Canadian folk-blues trio Po’ Girl braved the duff acoustics of the Purcell Room as part of the South Bank’s Folk In The Fall festival.
The group, who are in the UK to promote second album Vagabond Lullabies, are basically a side project of The Be Good Tanyas‘ Trish Klein; they blend R&B, country, blues and folk to create something sweet and special. Fiddles, banjos and penny whistles all featured in a set that saw genres successfully blended and boundaries blurred.
The multi-talented Klein seemed happy to allow the gloriously statuesque Alison Russell to take centre stage. In a black basque, floor length skirt and a pearl choker, Russell was certainly a worthy frontwoman, with a strong soulful bluesy voice, often reminiscent of Tracy Chapman though without the masculine edge. The threesome was completed by Diona Davies, her fiddle-playing giving an unashamedly country tinge to many of the numbers. All three appear to be multi-skilled instrumentalists and regularly switched between clarinet and banjo, harmonica and guitar.
Subverting convention, support act C.R. Avery took to the stage midway through their show, after the interval: the fellow Vancouverite is an urban wordsmith, a literate rap artist with a nice line in beat peppered poetry. Avery’s a unique talent but perhaps there was too much of him here, he popped up at regular intervals throughout the evening. At one point he took to patrolling the auditorium wearing Elvis shades and one of Ben Elton’s old stand up jackets, amusing in its way but it belonged in another show. As a result the set flagged ever so slightly in its second half; you ended up longing for Russell to be allowed to hit full flow, unhampered.
Po’ Girl are a band unafraid of being worthy. Alongside the inevitable anti-Bush jibes, their songs touched upon prostitution (Corner Talk), abuse (Part Time Poppa) and politics. The word ‘revolution’ received more than one mention. And while, as a cynical Brit, my first response was to squirm, another voice spoke up reminding me that this world could do with a few more protest songs; Po’ Girl sing about tolerance, peace and empathy and it’s actually pretty refreshing. There’s only so much art-rock posturing you can stomach.
The undoubted high point of the night was Russell’s ode to Billie Holiday, a storming, tearstained number that built to a rousing finish, “if the spirit says sing then sing!” It was a wonderful performance undermined only by the setting. This was beer-sipping, muted-lighting music and the rigid, formal Purcell Room just seemed the wrong venue for them, taking the edge off an otherwise excellent set.