By: Alex Wood
It feels like a hometown show every time Pokey LaFarge plays in the Midwest.
His music reflects having grown up in central Illinois and lived in St. Louis, with references to the area’s country landscapes, roads and rivers throughout the songs, and audiences in the area never fail to connect to the imagery.
Despite being near the city, this remained true of Pokey and his band’s performance at SPACE in Evanston.
“It’s great to be back in the state of my birth and raising,” LaFarge said immediately upon entering the stage. His kind and humble nature recalls both bluegrass musicians of the past as well as the sort of Midwestern hospitality one may find in any small town south of the city.
The band opened with a song from their upcoming record titled “Knocking The Dust Off The Rust Belt Tonight.” The song sounded like 1930s swing music, heavy on trumpet while allowing every member short solo breaks. Clarinet and trumpet worked with upright bass and guitar to keep the song’s momentum high.
The audience was instantly sucked into the contagious, old-timey sounds, shouting the lyrics back at the band during the upbeat “Close The Door.”
Despite being tied to a specific era or genre, the band’s songs sounded anything but uniform.
“What The Rain Will Bring” offered a relief from the faster dance songs, with muted trumpet and theatrical singing, while “The Devil Ain’t Lazy” found the band’s energy at an infectious height.
“We’re going to take a trip down I-55 now,” LaFarge announced prior to “St. Louis Crawl.” The trumpet and clarinet players stepped off stage for the song, allowing the classic lineup of Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three to perform alone.
A solo performance of another new song, “Far Away,” followed unexpectedly, the lyrics provoking laughter from the audience despite the intimate performance.
“They will win you with their eyes and then trap you in their thighs/ stay away boy, stay away,” he sang.
The performance of new songs came with the announcement of the band’s next album being “pretty much done and ready to be released,” according to Pokey, who hopes to have it out “early next year.”
“Let’s do a Chicago jazz number here,” he said before “Riverboat Shuffle,” after bringing all members back to the stage. The song featured trumpet and clarinet dueling solos into LaFarge’s lowered microphone, the singer bending over to sing the verses as percussionist and harmonica aficionado Ryan Koenig played washboard with enthusiasm. The horns would change dynamics throughout by playing into or away from the single microphone.
Since adding clarinet and trumpet more than a year ago, the band has mastered a nostalgic era of music while making it entirely their own.
“My Window Faces The South” was performed as a jubilee, similar to hearing “When The Saints Go Marching In” played on a New Orleans street. “Fan It” features precisely timed solo breaks for each musician until Pokey faces the band and tells them to “put it together and see what we get” as all soloists play at once.
Set closer “Central Time” featured extensive call-and-response vocals from the audience as the crowd tried to match LaFarge’s extensive range and arresting delivery.
Within a minute of the band walking off stage, the entire audience was chanting Pokey’s name. To everyone’s delight, the band snuck back through the audience and onto stage for a lengthy encore.
LaFarge opened the encore with a solo performance of “Josephine,” a tender, finger-picked ballad from his self-released 2006 debut, Marmalade.
The band joined again for “Show Me The Way To Go Home,” announced appropriately to the older crowd as “a song for all the grandpas.”
The quick-paced “Whiskey Tonight” hit a half-time breakdown after the first verse, quickly becoming “La La Blues.” Both songs hit with force and energy, with “Garbage Man Blues” closing the show as a fun, skat-filled dance song featuring every band member prominently.
With each passing tour, Pokey LaFarge and his band seem to improve their signature sound by perfecting the details that make the group amongst the most entertaining live acts around today.
1.) Knocking The Dust Off The Rust Belt Tonight (new song)
2.) Close The Door
3.) Bowlegged Woman
4.) What The Rain Will Bring
5.) The Devil Ain’t Lazy
6.) St. Louis Crawl
7.) Far Away (Pokey solo – new song)
8.) Riverboat Shuffle
9.) Old Black Dog
10.) Home Away From Home
11.) My Window Faces The South
12.) One Town At A Time
13.) Sweet Potato Blues
14.) Let’s Get Lost
15.) Fan It
16.) Central Time
17.) Josephine (Pokey solo)
18.) Show Me The Way To Go Home
19.) All Night Long
20.) Whiskey Tonight (incomplete) >
21.) La La Blues
22.) Garbage Man Blues