After opening for Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band the night before with a five-song set at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, the sister act of Larkin Poe stayed in town for a 16-song, small venue show. While it’s exciting opening for the likes of Keith Urban and now Bob Seger in large arenas, the Lovell sisters have said they prefer to play the small clubs across the world. None finer than the 7th St. Entry at First Avenue which was just named one of Rolling Stone’s 10 Best Venues in the U.S., stating, “With its two stages (the smaller 7th St Entry and the mid-sized Mainroom), First Ave is the premiere venue for national touring acts small and large.”
Entering the already crowded 200-person room well before showtime, I joined others in staking out a good spot, sensing that would be impossible to do later as still more crammed into the tight space for this long-ago sold out show. It was an older crowd than I’m used to seeing at the Entry which often hosts up-and-coming acts appealing to the younger crowd. It was great to see a different demographic filling the Entry for live music on a Thursday night. Too be honest, tonight’s show was out of my normal music sweet spot of Mainstream Rock and I was not sure what to expect. Larkin Poe is not a rock band, not country or pop either. They are a blues and roots-rock band and sadly there is not really a radio home for this music these days. Instead they need to spread their music and gather listeners by traveling the country, and the world (having recently returned from a string of European shows). I was easily roped in and consider me deputized. Or in love might be more accurate.
Shortly after a large acoustic bass was hauled up on stage, opening act Goodnight, Texas walked briskly onto stage carrying more tall boys than waters which is usually the sign of a great show. The band is not from Texas, but instead the name was derived from the geographic midpoint between the lead singers’ Chapel Hill, NC and San Francisco, CA homes. Tonight the folk-rock openers played as a three-piece acoustic band with alternating lead singers Avi Vinocur and Patrick Dyer Wolf, bassist Scott Griffin Padden, and no drummer. Also unusual was seeing Vinocur front and center holding a mandolin. Maybe not so unusual, as the San Franciscan sat in with Metallica last month for a rare acoustic show at the Masonic, a benefit for the All Within My Hands foundation. His counterpart, Wolf, started off as the singer with his acoustic guitar and the crowd was immediately impressed. I couldn’t tell if any in the Entry were already familiar with the band. If not, they like me, were instantly intrigued. After attending some pretty loud shows lately, my eardrums welcomed the lower volume level which was quiet enough to hear sirens from the downtown streets. Kudos to First Ave’s top-notch crew for dialing in the sound to perfectly mix the vocals with the acoustic instruments. When Vinocur strayed more than a foot from his microphone it picked up his voice, just slightly softer, as intended.
The band’s songs tell stories, in foot stomping fashion, of life during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as the Civil War ended and Americans headed west. A little different than the tale of the band’s trip to the Mall of America earlier in the day. They met Santa and held in their hand a pair of $900 shoes and then $2,100 sneakers. Who knew? Sounds like they liked the Sponge Bob rollercoaster the best though. Wolf now picked up a banjo for a song, with Vinocur taking his guitar. The two would continue to swap instruments throughout the show, but not with Padden. The bassist was entertaining to watch play the upright, sometimes providing the rhythm and sometimes sweetening the sound with his bow. In one of the coolest parts of the show, Padden sang, as they covered The Replacements’ “I Can’t Hardly Wait.” Vinocur explained, “We’re at the 7th St. Entry. We had to.” They played a new one from their latest album, Conductor, “Takin’ Your Word For It,” and it proved to be my favorite. Freezing silently, they held their pose for loud cheering before resuming in a spirited jam to finish it out. Vinocur said, “We have just a few more before the incredible Larkin Poe. We are so grateful they brought us along on their tour. It’s kind of nice to play sold out shows every night!” After their final songs the crowd cheered loudly for an encore, but after already playing an impressive 45 minute set, the openers were done. The bar was set pretty high for the headliners and not many budged from their spots to risk losing ground for the main act.
When Larkin Poe took the stage, all I can say is that I instantly fell in love. There was Rebecca, 27, with her mid-length brunette locks parted at the middle and curling upward. Dressed in a black leather vest over a gold-striped blouse and jeans, following along her tattooed forearms was the diamond ring adorning her chord holding hand. She announced her engagement to Tyler Bryant last week (sorry guys!). Bryant’s guitar playing was featured on “Mississippi” on Larkin Poe’s latest album, Venom & Faith. Megan, 29, stood just as cutely center stage with her blonde hair in a ponytail with a few wisps falling on the side of her straight bangs. Around her neck was something you don’t see around these parts very often, a lap steel guitar, rigged up so she can play while standing. The pair captivated fans both visually and musically as Rebecca tossed her hair to their opening song “Summerset Sunset” with Megan chiming in with some slide riffs before a stirring guitar solo.
Rebecca’s lead vocals are sweet and sultry and she combines deep and meaningful lower range singing with high range accents. She grew up playing the mandolin but now wields a Stratocaster after deciding a mandolin was not badass enough. Megan instinctively adds harmonizing vocals as their mother taught them years ago and of course does the same with her Rickenbacker . After getting the crowd clapping along to “Trouble In Mind” Rebecca, with her slight southern accent, told the audience, “Ladies and Gentlemen, you filled this place up!” After covering 1960’s hot “Black Betty” in enthusiastic fashion, Rebecca spoke again, “Thanks for spending your money to support live music. We can’t let it be a dying art form. We can’t let Netflix win!” She continued, “We released two albums since you saw us last, Peach and Venom & Faith, or favorite album yet.” That album was just released last month and reached #1 on the Billboard Blues Album chart.
Megan and Rebecca grew up playing in a bluegrass band with older sister Jessica before transitioning to Larkin Poe. They name still has family significance as is the name of their great-great-great-grandfather who was a cousin of Edgar Allan Poe. Their musical style has transitioned to Americana and blues. While both are still in their 20’s, they have become try historians of Delta blues music and its Legends. So Rebecca meant it when she beckoned, “Who is a fan of the blues?” Before digging into their next selection, she described it as that special cake you could eat each and every day and not get enough. That special treat was Son House’s 1930’s song “Preachin’ Blues” for which Megan leaned into the crowd with her singing lap steel. Her impressive playing was the biggest surprise to me. When Rebecca called her sister the “Slide Queen” it was not false praise.
After playing their popular “Bleach Blonde Bottle Blues” Rebecca said, “It’s humbling for a songwriter to see fans singing the words we wrote. We write words that are meaningful to us and hope it has meaning to others.” For her, she said her writing is about exorcising her inner demons and she asked us all to not be defined by our past. You can lose the baggage and have a great future. With that we heard “Freedom” which ended with a fist pump by the singer. Rebecca later thanked touring drummer Kevin McGowan and bassist Tarka Layman for being great human beings as well as great musicians. The two were energetic in their roles and obviously have been playing with the sisters for some time. They showed that once again on “Honey Honey” which is more of a pop song from Venom & Faith.
In “Black Echo” Rebecca took a turn on guitar solo followed by Megan’s extended solo building into a fervor. It was cute when a grandfather from the crowd yelled “Nice job Megan” eliciting a smile and slight blush. Or, after “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” when Rebecca thanked the crowd for warming up the room with their body heat, some reacted that they thought it was too warm. “Remember, we’re from Georgia. We don’t sweat, we glisten….No, we sweat like pigs!”
Rebecca explained that the next song, “Mad as a Hatter,” wasn’t in their set list for awhile because it was physically taxing. It was one of the first songs she wrote when she was only 17. Megan explained the song was written about their paternal great granddaddy long legs who suffered from schizophrenia. And their maternal grandparents have also become so different and almost feels like their mother lost her parents while they were still living. Today it seems nearly everyone has a loved one affected by Alzheimer’s or dementia. The complex song did result in the band needing a brief rest and time for Megan to “cough up a lung” as her sis put it. Next, Rebecca sounded a lot like Sheryl Crow in singing ‘Might As Well Be Me” and asked Megan to sing it back to her on her slide which was impressive. Then it was the crowd’s turn to sing along by repeating what Megan sang in “Run For Your Money.”
Rebecca explained that the sisters grew up in northern Georgia so going back to the place you grew up, the “Blue Ridge Mountains,” is always very special. The final song of the set was “Wanted Woman / AC/DC” which was perfect as a closer as more of a rock song, especially its raucous ending. The adoring crowd cheered loudly for “one more song” and were rewarded with another blues classic. For this, all four musicians came to the front of the stage with Kevin carrying his snare drum up and Rebecca leaving her guitar behind. She sang a stirring rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen” as the lone encore to conclude their powerful 90 minute set.
Sometimes shows with high expectations result in disappointment. On the other hand, when one does not know what to expect and is blown away it is an earth-shattering experience. That was tonight. Rebecca and Megan Lovell are truly remarkable young ladies with tremendous musical talent and an unheard of devotion in learning the history behind their craft. They are welcoming hostesses and leave fans with a feeling of togetherness in creating a special evening that can never be recreated; the essence of live music. As I begin to compile my list of top shows of 2018, I can provide a hint that the engaging show tonight will supplant some pretty strong acts to find a way on that list. Larkin Poe is also on my short list of “not miss” shows.
Setlist: Summertime Sunset / Trouble In Mind / Black Betty (Lead Belly cover) / Look Away / Preachin’ Blues (Son House cover) / Bleach Blonde Bottle Blues / Freedom / Honey Honey / Black Echo / Hard Time Killing Floor Blues (Skip James cover) / Mad as a Hatter / Might as Well Be Me / Run for Your Money /
Blue Ridge Mountains / Wanted Woman / AC/DC
Encore: Come On in My Kitchen (Robert Johnson cover)