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Larkin Poe at Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival, 2018

Larkin Poe at Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival, 2018
C. Michael Bailey By

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Larkin Poe
SQZBX STAGE @ LOW KEY ARTS
Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 20, 2018

'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.


After recently re-reading Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism I began thinking of what my goals in music writing are. I have written for twenty-five years, twenty for All About Jazz. I have always tried to focus my writing on what is good in and what can be learned from music. I have been more interested in leading readers to something they might like in the music I review, than in pointing any fingers at the art for any shortcomings I perceive (the "judging ill" part of Pope's clever couplet). It was with these thoughts in mind that I journeyed about an hour from my house to the famous Hot Springs, Arkansas for The Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival.

Hot Springs is the county seat of Garland County located about sixty miles southwest of the State Capitol Little Rock. The city is situated in the pocket of the Ouachita Mountains and is positioned among several natural hot springs for which the city is named. The city has a storied history. The center of the area is the oldest federal reserve (in 1832 declared the Hot Springs Reservation by the United States Congress, granting federal protection of the thermal waters. The reservation was renamed Hot Springs National Park in 1921. The hot spring water has been popularly believed for centuries to possess medicinal properties and was a subject of many Native American legends. Following the federal protection in 1832, the city evolved into a successful spa town from which a myriad of new industries arose.

Incorporated January 10, 1851, the city was home to Major League Baseball spring training, illegal gambling, speakeasies and gangsters such as Al Capone, Owney Madden, and Charles "Lucky" Luciano during and after Prohibition. Other notable items of interest sported by Hot Springs are horse racing at Oaklawn Park, the Army and Navy Hospital, and the childhood home of the 42nd President Bill Clinton. For every Saturday night, there is a Sunday morning: One of the largest Pentecostal denominations in the United States, the Assemblies of God, traces its beginnings to Hot Springs.

They say that you become part of a place once you start taking it for granted. I was not thinking of these things, per se, as my wife and I drove down Highway 5 on this cool, early spring day. We were en route to see a performance by Larkin Poe: a duo or quartet (whatever the venue calls for) helmed by sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell of Atlanta, Georgia. These young ladies began their musical life with older sister Jessica as the Lovell Sisters, playing crack wooden comb specializing in progressive acoustic music, fusing bluegrass and classical genres, not unlike Nickle Creek. In 2009, Jessica got married and went to college and the Lovell Sisters evolved with Megan switching her dobro for a 1940s-era lap steel guitar and Rebecca choosing a Fender Jazzmaster and Stratocaster under the new autograph of Larkin Poe.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

In its fourteenth year, the Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival has been a carefully kept secret featuring over 40 acts in three main venues: Maxines and Adair Park (downtown) and Low Key Arts on the edge of town. It was the latter venue where we arrived early to catch a couple of shows before Larkin Poe performed. I am a sixty-year old man with the mind of a pimply-faced seventeen-year old. That creates a psychic rip that often manifests is odd ways. I am unsure exactly what I was expecting, perhaps an adorned performance hall replete with a bar and ample seating. Well, that is exactly what I got save for the venue was an old warehouse, a bit dark and drafty, with tables and chairs and a dance floor and a tiny stage making for an intimate performance experience nevertheless. Oh, and there was a women's and unisex restroom.

What passed for the bar served local micro-brewed beer from Superior Bathhouse Brewery housed in one of the famous bathhouses just down Central Avenue from the venue. I quaffed a perfectly acceptable Imperial IPA called "Chaudfontaine Houblon" slated as a ..." Belgian-style Imperial IPA or if you prefer, a hopped Tripel, crafted using Bagstone yeast and Chinook hops. It was a fine libation for what was to turn out to be a fine evening.

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