These days I find it very difficult to listen to anything for the first time with the same kind of awed, visceral excitement I once use to do, when I was in my late teens and early twenties. The two recent examples of music that more or less rekindled that exuberant exultation are the Aguaturbia compilation Psychedelic Drugstore and The Strypes’ debut album Snapshot.
I do listen to a lot of previously unheard music, both old and brand new, and plenty of it is highly enjoyable but it is hardly ever the same as the first listens to Malpractice or Cream’s Cream Live were.
Now there is Pokey LaFarge. If memory serves, John Frick liked a Facebook post about an upcoming European tour by LaFarge, with a line about the “Western swing sound” of the guy, with a photograph of a decidedly old-timey looking LaFarge, of whom I had never heard before. The name and the Western Swing reference intrigued me but It was a while before I checked out LaFarge on YouTube and came across a performance for KEXP, a Seattle radio station that also streams live in-studio performances by contemporary acts. Most of them would fall in the very alternative rock category; so far, after extensive viewings of bands playing in the KEXP performance space, Pokey seems to have been the only act of his kind.
This KEXP show was recorded around the time of the release of the Pokey LaFarge (2013) album on Third Man Records, with the addition of a two-piece horn section to the basic backing band of the South City Three.
The opening number is “Central Time” and I was electrified and attentive from the first strum of the loud, insistent, four to the bar rhythm of LaFarge’s rhythm guitar. The singing style, tune and lyrics of the song seemed equally old-timey and very much of a White country and blue grass influenced past. It is s splendid song and a commanding performance. The next tunes, “What The Rain Will Bring” and “Close the Door” are as imposing and impressive. I was hooked.
This led me to seek out pretty much every Pokey LaFarge clip on YouTube, from a secret, early gig with his bassist to a couple of band gigs (all of them with the augmented 5-piece backing band) at venues that look like roadhouses or parlours, rather than concert stages, to add to the old-timey flavour and ambience of the music and the stage presence of Mr LaFarge, with his short, neat Depression era haircut and suit-and-tie outfits and even his old-fashioned stage patter.
Pokey seems to be a musicologist who has not only researched the roots of American music in general, to give him perspective and a template from which he works, but he is also an afficianado of old instruments, not only old-fashioned, instruments, but actual vintage instruments that sound better according to him, because they’ve been played in the way that one wears in a new pair of shoes or jeans until they are comfortable.
On the YouTube clips it certainly seems that Pokey but possibly also the other band members, do play archaic looking instruments, except maybe for the horn section who probably play as new as they can, given their relative youth.
The beauty of the simplicity of instrumentation is that the band can play anywhere, even your living room, and still produce the same sound. I would guess that everything is amplified when they are on stage but there is no reliance on stacks of amplifiers and massive walls of sound. Pokey LaFarge could play on the porch of some backwoods grocery store or juke joint and that is kind of the roots of the music anyhow. Old-fashioned string band or jug band music. Blues, country and blue grass are the roots, with some urban sensibility thrown in for good measure, Pokey’s lyrical conceit generally is that he is a Midwestern country boy, and in his case the roots are specifically back-country influenced by blues and jazz. If Pokey ever went to church it must be an Episcopalian congregation; there is no Southern Baptist in his vocal style at all. Mostly the Appalachians I would venture, with that Midwestern twang
Lyrically the songs are informed by old styles and in this Pokey, is possibly a researcher into the old weird America celebrated by Greil Marcus; perhaps merely the old, ultra-normal America. The archaisms in the lyrics make then sound like long lost songs found only on old shellac 78 RPM records. In fact, they are very much contemporary compositions by Mr LaFarge who confessed that he likes to take the best from the past to build the future. It is at once quaint, familiar and oddly disturbing that a young man of the 21st century would want to revive lyrical styles of a bygone era, so far in the dim past that it was ancient even when he was born. Pokey believes in the standards of the past that he sees as simply the basic measure by which we should live, such as good manners and a solid work ethic, rather than as outdated and pointless nostalgia. The music reflects this because the songs are tuneful and memorable and for this reason resonates after a listen or two, much as “Central Time” has done with me.
It is possible, as with the swing craze of the late Nineties, that Pokey’s music could become so fashionable that he could have actual chart hits with his songs though one doubts it. I almost would not want him to be commercialised to that extent, as it may just ruin the effect and the impact.
Let Pokey be successful on a level below the radar of the mainstream and let him continue to make music that is at odds with commercial interests if he has a loyal audience who will buy his records and come to his shows, and makes the musical career viable.
Apart from calling it traditionally styled music I do not know how else one could give a capsule description of Pokey’s music. It is not exactly country, it is not exactly Western swing, and it is not exactly folk or mid-Twentieth century pop either. The music sounds ancient yet it is very modern; sounds archaic yet is up to date.
Apart from the Pokey LaFarge (2013) album I have now also bought Live in Amsterdam with the South City Three, which is your typical homey Pokey set with humorous asides and the usual virtuoso ensemble playing of the musicians who sound like they’re having a lot of fun playing music which may be done very seriously, as professional musicians, but which has an underlying component of humour and cornpone that makes the show not only a nostalgic trip but also an entertainment with joyous exhilaration that is the anti-emo or anti-death metal, or whatever.
A Pokey LaFarge show seems to be a recipe for good times and fun and jiving in the aisles. One never knows with professional musicians and those in showbiz but it sounds as if Pokey and his band derive as much fun from playing their music as the audience does.
I would imagine that Pokey LaFarge is part of the broader movement of American roots music, just outside mainstream pop, rock and country yet successful enough because there is an audience for the live shows and who also buy the records. Pokey keeps it small, independent and controllable and therefore his career is in his hands and not controlled by record companies, insofar as record companies may still control any artist’s future, and in this way, has built a sustainable model for a long career in music, even if this music is not the kind of stuff that receives regular commercial radio airplay or promotion. A substantive, loyal fan base built up carefully over time, through hard work and endeavour, is the type of fan base a musician can only dream of as a resource for and source of continued success well beyond the proverbial 5-year pop career.
I must confess that “Central Time” is such a powerfully excellent tune that it overshadows any other Pokey LaFarge song I’ve heard since, to the extent that I probably won’t buy another album. Having said that, it is a pity that I will probably never can attend a Pokey show. Life is full of crushing but meaningless blows.