A New Old Record from a Time Travelin’ Man
High-waisted pants, vintage shirts and an arch top are the iconic accoutrements of a 1920s blues-man. With slick pomade and a carpetbagger’s sly travelin’ grin, Pokey LaFarge lives it, breathes it and swings it old-school on his new self-titled album. “It’s not retro music. It’s American music that never died,” claims the band leader, guitarist, banjoist, and songwriter of the blended brand of blues, jazz, and ragtime that he and his bandmates in the South City Three have been slinging around the world for the last few years. If LaFarge’s recent accomplishments are a gauge, the nearly centenarian genre is, in fact, going strong.
Last year, the St. Louis native and self-professed midwestern boy LaFarge signed with Jack White’s label Third Man Records. His long-time backing band has grown from its original three (Ryan Koenig on harmonica, washboard, and snare, Adam Hoskins on guitar and Joey Glynn on upright bass) to include Chloe Feoranzo on clarinet and TJ Muller on cornet. Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show produced the new record alongside LaFarge himself, and the band has been stomping on some serious stages: Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Radio City Music Hall and the famous Ryman Auditorium, to name a few. And the company he’s keepin’ ain’t nothin’ to shake a stick at either. Sharing the bill with high-profile acts like The Raconteurs, Nils Lofgren and Southern Culture on the Skids, this award-winning songwriter is holding his own with serious contemporaries even if they do sound a little bit more, well, contemporary.
It’s hard to be true to the form of an old genre without becoming a novelty act. Of the twelve tracks on Pokey LaFarge, few do anything to bridge the nearly hundred-year gap between now and then. Though brilliantly executed, the musicianship here isn’t pushing any boundaries stylistically. The aesthetic is so authentic it’s hard to imagine the band on the road, talking on iPhones or gaming on the bus. The only thing missing is the scratchy Victrola sound and a glass of warm whiskey. After a few songs, a little grit would be a welcome addition. The three-minute storytelling songs, like the single “Central Time,” are well-crafted and concise but the form is lacking in originality.
LaFarge’s vibrato warbles over the top of the tracks like an old-time crooner and there’s no missing it. The vocals are mixed loud and clear, which gives the recording a scrubbed-clean feeling. Live performances on The Jools Holland show, among others that can be found online, have more speakeasy grime. The seventh track “Bow-legged Woman” dirties it up and has a little fun.
With his fourth studio release since 2007’s Marmalade and an extensive summer tour in store, Pokey has been and will be busy bringin’ that old-time shuffle to today’s listeners. But while other artists (ironically, The White Stripes being one of them) can wear their Americana influences on their sleeves and still maintain their own identity, Pokey LaFarge and his crew aren’t one of them. If you want a trip down memory lane, or if you could use a music history lesson, Pokey LaFarge is the cat’s pajamas. More of a celebration than an innovation, this record spends a little too much time trying to relive the past.