POKEY LAFARGE-RIVERBOAT SOUL
POKEY LAFARGE AND THE SOUTH CITY THREE MAKE THE PAST PRESENT WITH RIVERBOAT SOUL
By Terry Roland
Pokey LaFarge, like his new album title, is a Riverboat Soul. Not an old one at 26, certainly an enthusiastic one. It’s like he’s been reincarnated from the inside-out-world of a lost Mark Twain story; he jumps off the page and into our Americana imagination, by way of St. Louis. He lives in a ragtime world of his own creation. It’s an extended washtub childhood that refuses to let go of his soul. He was raised in the Midwest on a ragtime-rhyme with a goodtimin’- glee in his eye. If others dance to the beat of a different drummer, Pokey dances to the rhythm of a washtub and kazoo. His songs are a reflection of times gone by brought solidly to the present. He drinks whiskey all night; runs his fingers over the fret board with the ease of a carnival barker outside of a hall of mirrors. His music is America, past and present. It’s been called ‘old-timey,’ but there’s nothing old time about this ramblin,’ traveling, guitar-picking, goodtimin’ boy. Looking like a very young Jimmie Rodgers and even sounding a bit like him had Rodgers been fond of espresso; his songs move us through the America most don’t see. Many think it doesn’t exist. But he’s been there and returned to tell us about it. Pokey found it on the road when he was 18. If there’d been a freight train nearby, he would have hopped it. Pokey has hitched rides storing up impressions and experiences that have informed his writing in a unique way. He took to the American back roads unseen, unheard and ignored by the mainstream media bent on pre-packaged music and the latest American Idol contestant. Pokey insists, this is not old timey music. The only thing old fashioned here is the attire of Pokey and the musicians known as the South City Three. They are respectively, Joey Glynn on upright bass, Ryan “Church Mouse,” Koenig on harmonica, washboard and percussion and Adam Hoskins on guitar and slide guitar. The guitar, kazoo, vocals, gitjo and harmonica are all handled on various songs with poise, ease and confidence by Pokey.
He takes his ancestry from troubadours, vagabonds, bojangled alleyway jail-bound bums and street singers of the past; However, he brings us into the present with songs like the ragged “Hard Times Come and Go” and the comically woeful, “Migraines and Heartpains.” Pokey LaFarge’s River Boat Soul is a universal spin on music once considered race music or of a regional nature. But, these days there’s nothing regional about Pokey and The South City Three. When I caught up with him via cell phone in his car, he was on his way from St. Louis to Texas. He was on a national tour of pubs, clubs, festivals and colleges. And he is on his way up in his world of music. He spoke with fondness of the many musicians who travel the same road, making the same kind of music. He has his ear to the others who traveled before him. Ragtime has been around for a while. Jugband too. Of course, the subject of Jim Kweskin came up while we talked. As he talked he returned again and again to theme of making this music last, getting heard by everyone he can. Like many touring musicians, Pokey sees the need for music as an instrument of cure and healing. At one point in our conversation he asked…’is there anything you just have to have and you won’t be satisfied by anything else? Like a good drink, a smoke. You’re just fulfilled as soon as you have it. That’s what this music and playing it is like for me.’ He said with a chuckle.
He told me stories of hitchhiking through America that sounded as though he had been on the road with Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac for the last decade. The more he traveled, the more his skill and talent developed. He didn’t eat or sleep in favor of playing, practicing and learning his instrument. He has one foot planted in the past, one in the present as moves into a future where he will continue to bring his own unique vision. He is Americana music at its finest.
To think, this album was recorded in four sessions and then mixed and mastered in just as short a time, with no overdubs, is a reminder of how these records were once made. There is only pure, live, acoustic music found on this album. It’s impossible not to smile as you listen to his near gypsy-jazz guitar leads; The music comes as fast as he talks, drives and records.
River Boat Soul, opens with a speedy high-end guitar strum and a Piedmont bluesy harmonica that would make John Sebastian grin, on the song “La La Blues.” It’s as though welcoming him with open arms is Jesse Fuller as he tells a story of womanizing to the tune and bounce of these happy blues.
The song, “Claude Jones,” bemoans the inevitable fate of a bootlegger. Poaky’s kazoo jumps in and around the musical acrobatics leading the way into more skillful acoustic lead guitar. “Hard Times Come and Go,” sounds like a retro song from The Great Depression but still figures in today’s world. But, Pokey won’t let us whine. He’s too busy bringing a smile to our faces.
His performance style runs counter to his frenetic song and playing style. Judging from You Tube, pure acoustic-bluegrass style playing is used. The one-mic technique of the early days of mountain and blue grass music and live radio shows. His demeanor is cool, low-key with an attitude that defies any world weariness of older blues musicians. This could be the birth of next Bill Monroe creating such a fine mix of ragtime, jugband, blues,folk and country,he has found his own genre. For now, he’s solidly in the contemporary Americana genre, only because the music is hard to catatorize. And I think Pokey LaFarge prefers it that way. Catch him on record and live before he leaves us all in his dust.
Pokey Lafarge and The South City Three are currently on a North American tour.