By TOM CHESEK
First thing you notice about Pokey LaFarge is, the cat takes a good picture. There’s a Woody Guthrie thing going on for sure, along with a very young Bob Dylan and trace elements of vintage performers like Charlie Poole and Stringbean.
Fortunately, there’s more to the Kentucky-born purveyor of acoustic country blues, ragtime and folk music than meets the publicity shot. Whether playing the solo charmer or in tandem with his band the South City Three (Adam Hoskins, Joey Glynn, Ryan “Churchmouse” Koenig), this young and somewhat slightly enigmatic troubador has amassed a whole lot of artistic capital and cred in the space of just two indie albums (Marmalade and Beat Move and Shake) and countless intimately scaled concerts that have left many a hard-to-please observer convinced that they were in the presence of coolness.
He’s been called “a transgendered punk Bessie Smith,” “a hobo Pee Wee Herman” and “a twentysomething acoustic warrior;” his music’s been tagged variously as “delta-meets-appalachia,” “a wonderfully fresh and quirky kind of pop music” and, by the man himself, as “riverboat soul.” You’ll hear originals that have the effortless authority of older-than-dirt heirlooms; the grace and good humor of the weirdest shared experiences.
Young as he is, there’s also a legend of sorts sprouting up around the man called Pokey — a legend that says he “took to the open roads at a young age…hitching rides and writing boxcar ballads…falling in with traveling caravans of vaudeville poets and hell-raising bluegrass pickers alike.” Sounds like the kind of jive bullshit regularly cooked up by Music Row promotion hacks, until you realize he’s planning to travel to his next scheduled gig by hitching 300-plus miles from Virginia to Ohio.
Whether by thumb or by trusty band van, the road takes Pokey LaFarge to our fair Shore this Thursday night, under what’s left of the Highlands-Sea Bright Bridge and down Bay Avenue to The Claddagh as the latest in Michael Patrick’s Suburban Roots Concert Series. The Morganville-based Patrick — who, when he’s not fronting The Suburban Hillbillies is likely doing a mean Johnny Cash as the Ring of Fire Band — has made it something of a mission to bring some truly sublime stuff in the Country-Roots-Americana soundscape to the Jersey Shore; having previously made The Claddagh the setting for a couple of memorable sets by Justin Townes Earle. It’s a much-appreciated alternative to the kind of big-tour hat crap offered up at Six Flags and the Pee ‘n See this time of year.
Red Bank oRBit spoke to LaFarge at a rare clear spot in the road. Best stop for that hitcher up ahead; he looks like he’s got one hell of a story…
RED BANK ORBIT: Thanks for finding the time to talk, Pokey. I’m looking at your schedule here and it seems you’re all over the map, performing at places with names like Howler’s Coyote Cafe and Booby’s Beer Garden.
POKEY LaFARGE: You’ve actually caught me on a night when I’m kickin’ back a little bit, down here in Charlottesville. Tomorrow, I will be hitch-hiking through West Virginia on my way to the next show in Athens, Ohio.
Surely that’s not how you usually get around — you’re not really clinging to the tops of boxcars, like in BOUND FOR GLORY?
More often than not, the method of travel is a 1995 Dodge van, which we’ve named Scarlett.
Now I’ve read an interview where you said you dislike naming musical instruments. Why does this rule not apply to a vehicle?
I used to name instruments when I was a kid, but I don’t much see the point in it now. But Scarlett, oh man, she’s the most faithful thing in my life. She’s had problems, you know, but she keeps comin’ back.
So where’s home base these days on those rare occasions when you’re not on the road?
I make my home in the city of St. Louis. That’s where my band is from — they’re the South City Three, referring to the south part of the city of St. Louis.
We’ve got a new record out in September, and it’s got the full band on it, plus some special guests. We gotta get out there and really kill it — we’ll be out on the road for three months straight. Before that, I’m going to Scotland to play solo at the end of August. The whole band will be there next year, if we’re all still alive.
Who are some of the guests who sat in on the new album?
I’m not gonna bust the surprise just yet. I want to keep it a secret as long as possible — let’s just say it’s a dream come true for me!
Now you’ve cited a lot of people as influences — everybody from Jimmie Rodgers and Reverend Gary Davis to Townes Van Zandt and R. Crumb. And I can hear them all in what you do to various degrees, but I have to ask you about one name you mention — Sidney Bechet, the old jazz clarinet player.
The clarinet’s my favorite instrument. I’m starting to practice on it — although it’s hard to practice clarinet in a van.
Anyway, it’s more about the spirit of Sidney’s music — I play some of his lines on the kazoo. Back in the day, you know, the kazoo was taken a little more seriously; they used to play it as a horn when they didn’t have a horn player in the band. Now of course it’s just a novelty, a way to make stupid sounds. But you’ll be hearing more of Sidney’s influence on the band record.
Ever get the impulse to ‘go Newport’ like Dylan did and shock ‘em all with an electrified set?
I just have no reason to ever play electric at all. I love all kinds of stuff, but as far as the music I play — it’s just what I feel, man.
Before I ever heard any of your music, I saw some photos of you and said, well, if nothing else, this guy’s got the look down pat. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hubert Sumlin, another very sharp-dressed man, and he told me that he hails from an era when you got dressed up to play music; if you didn’t dress professionally you didn’t get a second gig.
The look is a big part of it — them cats always dressed to the nines. It’s all business, it’s all marketing to some extent — when you do a show, you put on a costume, no matter what it is. But we pride ourselves on the fact that we dress nice all the time.
Well, when you get to Highlands, New Jersey, you’ll be playing a neighborhood Irish pub in a picturesque little town on the local bay. It’s neither the biggest nor the most famous place to play around here, but it’s got a nice living-room kind of vibe when all the elements line up, and I guess what I’m saying is that you’ll be among friends — it’s a good match-up for what you do. Although I don’t know how one would define “bay” music, versus the great American “river” music you’ve talked about so eloquently…
Well, I guess we could credit the bay waters with carrying our ancestors down to these river places where so much music was born!
I’m thinking that Mike Patrick will be setting you up in friendly fashion. This guy works hard to make these shows work; you’ll find him scrambling to round up more chairs before the show starts, just doing all the legwork that needs to be done.
Yeah, well, Mike was the one who got in touch with us, through the email, and from what you’re sayin’ he’s also got an old-timey way of doin’ things. You gotta work hard, put in the legwork, and it pays off little by little. Good things are definitely happenin’ right now, and I try to stay positive about it.
Getting back to what you said earlier, you’re not REALLY going to hitch-hike to your next gig, are you?
Yeah, it’s what I gotta do in this case. There’s not a bus station within 50 miles of Athens, Ohio, so I gotta give myself a day or so and hit the road. But I’m just a guy with a guitar and a suitcase — I’m easy to pick up.