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Live Review: Nicotine Dolls @ Union Stage — 6/20/24

When you attend a concert, you expect to be entertained. Sometimes that means just hearing great music. Other times bands are a bit more engaging and you get to hear stories about the songs they are playing. Still other times you get shows like Nicotine Dolls at Union Stage. Not only did they recently play great music and engage the audience by telling stories, lead singer Sam Cieri entered active conversations with the audience.

Additionally, the crowd had the chance to choose part of the setlist in a live, online poll.

Nicotine Dolls

At Union Stage on June 20, Nicotine Dolls welcomed singer Sophie Villy to open the show. If you like Edie Brickell, you’ll like Sophie Villy. Her music grooves and has a relaxed vibe to it. She’s Georgian (the country, not the state) and in between songs she tried to teach the crowd some Georgian colloquialisms. She had great energy and a great band, bolstered by Nicotine Dolls bass player, John Merritt.

In what would be the theme of the evening, Sophie played a couple of great covers: “High & Dry” by Radiohead and Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” At the end of her set, she celebrated with a selfie of her and the crowd.

A short time later, Nicotine Dolls took the stage and surprised everyone with a cover of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” complete with a beautiful saxophone accompaniment from their tour manager. It was a soft, lush opener that doesn’t hit you over the head. It’s a perfect opener for the band because it reflects them; it’s familiar but a sound you haven’t heard in a little while. There’s a sound there that brings you back to place and time when you believed music could do anything.

Nicotine Dolls

The band is made up of singer Sam Cieri, guitarist John Hays, bassist John Merritt, and drummer Abel Tabares. For the uninitiated, how best to describe Nicotine Dolls’ sound? Perhaps take the music of Soul Asylum, add a bit of ’70s Rod Stewart in the lyrics, and make Michael Bolton sing it. Or just go listen to them and form your own comparisons. Check out the video for their song “What Makes You Sad.”

Watch the official music video for “What Makes You Sad” by Nicotine Dolls on YouTube:

Strange stuff can happen during a concert. Not only was this show not an exception, it almost seemed like something strange was in the air. A few songs in, the Nicotine Dolls announced that they actually want people to get on their phones and take a poll. They did some covers during each set, and they said that this is the first show where the audience would get to pick the cover song.

A few songs later, Sam noticed the youngest member of the crowd right in front of the stage. His name was Mark, and he was nine years old. Sam tried to explain the next song, “Upset The Neighbors,” in PG terms. He tried the old wrestling with your friends analogy but Mark wasn’t having it. But before the band broke into the song, Sam got down to Mark’s level and signed the t-shirt he was wearing.

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“SLIP” was up next. They followed “SLIP” with another cover, but not the audience choice. They tore into a great rendition of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” Two songs later, they played “Cryin’” by Aerosmith. The crowd choice came soon enough, though. The band’s tour manager/saxophonist arrived on stage with the results, which he whispered in Sam’s ear. According to Sam, they don’t attempt this cover live very often…”Love Story” by Taylor Swift. 

Nicotine Dolls

There were stories between every song. Most were humorous, a few were very touching, but one that was unexpected came after their cover of “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls. Sam started talking about the importance of love and how the upcoming song was about finding that one person. Then he asked a guy in the audience what he thought about it. That’s when he took a knee and asked his girlfriend to marry him. She said yes.

Nicotine Dolls

After the next song, one audience member asked the band to play a song they had already played before because she wanted to hear it again and 9-year-old Mark piped up again. He started talking to Sam about his upcoming vacation trip to Lake George. Sam told them both that they didn’t seem to know how concerts work but gave Mark a pass. He then told a story about shopping with his grandmother, who had recently passed away, and how she helped him buy a leather jacket. He just about got through the story without tearing up, but he had to take a moment for himself before playing the next song.

Nicotine Dolls

After doing their version of Tina Turner’s “The Best,” they wrapped up the set, with “How Do You Love Me.” The band pulled the curtain back a little on encores. “You know encores are bullshit, right? We’re going to finish up and go over there for a minute while you clap. Then we’ll come back and play a few more songs that we were already planning on playing. If any band ever says they weren’t going to do one until the crowd started cheering, they’re full of shit.”

Nicotine Dolls

To that end, Sam grabbed an unmic’ed acoustic guitar, left his microphone on stage, jogged to the middle of the audience and began a solo, acoustic version of Cher’s “Believe.” Eventually, the rest of the band joined in and they wrapped everything up with their most popular song, “What Makes You Sad.”

Nicotine Dolls

I knew the show would be great. But what I didn’t know was how much fun the show would be. The band cuts up with each other and with the crowd. They played songs I didn’t expect. They told stories that went through the entire range of emotions. Go see this band while they are still accessible and playing clubs!

Nicotine Dolls

Setlist

  • Moon River (Henry Mancini)
  • Til We Both Say
  • Hate It Fight It
  • Real House
  • Upset The Neighbors
  • SLIP
  • In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel)
  • Next To Me
  • Let Me Know
  • Love Story (Taylor Swift)/Check Yes Juliet (We The Kings)
  • Cryin’ (Aerosmith)
  • Iris (Goo Goo Dolls)/I’m With You (Avril Lavigne)
  • Touch The Ground
  • 30 Somehow
  • The Best (Tina Turner)
  • How Do You Love Me

Encore

  • Believe (Cher)
  • What Makes You Sad

Here are some more photos of the Nicotine Dolls performing at Union Stage on June 20, 2024. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Marc Shea. 

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