve seen her play with her full backing band and solo acoustic – you can normally catch her do solo sets at Penn Station, Union Square and Times Square as part of the MTA’s Music Underground series – but this would be the first time I would be catching Nicola with her percussionist Ray Diaz.
Now Diaz on the congas and other percussion instruments bring Nicola’s pop sentiment back to el barrio. The drums reminded me of the meringue and salsa blasted at eardrum bursting levels out of cars and house parties along Junction Boulevard, Roosevelt Avenue and 99th Street during boyhood summers. What was impressive to see is that both musicians had the comfortable simpatico of musicians who have played together for years. Both Diaz had Nicola had an impeccable and intuitive sense of what each other were doing and when they would be doing it.
Nicola did many songs I was familiar with from her previous albums and previous gigs, including “Limited Knowledge” which done as an acoustic number peels back the dense layers of the album version and allowed Nicola some room for her vocals to freely roam about the song. It seemed apparent to me that the small, Monday night audience was impressed by this woman. The fourth song of her set, a song I haven’t heard before, reminded me a bit of an old Cyndi Lauper song – and interestingly enough, it was a beautiful moment that enraptured the small crowd at LIC Bar. No one checked their Facebook or went on Twitter, no one aimlessly chatted with their friends. No one stared at the walls or decided to get up for a drink. It was rare and it was probably one of the best moments I’ve seen at the LIC Bar – if not the best moment I’ve experienced at a show this year. “Down,” from her first album had a comfy pop twang and it showed Nicola’s ability to write a catchy pop song. “Message” was pure power pop with some extensive guitar solos and a bit of a Latin party feel, thanks to an extensive solo by Diaz towards the end that had the crowd really getting into a party mood. People started cheering as though the Yankees won the World Series.
There were a couple of hilarious moments – moments that I really couldn’t possibly make up even if I tried. During Nicola’s set a crazy old man yelled out, “I’m horny – now where’s the food!” It was awkwardly funny. And at one point Nicola went into some playful stage banter about playing shows where there was at least one person from Des Moines, Iowa – and there was someone there who was actually from Des Moines, Iowa! What I will say is that Monday night at the LIC Bar was memorable and a helluva lot of fun. Go out and catch this woman – it doesn’t matter if it’s a solo, a duo, a trio or her full band wherever and whenever you can, it’ll be a Latin-styled pop party.
Article and all photos by Willam Ruben Helms. Check out more photos from Nicola's show at LIC Bar on Flickr.