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Sister Act: The Catalyst interview with Blues Fest headliners Larkin Poe

Bill DeYoung

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Rebecca Lovell, left, ans Megan Lovell are Larkin Poe. Image is a screen gran from the Larkin Poe YouTube covers channel.

There’s never been a band quite like Larkin Poe, Sunday-night headliners at this weekend’s Tampa Bay Blues Festival in Vinoy Park.

Sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell, from Calhoun, Georgia, are a roots-based blues/rock duo, augmented onstage and on record with a bassist and drummer. Shades of Lynyrd Skynyrd, there’s no one in the vicinity actually named Larkin Poe (he was the siblings’ great, great, great, great grandfather).

Megan Lovell plays turbo-charged electric lap steel guitar, and provides harmony vocals while Rebecca plays guitar and sings soulful lead. Larkin Poe’s music is swampy and rich, conjuring up classic Delta blues, Hill Country blues, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal and the ghosts of Allmans Past.

Revivalists, they’re not. The majority of the music on the six Larkin Poe albums (five studio, one live with the Nu Deco Ensemble) are original tunes, heavy-duty blues/rock with a decidedly Southern tinge.

There’s another side to these hard-rocking siblings. Their most recent recording, Kindred Spirits, is a collection of brilliantly (re)arranged covers of songs from the likes of Neil Young, Derek & the Dominos, Bo Diddley and Elton John.

They took things a step further in 2020 with their YouTube Channel, adding a new duo performance of an acoustic cover song each month. Thus far, they’ve covered everything from Hall & Oates (“Rich Girl”) to the Rolling Stones (“Start Me Up”) to Henry Mancini (“Peter Gunn Theme”). Black Sabbath to Dolly Parton. Lead Belly to Led Zeppelin.

The Tampa Bay Blues Festival begins Friday; details and tickets here.

Larkin Poe performs at 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

 

On the covers album, and the YouTube covers channel:

Rebecca: It was a very intentional move to keep ourselves fresh. Because it’s a rut I think musicians can sometime fall into, particularly touring musicians, is that you’re not refreshing your well. You’re not continuing to learn. When we were teenagers we were learning Jimi Hendrix solos, and learning Allman Brothers tunes. You’re starting to get your chops up. But at a certain point there is this danger of a plateau. So between the two of us we decided we would commit to learning new songs together.

And it was also very fun. It’s become something that we truly look forward to, and we love being able to connect to people on social media. And particularly with the pandemic, I don’t think we understood what a saving grace that cover series would actually become. Because it gave us something to do, it helped keep us sane. We were able to continue to connect with people, in spite of the deep isolation that so many of us experienced.

 

On the live show:

Megan: Ninety-five percent of what we play live is original songs. We throw in a couple of traditional blues tracks – it’s really fun to bring that into the live show. I think (playing covers) has changed our approach to writing riffs, and our approach to jamming onstage. Lengthening out the solos, giving ourselves a little bit of free space. That’s been super-inspiring, learning the great riffs, I mean the riffs that everybody can sing, It makes you inspired to try and write in that vein.

I love to think about soloing in a way that people could imagine singing. That’s been really inspiring for me in the live space.

Rebecca: Our cover series is just the two of us at home. But we travel with a four-piece band. The live performance is very heavy – it’s the four of us, and we like to rock. That’s for sure.

 

On Megan’s slide playing:

Megan: I grew up listening to a lot of Alison Krauss, and loving the sound of Jerry Douglas’ playing. I hadn’t really connected with what that instrument was until I saw a dobro being played. And I was just immediately drawn to the idea of fretless playing. And I knew that’s what I was called to do. Me and frets have never really gotten along.

And also, loving some of those classic solos, like David Lindley on “Running on Empty.” Some of the most iconic parts in the world – Pink Floyd, and the Allman Brothers. Just loving the sound of slide.

Also, I love to sing harmony. I’ve never felt drawn to sing lead vocals. I feel like my way of singing, and my way of connecting with people, is through the vocal quality of slide.

 

On Rebecca’s singing:

Rebecca: There’s so many female singers that I absolutely adore – Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi. A lot of blues female singers. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the mother of rock ‘n’ roll singing, good lord! And I cherish a lot of male singers as well. I do find myself trying to sing like Chris Whitley, who is my ultimate idol. And whether or not that comes through, it’s lovely to have a big ol’ mixing pot of inspiration.

I didn’t start out to be the lead singer of any band. As a teen-ager I was hyper-focused on instrumentals. Like being able to play mandolin, banjo and guitar. Being able to express myself through the instrument. But whenever we started Larkin Poe, somebody had to do the job. Megan’s the bigger sister – she’s older than me, so she has seniority, and she said “I’m not singing lead.”

Megan: I’m not doin’ it! You gotta do it!

Rebecca (laughing) So I kinda got lassoed into the role of lead singer. And it’s a role in the band that I’ve grown to really love. To be quite frank, initially I resented it because I didn’t necessarily have a lot of confidence in being willing to vulnerably express what type of vocal energy felt authentic to me. I was trying to sing really pretty, or really precise and politely. And I didn’t have a good time doing that – it just felt like a lot of work.

I’ve been singing with Larkin Poe now for 11 years, and so the journey that I’ve gone on as a singer, there’s ben a massive shift in the way that I sing. I’m not afraid to sing a little bit wonky, ore have it be ugly, or open my mouth wide when I’m singin.’ You just kind of let it come out. And it feels good to be heard, that feels good to be seen and to occupy space. So for that I’m grateful.

 

On what kind of band Larkin Poe is:

Rebecca: Of all things that we have gone to great lengths for in our band is to achieve creative freedom. That’s been incredibly important to us. To exist under the umbrella of “roots American music” while allowing ourselves the ultimate freedom to ping-pong around between our love of … one of my favorite singers has always been Ozzy Osbourne. I love Sabbath so much. I love Tommy Iommi’s riffs. To mem they’re some of the most badass.

And Megan has a deep love of Alison Krauss and Union Station, and the Allman Brothers, and that classic harmony, beautiful soaring melodies. And we also love the Black Keys – I think they’ve done incredible things for blues music. I’m so grateful for what they’ve done.

To be able to have all of that love that we do feel in out hearts for many different disciplines of music, and to have that be expressed in what we do, that’s definitely our goal.

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