By Kyle Kapper
|Pokey LaFarge, photo by Bill Streeter|
Thanks to Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, Off Broadway transformed last night into an effervescent dance hall. Men in fedoras twirled ladies in period dresses with flowers in their hair, as St. Louis welcomed home one of its most honored sons. You’d be hard pressed to decide whether those onstage or in the crowd were more thrilled to be at this roaring party; with exuberance from both sides, band and congregation seemed like old friends excited to see each other again.
Greeting friends and fans before the show, Pokey was the wholesome Everyman so strongly mythologized and associated with the period from which many of his musical stylings originate. Jimmy Stewart himself couldn’t better represent the American man of yesteryear. Sporting a buttoned-up blue collar and heavily shellacked hair, LaFarge offered autographs and hugs for fans of all ages, including the knee-high ones he later joked had been “snuck in illegally” by their parents into the 18+ show.
Then the houselights dimmed, Pokey reappeared with red tie, flag pin, and pinstriped wide-lapeled jacket completing his all-American semblance, and the real magic began.
Opening with "Devil Ain't Lazy," a feisty swing standard from 1947, the band wasted no time infusing the scene with raw but precise energy. Pokey's audacious bravura blended wide acoustic dynamics (shout-to-croon and back again) in a voice as big as Bing’s. With unwavering confidence and charisma, LaFarge and the South City Three launched into several staples from their records, including a boisterous call-and-response take on "Pack It Up," the flip side of the seven-inch produced by Jack White (yes, that Jack White, who they were due to open for the next night at NY's Radio City Music Hall). He also revealed numerous tracks from a new album to be released next spring, including the bouncy Midwest tribute "Central Time" as well as "Close the Door," a surprisingly biting rebuke against the US health-care system (“Or lack thereof,” LaFarge sneered in the sole unsmiling moment of the evening).
Bolstering the cool-cat swingster with fearless panache was the South City Three, a troupe of scrupulous musical dynamos. Joey Glynn drove the tempo home on his double bass; curly-headed Adam Hoskins played the part of an Amish gent who'd made a deal at the crossroads to become an archtop guitar guru. Ryan Koenig, mustache waxed to split on both sides like a snake’s tongue, channeled a cross between a Wild West dueler and a Looney Tunes villain. Grinning mischievously in a black flat-brimmed hat, suspenders, and a yellow bowtie, he rounded out the ensemble with incredible mouth harp and washboard percussion.
photo by Bill Streeter
At one point in this storied evening, Hoskins and Koenig improvised stage banter as Pokey made himself comfortable, purging the jacket and tie, loosening the collar, rolling up his sleeves, and gulping a healthy glass of whiskey. The moment dissected the show into two halves, the first half a pristine powerhouse jolt of American tradition and the second, kicked off with a spirited (har!) rendition of "Drinkin' Whiskey Tonight," where the buttoned down Pokey all but invited the crowd onstage in a blast of collective carousing. Offering toast after toast to the crowd, and even honoring an obscure song request, Pokey did bring onstage the brilliant Chloe Feoranzo of St. Louis treasure Miss Jubilee and the Humdingers, whose virtuosic clarinet brought a spice of ragtime to the revelry.
The era-bending evening had begun earlier with the opening act Colonel Ford, who are the perfect response to those lamenting for “how country music used to be.” With scuffed boots and piped cowboy shirts, and with song introductions such as “Alright, who likes Buck Owens out there?,” Colonel Ford offers authentic passage through dusty and worn back roads, with occasional detours into gospel and even the occasional zoot suit swing. And so the stage had been set and set well for the homecoming party for Pokey LaFarge, who after touring with Jack White this autumn will be brandishing his trademark kazoo solos at a New Year’s Eve gig in Nashville’s legendary Ryman Theatre with Old Crow Medicine Show.
For a few fleeting hours last night, though, the band put the home in homage. “There are so many great St. Louis bands,” Koenig mused, “and they all play right here. You just don’t get the response in some other places that you get here.” Later in the evening, a sweat-soaked Pokey LaFarge offered a piece of advice perhaps as timeless as it was revealing about the bandleader himself: “Don’t be afraid to work for a living.” Sage wisdom from a rising gypsy, who thankfully takes time to honor his own roots just as he honors America’s.