When, mid-set, Rebecca Lovell mentioned that the new CD ‘Venom & Faith’ had gone straight into the biggest Blues chart in America at number one, it seemed like something she was mentioning by-the-by. Atlanta sister duo Larkin Poe have gone from insider tip to the hottest blues act on the planet. This will be the last gig of theirs in Luxor, of that I’m sure, and if you were lucky enough to grab a ticket for the show (which sold out weeks ago) you will know why.
Small clubs don’t have it easy. Very often they book top quality acts that play to a dozen people – most of whom spend the evening at the bar. There are some gigs where the hall gets lucky though, and the audience too. I remember seeing Robert Cray play a Portsmouth ballroom the week ‘Phonebooth’ took the UK charts by storm. More recently, Jack Savoretti played a small and sweaty set at MTC in Cologne before setting foot firmly in the UK Pop Charts with ‘After the Storm’. Tonight it was Luxor’s time to get lucky as a long queue that had begun forming an hour before doors were opened filtered into the narrow corridor leading directly to the stage for Blues music’s worst kept secret – Larkin Poe.
3songs has raved about these girls for a while now, but a quick heads-up about the band for newcomers. Sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell are from Atlanta, Georgia. Their first tentative musical steps began in 2005 as a bluegrass combo with eldest sister Jessica but, as their many home-taped YouTube videos have shown since, the sister’s hearts beat for the Blues. Jessica left the band (although I’m wondering if she might be the lady checking the guitars before the show tonight). Elvis Costello got them touring with him, and Glastonbury 2014 saw the sisters named best new band. Since then, three excellent CD’s of raw, visceral blues and constant touring have led the talented sisters to the little venue of Luxor this evening but will lead them far, far higher soon.
There being two sisters leading the band, an expectant hush fell on the crowd just after 8pm as the lights went down on two front-stage microphones. Murmurs of surprise/disappointment followed when the spotlights revealed Anna Moss and Joel Ludford – better known as Arkansas band Handmade Moments. Ludford immediately sensed the atmosphere and countered with a swift “Not what you were expecting, huh?!”. The ice was broken, and a couple of excellent songs in, all was completely forgiven on the expectancy front.
Handmade Moments delivered a solid set, punctuated by Moss with frequent ‘Um, chahs!’ into the microphone to replace background rhythms. Nice to hear someone doing it this way rather than the increasingly over-used loop pedals and plug-in sound effects. Just to be on the safe side about capturing a German audience, the duo did an enjoyable version of ‘Mercedes Benz’. Hats off to the Handmade Moments, they are accompanying Larkin Poe on their European dates, and there is an audience in Europe now that is impatiently waiting to hear the girls. On this breezy performance, I’m sure a lot of that audience is also going home clutching a freshly bought Handmade Moments CD.
When sisters Megan and Rebecca first step onto the stage they really don’t seem to take up very much of it. The first song of the evening. ‘Tom Devil‘ sees the pair standing around a single microphone, tucked away in a corner. It’s a far cry from the two-minute musical build-up by the band accompanying Ana Popovic’s appearance in Bonn last week. It’s a universe away from the Thin Lizzy style of ‘In Your Face!’ openers too. Larkin Poe don’t go in for stage theatrics – they just stand around that microphone singing, until you realise you are already under their power. That subtle, hypnotic clapping, and the single drumbeat percussion behind. It’s the magic that explains the duo’s success perfectly – They have the ability musically and visually to just be amazing.
But how will they fill this stage? The answer comes immediately as Rebecca Lovell straps on ‘Buttermilk’, her Stratocaster’s pet name, and suddenly launches into the meanest and dirtiest riff you could imagine this side of gasoline alley. Blonde elder sister Megan almost dances across the stage with her lap-steel guitar, and this is as good as any rockband I’ve heard this year has got. Excuse me gentlemen of the band for not noting your names – but you too played your excellent, hard rocking parts.
Between those two openers is the breadth of Larkin Poe at their best. Simple, nervy, swamp-blues that constantly smoulders like a Chinese fire-cracker. Just when you think things are all calm – wham! the girls put the throttle back down – “tripping the breakers” as they perfectly describe it on ‘Wanted Woman’. Two of the band’s best-known tracks come surprisingly early in the set: The raunchy ‘Trouble in Mind’ and Lead Belly’s ‘Black Betty’. I’m sure Huddie Leadbetter would never have dreamed that two young white girls would take his classic and give it a fresh coat of paint in the 21st Century. The same is true I’m sure of Son House. If you haven’t heard Larkin Poe’s gobsmackingly amazing version of ‘Preaching Blues’ then please check it out online and come back to this review afterwards – I don’t mind waiting for you! I was ten feet away from Megan’s lap-steel guitar on this one and it was like an electric current running out to my ears.
There’s a similar treat in store on the new disc in the shape of Skip James’ classic ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’. How do these girls get so perfectly into the skin of old black men singing old blues songs?. It’s a conundrum that Rebecca Lovell can’t explain either. “I grew up lucky, with loving, supportive parents. I get to play music with my sister. I’ve had it pretty good. But I still get a lot of negative voices in my head. Inner demons…” Her song ‘Freedom’ is the reminder that she doesn’t need to be controlled by these demons.
If it all sounds a bit horror/macabre then you should also know two things about the Lovell sisters: 1 – the ‘Poe’ in their name comes from Edgar Allan Poe, a distant relative and 2 – Rebecca has the mantra ‘Memento Mori’ (Remember you are mortal) tattooed inside her right arm. I get the feeling that this amazing affinity to raw blues comes from a deep well.
There are lighter moments too I hasten to add, as when she remarks on the differences between America and Germany by mentioning that over here you have to pay to use the gas station toilets. “I’ve paid for him many a time!” she laughs, pointing at the rather embarrassed but smiling man on drums. “You never know quite what this one’s going to say!” laughs Megan at her sisters surprise conversational direction.
‘Mad as a Hatter’ sees Rebecca returning to her well of inspiration for a song inspired by the duo’s paternal grandfather and his fight with schizophrenia. The process of dealing with a loved one’s mental deterioration is dark even by blues standards. It makes ‘Mad as a Hatter’ an almost painless listening exerience, yet a spellbinding one too:
“I know what time is, Time is a thief
It’ll steal into bed and rob you while you sleep
And You’ll never feel it
It pulls off the covers, and rifles through your head
Then you’ll wait to find you can’t remember what you just said…”
It’s been a long review, so I really should wrap it up. What I really wanted to finish with is that I came to this show expecting to see two girls who I already knew looked and sounded great. I went away feeling that I witnessed something much deeper than flesh, blood and guitar riffs. A feeling that we’ve only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg where Megan and Rebecca Lovell are concerned. The depth of their love for the traditional Blues, coupled with a slight leaning to the macabre side of the family’s ancestral outlook. Mean guitar and diamond cutting lap-steel solos. There is much now to enjoy, and so much great music still to come I’m sure. In a world of increasingly fake musical integrity, these girls are the real deal.
Right now Larkin Poe are Harmonie sized in popularity. I hope Bonn will get them down here when they come back to Germany next March – before the inevitable Cologne Kantine date beckons. With not too many concerts before the end of this year, I can pretty well safely say this was the best of 2018.
Finally – A close look at Megan Lovell’s lap steel technique…