Larkin Poe

Live Review | Parish Church, Wigan | Review by Keith Belcher

On arriving at Wigan Parish Church I spotted a Larkin Poe poster labelling them as ‘Swampadelic Soul Sisters direct from Atlanta, Georgia’. The first time I’d seen or heard of the word Swampadelic, more of that later. Getting to the Church was a challenge. My satnav had already taken me on two circular tours of Wigan, each time getting desperately close to the Church only to be thwarted by Bus/Taxi lanes and one way systems, almost like driving through Sheffield! I settled for abandoning the car nearby and walking as directed through a narrow ginnel to the Church. For those not from the North of England that’s a narrow passageway between two buildings. By the time the Church doors were unlocked a good crowd had gathered for the night’s show. Pausing only to grab a cushion for some comfort when faced with sitting on an unforgiving wooden Church pew for a couple of hours I took my seat, resisting the urge to genuflect and cross myself having been a good catholic while younger. Being a Weddings/Funerals only sort of Churchgoer I’m not used to seeing a pair of swampadelic soul sisters rocking in front of the altar so this was going to be interesting.

Larkin Poe is the name taken by the two younger Lovell sisters, Rebecca and Megan after their eldest sister Jessica chose another path in life after performing as bluegrass band The Lovell Sisters for many years. The Lovell Sisters appeared at many large American festivals and the Grand Ole Opry. Keeping in mind that Rebecca and Megan are still only 22 and 24 respectively this means they have been performing most of their lives. Larkin Poe was the name of their great, great, great grandfather. They currently perform with bass player Robby Handley and drummer Marlon Patton. Judy Dunlop, a very well known singer in her own right and also mother of Blair Dunlop with whom Larkin Poe have recently released a collaborative CD EP Killing Time did the honours as MC for the night. Support was provided by Fabian Holland, a very well regarded young singer, songwriter and guitarist. Fabian’s been playing guitar since the age of seven, taught initially by his father before attending the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford. After that he spent four years in Italy learning and developing his musical style. He now lives on a narrow boat in London. Playing a Lowden guitar in an accomplished wonderfully flowing style with many flourishes but never over embellished Fabian did a mixture of his own and traditional songs. His second song “Like Father Like Son” about turning into his Dad raised a chuckle throughout the audience who obviously recognised many of the traits mentioned. This was followed by a more serious and sad song “Little Boy Johnny” about a military conscriptee at age 18. Another own composition “At The River” related to his observations from his narrow boat. A traditional song “Banks of the Dee” was very ably given his own interpretation. He finished the set to much applause with “Dr Price”, a tale of a 19th century druid, surgeon, chartist , lawyer, bard, nudist, vegetarian and pioneer of cremation. Fabian has a CD due for release on October 7th.

After a short break Judy introduced Larkin Poe. Larkin Poe as a band have evolved musically in a huge way in the last couple of years. This year there were some personnel changes in that guitarist Rick Lollar and drummer Chad Melton left the band, Chad being replaced by Marlon and Rebecca has mainly put aside her acoustic guitar and taken to playing a mean electric lead guitar as well as mandolin and fiddle. Megan plays Lap Steel with attitude as well as occasional keyboards. Recently Mark Radcliffe at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival commented (I paraphrase slightly at times) “one of my favourite acts this weekend has been Larkin Poe, two sisters from America originally an acoustic bluegrass outfit who were playing a sort of deep down and dirty sort of swamp blues, you heard this incredible slide guitar thinking that’s going to be played by someone who looks like one of the hairy bikers and you turn the corner and it’s being played by a very pretty young girl with silver hair (Megan)”.

Fair praise indeed. As well as deep down and dirty the two sisters also produce the sort of sublime harmonies that seem divinely reserved for siblings. Over the past couple of years the band’s music has evolved and been refined significantly to their own gutsy but sophisticated sound, what they call Swampadelic Americana Soul. They still do the occasional cover song , tonight they did as an encore a wonderfully harmonious “Take Me Back” by Buddy and Julie Miller but the majority of the music is theirs, written by them, arranged by them and played in their own style which is also more sophisticated than traditional Blues swamp music taking in elements of gospel, jam band, soul, R&B and country. That sounds like a melange but it really works well and sounds good.

Rebecca urged the audience to make noise as she had noticed that she had been very conscious of the noise her footsteps were making in the Church. Possibly not the best thing for Rebecca to say in a Church was “For Christ’s sake let’s make some noise” but no bolt of lightning split the roof so all was obviously well and approved of on high. First song was “The Principle of Silver Lining”, which has undergone many arrangement changes over the years, this performance a lot heavier and gutsier musically but with delicate ever building background vocals from Megan in contrast to Rebecca’s lead vocals finishing with Rebecca joining Megan in harmony. No pause for breath and straight into “Trick of the Light”.

The band have become a lot more substantial and polished musically in the last year or so with Rebecca both singing powerful vocals and taking lead guitar role, with Megan producing some ‘down and dirty’ Lap Steel. You start to get what they mean by Swampadelic Americana Soul. A very swampy, bluesy traditional Wade in the Water followed, the contrast of the harmonies and powerful strident music with soaring electric and Lap Steel breaks as well as a mandolin solo throughout worked really well getting the audience to form a couple of choirs and join in with the multiple harmonies coming from all band members. “Mad as a Hatter” a new unrecorded song written for their crazy grandfather and performed last year at Cropredy for the first time featured Rebecca on mandolin and Megan playing some very powerful but subdued Lap Steel licks, beautiful harmonies throughout and many hand gestures from Rebecca during the choruses of ‘Off With Her Head’.

Another new song, the very rocking “Sugar High” followed with piercing Lap Steel from Megan, Robby and Marlon keeping a very solid rock rhythm. A new far gentler song “Slow Moving Giant” contrasted with “Sugar High” and “Mad as a Hatter”, Megan playing some keyboards in addition to Lap Steel on this one. Rebecca switched to fiddle for another new song “The Heart of You” in the same gentler vein, debating whether it was a fiddle or a violin. The best definition I have heard was from Tim O’Brien with “you can spill beer on a fiddle!” A bass and drum groove rhythm was background for the band intros leading into “Mr Mechanic”, a junkyard romance song. Some delightful interplay between all instruments in the band to get a very catchy groove going to Rebecca’s slowly phrased vocals.

Back into the swamps for hip swinging muddy swamp soul on this one. Almost scat singing at times between Rebecca’s vocals and Megan’s guitar. “The Banks of Allatoona” about (their words) an ugly lake in Georgia showed a new dimension with a pre-recorded opening vocal digital loop from Marlon’s drum pad kept with the swampadelic theme. An extensive Lap Steel solo from Megan underlying Mark Radcliffes comments mentioned earlier, the song fading out to the earlier pre recorded loop. A song about autism Fear and Trembling slowed the pace down. Megan manages the contradiction of being both delicate and powerful at the same time with her Lap Steel, that is never more evident than this song. To up the tempo again Larkin Poe’s take on a fairy tale Goldilocks started and maintained a rocking beat, some very nice drumming with syncopated vocal interplay. Another song about a strange family member Jesse, their paternal great grandfather who was by all accounts a very strange and mean character. While Rebecca introduced this song Robby created some unusual bass effects using an array of pedals and switches. A very striking bass and drum groove open this song which is quite dark in its lyrical content. A long swampadelic intro to the very upbeat “Jailbreak” brought the set to an end. Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Take Me Back” was a beautifully performed almost acoustic encore from Rebecca and Megan singing, with faces almost touching, perhaps in reflection to their bluegrass past, into a single microphone. Sibling harmonies have that something extra and this was a great example.

Larkin Poe have a number of CD EPs on release but hope to release their first solo full length CD this winter. The plan is to start recording as soon as they are back home. With their Swampadelic Americana Soul sound now firmly developed and established this should be a treat.