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Last week’s Larkin Poe show brought a contemplative engagement to Iowa City


Larkin Poe, two sisters (Rebecca and Megan Lovell) out of Atlanta, decided to use their night off from serving as Elvis Costello’s opening band to play The Mill last Wednesday, Oct. 5. As I suspected, they’re better live than their albums, which highlight their technical prowess at their most refined, would represent. Because they currently serve primarily as an opening act, they began the show by confessing that they were currently scaled back. That said, allowing the audience to focus on two guitars, accented with the occasional kick of a sole bass drum, opened the songs up in a way that more instruments (a full drum kit and bass) would have obscured.

Larkin Poe opening for Elvis Costello at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. -- photo by Zak Neumann
Larkin Poe opening for Elvis Costello at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. — photo by Zak Neumann

In this case, the clearing opened by that absence exposed the audience to the nature of repetition at the heart of the blues — the musical tradition in which Larkin Poe seems to embrace most fully. For example, in the song “Blunt,” off their latest release, Reskinned, the sisters chanted lyrics grounded in Biblical themes of darkness and sin. The slide guitar produced a wavering hum over the screaming tones of the electric guitar, and the bass drum’s insistent pulse, absent even a cymbal, led to what I presume is an intensified encounter with the song.

Each return to the chorus built on the preceding iteration: more notes were played, more volume was added and the central question guiding the song became more crucial: “If you knew your chisel was blunt, why did you make so many of us?” The Job-like query, summoned as a response to the divine proclamation “Your sins are myriad,” focused on how the terror of sin is balanced out by an odd sense that a god has defaulted on humankind.

We listen not to find out what develops, but to hear what happens within the space the song constructs. The experience of watching them perform was akin to watching someone slowly walk around an object, surveying it from different perspectives: Each song exposed their central meditation the way that a Cubist painter might attempt to do. Their insistence on a simple lyrical meditation overlaying a simple chord progression kept the audience engaged.

Larkin Poe opening for Elvis Costello at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. -- photo by Zak Neumann
Larkin Poe opening for Elvis Costello at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. — photo by Zak Neumann

In general, the blues open opportunities to examine questions off death, evil, vulnerability, fragility and fallibility. There’s an honesty about the pain of human existence, a way to give voice to suffering, a way to make a space for honest reflection about that which we dread to face. The repetition of the blues invites listeners to overcome their fears and settle into the space defined by the music: Larkin Poe provided a deeper and more beautiful engagement with the darkness of humanity than many blues musicians I have seen, and the result was a more profound moment of connection with the question itself as I found myself gathered into it, slowly, one repetition at a time.

The importance of the performance is not to make an argument that suffering is bad, or that redemption or grace are inevitable: Instead, they allowed those present to sit and be okay with suffering, as it is, and to find the interaction between sisters (between songs) to allow a sense of temporary reprieve before another space was opened within their music. The songs — and the conversations between — allowed a way for us to become okay with our suffering at an emotional level even though the problems of evil remained unresolved at an intellectual level. This is the gift of the blues, in general, and Larkin Poe’s performance of it in particular.

Larkin Poe opening for Elvis Costello at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. -- photo by Zak Neumann
Larkin Poe opening for Elvis Costello at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. — photo by Zak Neumann

The pair also covered Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang,” and made it their own, taking the narrative movement of the initial ballad and making it something new, especially as contextualized by their show so far. The choice to hold the final “me down” allowed a lovely demonstration of the shine of their vocal strength, power and nuance. The closing song of the encore followed a story about car accidents and death, but provided a hopeful prayer (rather than the angry rally against divine clumsiness): “get home safe.” In the midst of disaster, pain and crisis, Larkin Poe managed to provide their audience with a small space of contemplation that unfolded, ultimately, in hope.


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