November 23, 2004

Po' Girl Disturbs Conversations at Chapter House

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Enter Trish Klein, stage left: brown, scuffed-up boots nearly hidden by the bell of slate-colored work pants, a skin-toned, lace-up-the-back tank top, unshaven armpits, long blonde hair strung partially up, sharp yet fair features and a guitar. Now enter Allison Russel, stage center: shin-high, heel-less black boots seen through the slits of a long, fitting jean skirt set to match a scooped-neck red and black tank top, dredlocks tied neatly back, a relentless smile, a clarinet and a voice to make you cry. Enter finally Diona Davies, stage right: black, ass-kicking boots touched lightly by barely boot-cut Levis, bralessness covered by a black tee, cropped black hair and a fiddle.

Thus Po’ Girl takes the stage at The Chapter House on Thursday night. Trish is worried about the sound. She asks for volume adjustment, looking out past the audience to the sound-board manager. She tests her guitar again. Not loud enough. And they can’t hear each other. They can’t start yet. The sound isn’t right. We’ll be right back, Trish says half-frustrated, half-rapt in tuning and re-testing. Allison smiles, hangs her head a bit. Diona laughs and shrugs in an Oh-that-Trish kind of way. They start the set minutes later, and most everyone in attendance is unbothered by the delay. In fact, many of us seem not have noticed at all; rather, the place brims with our unconcerned conversation, our back-to-the-stage barroom chatter. It seems, as Trish fiddles with her strings and calls back to the sound manager, that Po’ Girl’s music-to-come will be of secondary importance. And so I think, intrigued by Trish’s perfectionism: Why does it matter so much? Why does she care?

Almost immediately after they start, it becomes clear why Trish was so concerned with the sound quality, why she didn’t look around at the crowd and think, “They won’t care anyway,” why all three of the women cringe a bit when the microphones feedback — Po’ Girl’s music is serious, and it’s intricate, and it’s skillful. Every riff, every melody, every lyric is important to it. Trish not only seems to know this, as she refuses to launch the set with imperfect sound quality, but she’s willing, at the expense of a few buzzing minutes, to make us wait for it to be fixed so that the audience will get a proper representation of what Po’ Girl can do. Though they are not interested in being boisterous, Po’ Girl does not want secondary, or filler, or any other band providing background music for inattentive bar-goers.

What they are interested in, as we come to know not more than two songs into the set, is getting us to enjoy their unexpected sound, helping us to appreciate the traditions — namely, folk and jazz –out of which it has come, and, above all, compelling us to dance. They open with a series of songs from their new album, Vagabond Lullabies. Capturing the same energy and atmosphere of their quietly acclaimed first album, Po’ Girl’s new songs retain the nostalgic feel for which they are hailed: Allison’s voice is as sexy and seductive as any jazz singer’s, and Diona’s fiddle infuses the music with pure folk.

And, for a moment, Po’ Girl’s unique sound throws us all off. Some of us turn around from our conversations, and some of us begin to sway just slightly. Then some of us put our glasses down on the speakers, freeing up our hands. Conversation begins to trail off, and a number of people make their way from the bar and from the benches up close to the stage. By the time they perform a beautiful revision of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” the band has us enraptured. We’re all either dancing or smiling or staring in admiration at three stunning and stunningly talented young women on stage.

At the set’s climax, Po’ Girl does manage to get the rest of us dancing. For their encore, they invite back to the stage the opening band, The Shiftless Rounders, a wildly innovative folk-country band. Together, the two bands, squeezed onto the too-small stage, cover Woody Guthrie, and the place erupts. Couples grab each other and start twirling, those sitting on the back benches rush to the floor. We all begin singing and jumping, causing more than one set-down beer glass to fall from its table and shatter. We went mad for them; they had completely won us over.

Like they — Trish, as she called out more volume on the guitar; Allison, as she squatted to the ground to sing her Billie Holiday tribute; Diona, as she placed her bow between her knees and played the fiddle upside down — knew they would. Strong, confident, and talented, Po’ Girl’s performance, like a long nighttime drive or dancing so hard you make the tables jump, was magically refreshing.

Archived article by Lynne Feeley
Sun Staff Writer