Hall column: Pokey LaFarge brings retro cool to his solo blues act

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 12, 2008

On the evening of March 21, if you were one of the people who came to The Blue Vine to enjoy Two Man Gentlemen Band, then you remember who stole the show: Pokey LaFarge.
I’m not saying the two gentlemen aren’t great entertainers. They both arrived in Salisbury with 101-degree fevers, and only one of them still had a voice. Yet they performed an entire hour before declaring defeat and succumbing entirely to whatever they had contracted.
The surprise of the evening came before that, with the first notes of the show, from opening act LaFarge.
He looked just like what you’d expect from someone called “Pokey.” He wore a yellow cardigan sweater and argyle socks. His youthful, pale face had a seemingly innocent and slightly sleepy expression.
All this topped with a newsie cap.
It appeared he should be selling papers during the prohibition era, not preparing to perform in the 21st century.
Pokey began playing in his aggressively fluent fingerpicking blues style. Then he opened his mouth to sing, and an astonished hush fell over the audience when he appeared to be channeling Robert Johnson.
As a youngster, Pokey was never attracted to rock and the electric instruments others his age found appealing. Growing up in Louisville, Ky., the home of jug band music, he had plenty of historic music influences. At 14, he was playing old-time fiddle, and he later took up guitar. He has played mandolin with The Hackensaw Boys, but right now he’s enjoying being out on his own as a solo act, helping keep roots and blues music alive.
“I found my own voice and I wanted to go out and share it with the world,” Pokey told me, when I got a chance to visit with him before his March performance. “It’s as much about traveling as music. I don’t want to feel stagnant.”
He says growing up in Louisville influenced him greatly, and so did spending time on the river there.
“A river is a magical thing,” he says. “St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans are all at the heart of American music.”
Asked to choose his favorite singer of all time, Pokey doesn’t hesitate: “Ray Charles.”
Pokey’s songs may sound like they are from an earlier time, but they are original compositions.
“I’m not an old black man, and I don’t pick cotton, so I have to do my own blues songs,” he states matter-of-factly.
He’s right. Your blues songs are supposed to be about what you know. For example, “love sickness.” In the middle of one of his songs about someone who done him wrong, he turned to me from the stage and said, “This is that love sickness I was telling you about, Sarah.”
Although he was only scheduled to be the opening act, Pokey took to the stage again, much to the delight of those assembled, when Two Man Gentleman Band’s illness cut their act short.
As Pokey was settling in for this second set, a man in the audience called out, “Where can I get a sweater like that?”
Pokey didn’t miss a beat.
“From your grandfather works well,” he said with a smile.
It was getting late, but nobody seemed to want to leave. And the crowd was really listening, not treating Pokey as background music as sometimes happens in these establishments.
When closing time came, I remarked to Pokey how intently people seemed to be listening.
“It’s the yellow sweater,” he said. “It mesmerizes them.”
Pokey LaFarge’s newest record, “Beat, Move, and Shake,” will be released July 18 on the St. Louis indie label Big Muddy Records.

You can listen to Pokey at www.myspace.com/pokeylafarge.

Pokey takes the stage at 9 p.m. Saturday at The Blue Vine, 209 S. Main St. There is no cover. For information, call 704-797-0093.
Contact Sarah Hall at shall@salisburypost.com or call 704-797-4271.