Dreams can come true if you wish hard enough — and have the right connections who are willing to listen. Then to see a music festival turn those dreams into reality by putting a couple of favorite guitar-shredding sisters (Larkin Poe) on a bill with front women you love (Grace Potter) and admire (Sheryl Crow) seems almost too good to be true. But here they are.
“This takes the cake, ya’ll. I know everybody says it, but it’s just true,” Larkin Poe soulful lead singer and riveting electric guitarist Rebecca Lovell said in a soft Southern accent while admiring the supportive crowd and majestic setting during their Ride Festival debut on July 14, when an early afternoon shower in Telluride failed to disrupt the enthusiasm.
The Ride Festival, tucked into the gorgeous box canyon of Telluride alongside southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, has been a magical, mystical mid-July experience for me, too, in the three years that I have attended, and that includes 2018.
David Byrne and St. Vincent combined forces in 2013 to put on the best performance I’ve ever seen at a festival. During their 25th anniversary tour as a band, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam finally won me over as a fan in 2016.
However, the 2018 lineup lacked, in my humble opinion, a closing act to match those mentioned previously. (Granted, String Cheese Incident drew their fair audience share on successive nights, but my appreciation for jam bands ended the day Jerry Garcia died.)
Yet there were plenty of other reasons to make the 6 1/2-hour road trip to enjoy the fun, sun, figurative fire and actual hard-driving rain that usually seems to find its way near the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage in Telluride’s Town Park.
Thirteen reasons, to be exact — that number of acts graced the Telluride main stage over the weekend of July 14-15, 2018.
Another personal first was established by witnessing every artist who performed as each day was filled with almost 12 hours of music. It began with two 11 a.m. eye openers — Kentucky singer-songwriter Tyler Childers (Saturday) and the New Respects (Sunday), Nashville’s self-proclaimed “pop, soul and rock ‘n’ roll” act with 23-year-old twin sisters Zandy and Lexi Fitzgerald, their brother Darius and cousin Jasmine Mullen, both 24. The latecomers still sipping lattes down on Main Street were missing out on the best jolt of the morning, especially when the New Respects, featured in a series of PopMatters festival previews (along with Potter and ZZ Ward), came to play (and dance) in Town Park.
Then there was Larkin Poe. With Rebecca Lovell, 27, choosing to plug in a Fender Jazzmaster or Stratocaster more often than a mandolin these days and her older (by 20 months) sister Megan Lovell, 29, preferring lap steel over dobro, they first came to my attention in 2014 ahead of the October release of their full-length debut album Kin. I was hooked upon one listen, and a subsequent phone interview with the sister act only solidified my desire to see Larkin Poe succeed while naming them one of my favorite artists of the year.
Not that they needed any help.
Back on this outdoor stage for the first time since the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2009, when they were two-thirds of the Lovell Sisters, a family-friendly, all-Americana acoustic trio with Jessica, the oldest of the three, Rebecca and Megan have been reborn as a rocking, socking, blues-powered duo named for their great-great-great-great-grandfather. Besides having a touring drummer (Kevin McGowan) and bassist (Tarka Layman), how have things changed for them in the past decade?
“We were wet-behind-the-ears teenagers,” recalled Rebecca Lovell in an email interview she and Megan conducted that includes a PopMatters Pop Quiz at the end of this article. “Getting to return 10 years later as Larkin Poe has been a supreme treat. Not surprisingly, we feel much more confident in who we are as people and as artists at this point in our career. I’d say: There’s a lot more power packed behind the punch of our performances [that also included an 11:00 NightRide gig that same Saturday night at the Sheridan Opera House].”
The women continue to work on their songwriting and blues history after releasing Peach in 2017. “Wanted Woman”, “Look Away”, and “Freedom” are originals from the album they performed live, along with explosive covers such as “Black Betty” and Son House’s “Preachin’ Blues”.
“That song was written almost a century ago and here we are singing it today,” Rebecca shared with the crowd after “Preachin’ Blues,” which included Megan’s superlative slide show. “Talk about unifying experiences.”
Larkin Poe, preparing to release their third full-length album, Venom & Faith, in October, plan to share that experience on the road in North America throughout the rest of the year, playing Lollapalooza on Aug. 2, then continuing to perform as featured musicians on Keith Urban’s Graffiti U tour before summer gives way to fall.
They’re used to the grind that let them see the world with renowned artists such as Conor Oberst, Sugarland’s Kristian Bush and Elvis Costello, the groundbreaking Englishman for all seasons who recently was diagnosed with “a small but very aggressive cancerous malignancy”.
“Elvis Costello has been a steady mentor to us during the formative years of Larkin Poe,” Megan wrote when asked what he has meant to their music career. “We deeply cherish his generosity, guidance, friendship and artistic legacy. The legend lives on!”
Larkin Poe not only opened his concerts in Europe and the United States but also became a vital part of Costello’s act during the Detour show, when I first saw these Lovells live at Denver’s Paramount Theatre in April 2016.
A month earlier, I came across a post on the Ride Festival’s Facebook page looking for group recommendations to play its summer event. Not only was Larkin Poe in my comment, but I also emailed festival promoter Todd Creel, writing, “I’m not sure if you are familiar with rockin’ sister act Larkin Poe, but I would highly recommend them if you’re still completing your lineup and if they will be available. … I don’t make it a common practice to go out of my way to promote other artists, but I think they would be a great fit for your festival.”
Creel replied: “I checked out Larkin Poe. They are good! Appreciate the tip,” and he reached out to their agent.
We traded more emails after the 2016 festival, when I wondered why there were a lack of female-fronted acts that year, with HoneyHoney’s Suzanne Santo and Little Hurricane’s Celeste “C.C.” Spina the lone women on the main stage where Pearl Jam had reigned supreme.
“We like to bring balance to the lineup and tried for Chrissie Hynde among others,” Creel said. “With a limited number of main stage slots, we tried to bring the best bands we could find, regardless of gender. Larkin Poe could definitely be in the running next year.”
While Carolyn Wonderland, Muddy Magnolias and Maggie Koerner ever so slightly improved the gender equity issue in 2017 (that was still minus Larkin Poe), this remained a male-dominated lineup in need of repair as the MeToo and Time’s Up movements were on the verge of making an impact.
So it was a joy in 2018, when the event celebrated “women who rock”, to see the New Respects, Larkin Poe, and ZZ Ward (appropriately performing her song called “Ride”) make their first Ride Festival appearances on the same stage as Crow and Potter, the two established female artists who just as easily could have traded places with String Cheese Incident, a Colorado band with six male members, to close each night.
In our in-depth interview ahead of the festival, Potter, preparing to bring her six-month-old son Sagan to Telluride, laughed at the notion, but seemed content to play a late Sunday afternoon set ahead of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and SCI.
“I certainly still love a good jam,” said Potter, who joined Crow in a Glenn Frey tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2016. “Sometimes you need to put the band on at the end and know they might take it into a four-hour adventure, and I just can’t. I gotta go feed the baby.”
So with progress seemingly being made and taking another step closer to gender balance, protests weren’t on anyone’s agenda while peace, love and rain were in the air at Telluride.
Crow, who later that first night joined String Cheese Incident for the Allman Brothers cover “Midnight Rider”, was in excellent voice, seemingly happy, relaxed and pleased as punch to be there. Playing all the hits (“If It Makes You Happy”, “All I Wanna Do”, “Leaving Las Vegas”, “Soak Up the Sun”, “Everyday Is a Winding Road”), she moved energetically to each side of the stage and on the riser atop the front of a classic Volkswagen bus.
There were fire restrictions across San Miguel County because of a severe drought, though recent rains had improved conditions, while Town Park permitted smoking in designated areas and “only during Town-approved festivals”. So grass was burning, and that made perfect scents to Crow. The Woodstock generation might have even done a double take in Colorado, where an amendment in 2012 was passed to allow the recreational use of marijuana.
“How ya doing out there? You sound good, you look good, you smell very good,” Crow said cheerfully to the audience, obviously very aware of her surroundings halfway through a 90-minute set with six backing members after slaying songs new (“Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You”) and old (“The Na-Na Song” segueing into the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling”). “I’m getting some wafts of that strange perfume. It’s very delightful. And it’s legal. I like that legal perfume.”
The next day, Potter, performing with practically the same 2015-16 Magical Midnight Roadshow lineup before her well-deserved break, gave a smoking-hot performance upon her return, opening with a sexual-healing dose of her best “Medicine”. But pot didn’t necessarily fuel the fire in the crowd when the weather acted like a gigantic wet blanket. Nothing could dampen Potter’s spirits, though, and she even took a positive stance as a half-hour downpour peppering the general admission ticket holders started to dissipate.
“Is it still raining?” Potter asked while other members of her backing band were readjusting the set list following “Turntable”, one of several songs she performed from The Lion the Beast the Beat, the last studio album with the Nocturnals before she went solo. “I don’t want anybody to be uncomfortable. I want everybody to enjoy themselves here. I see that the rain brings us all together. Everybody gets messy, everybody gets onto a different level musically. We can just tune in better.”
If that’s true, maybe the Ride Festival should follow Brandi Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend lead for 2019 and bring Potter, Crow and Larkin Poe back to Town Park with an all-female cast.
The working title? It’s Reigning Women in Telluride, Hallelujah!
LARKIN POE’S REBECCA AND MEGAN LOVELL TAKE A POPMATTERS POP QUIZ
There’s no extra credit, but Larkin Poe’s lovely sisters deserve high marks for agreeing to answer this Ride Festival-focused series of questions (including a couple of multiple choices) while continuing a heavy tour schedule.
1. What was the best thing you saw in Telluride?
Megan Lovell: Every single artist performances we witnessed that weekend was stellar; but what was the best thing we saw in Telluride? Y’all … the [San Juan] Mountains.
2. How does Colorado differ from Georgia?
Rebecca Lovell: “In Colorado, you get birches and good people. In Georgia, you get magnolias and good people.”
3. What’s your favorite festival perk?
Rebecca Lovell: “The opportunity to perform our songs for kickass festival-goers!”
4. Backstage beverage of choice?
Megan Lovell: “Sweet tea, naturally.”
5. What performer at the Ride Festival do you have a guy/girl crush on (and why):?
Rebecca Lovell: “We revere Mike Campbell (performing as part of the Dirty Knobs). As one of the most iconic guitarists/composers of all time AND collaborator to one of the Milky Way’s greatest treasures, Mr. Tom Petty — what’s not to love about Mike Campbell?”
6. Best piece of advice you received while in Telluride?
Megan Lovell: “Don’t forget to breathe.”
7. How would you describe your Telluride experience in five words or less?
Megan Lovell: “When. Can. We. Come. Back.”
Day 1 photos of the Ride Festival feature sets by Sheryl Crow, Larkin Poe, ZZ Ward, the Dirty Knobs with Mike Campbell and String Cheese Incident. Day 2 photos feature sets by Grace Potter, Dhani Harrison, the New Respects, Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.
Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including PopMatters and No Depression. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas