We as a society have finally—FINALLY!—moved past the need for Matty Healy. Sam Cieri and his alternative indie rock band, Nicotine Dolls, are proof of that. Formed in 2017, the Brooklyn-based band consists of frontman Cieri, guitarist John Hays, bassist John Merritt, and drummer Abel Tabares. You may be familiar with Cieri’s singing: He competed in Season 17 of ABC’s “America’s Got Talent,” but withdrew from the competition during the deliberations round. I was lucky enough to hear him live at StageOne in Fairfield on Saturday, Oct. 14.
Of course, I would be remiss in not mentioning the opening act. Self-described as “indie-rock, indie punk-rock,” Abbie Roper kicked off the concert with amazing sound. Roper and her band played a number of original songs, including singles like “Talking Casually” (2023) and “DELETE MAE” (2020). The venue—a black box theater—felt cozy and intimate, thanks in no small part to the fact that it was packed from wall-to-wall. Roper rocked the crowd with insane guitar work and a sort of screamo, punk-rock energy that wouldn’t be out of place at a Paramore concert. Roper’s strong vocals at times reminded me of Julien Baker’s—of both solo and boygenius acclaim—early work. This tour with the Nicotine Dolls is the band’s first time leaving the New York/New Jersey area for a concert, but when they’re not touring the Eastern seaboard, you can find Abby Roper performing any number of small, intimate venues in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. Or, if you’re lucky, you may just find them at one of their New Jersey coffee shop gigs.
Following Abbie Roper was the main act: Nicotine Dolls. Let me tell you, if Cieri has one thing, it’s stage presence. Seeing him work the stage, I had the feeling that if a WestCo boy had a baby with a theater major, Cieri would be the result. A scary prospect, certainly, but an extremely entertaining one to watch. Cieri’s background in Broadway comes across loud and clear through his showmanship. He was friendly and open throughout the entirety of the show, overly eager septuagenarians, drunkenly wandering white women, and all. I say this because at one point early on during the Nicotine Dolls’ set, a woman wandered in front of the stage and began dancing to the Nicotine Doll’s song, and subsequently had to be escorted back to her seat by security—but not before Cieri stopped singing to heckle her. It was quite possibly the funniest part of the show.
But the music is nothing to scoff at either. Nicotine Dolls has a sound somewhere between John Mayer and early The 1975. Cieri’s raspy, smoker’s voice contains a surprisingly strong belt. Hays’ guitar is a strong accompaniment, pairing beautifully with the tone and content of Nicotine Dolls’ songs. We listened to a variety of songs from Nicotine Dolls’ released and unreleased discography. “Upset the Neighbors” was an upbeat crowd favorite, as well as Nicotine Dolls’ classics like “The Madness” and “What Makes You Sad.” Cieri also serenaded us with an unreleased song, “In My Opinion,” which he said is set to release with the band’s new EP in December. The band also played a handful of covers, like their “Love Story // Check Yes, Juliet” mashup, a cover of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” and Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best.”
Cieri spoke frankly with the crowd about a variety of tough topics, like falling in and out of love with songs he writes, and the motivations and feelings behind the deep, emotionally rich songs Nicotine Dolls performs and writes. Of course, he did this while joking the whole way through. We were treated to a live squat demonstration, a series of increasingly more flirtatious encounters with StageOne’s security guard, as well as an accidental dedication of an unreleased song, “Doubled,” to a set of twins in the audience, Amy and Ann. I even braved Cieri’s audience heckling to get a photo of him posing—which I desperately hope makes it to print.
Nicotine Dolls gave us a strong, beautifully musical show. While Cieri’s name may have become a household one thanks to his short stint on “America’s Got Talent,” it’s his and his band’s voice, wit, and musical talent that will surely make Nicotine Dolls a hit going forward. Nicotine Dolls is on tour until Nov. 10, and their new EP, which is currently untitled, is purportedly set to release this December.
Nicole Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.