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Review: Pokey LaFarge at Noble Coffee

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Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three

Noble Coffee & Tea, April 3

Here's an exchange to sum up an early-afternoon show by St. Louis-based, old-time string band Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three at Noblesville's Noble Coffee & Tea. First LaFarge, riffing off the name of The Bishop, the Bloomington venue where he and his band would play Sunday night, thanked the Catholics in the crowd for attending early mass so that they might come out in time for his show. But, Geoff Davis, director of the Blue Stone Folk School, the Noblesville outfit devoted to traditional arts and crafts that hosted LaFarge's concert, countered with, "This is our religious experience." LaFarge came back: "Mine too."

And as for spirituo-musical fellowship, the Blue Stone Folk School has a pretty good thing going. They've been putting together concerts at Noble Coffee & Tea, an independent coffeeshop on Noblesville's town square, for at least as long as I've been doing this job (a little over three years), bringing in traveling acts of the acoustic, often old-timey, variety, matching them up with locals affiliated with the school, including the youngster Evan Slusher (who's headed to the Newport Folk Festival this summer) and Jason Hathaway (with whom LaFarge has performed all over the state). 50 or so persons of all ages fit comfortably into a narrow side room in Noble's sprawling complex Sunday afternoon, from kids, blissfully unaware of the implications of LaFarge's double-entendre numbers and rolling on the floor in the back, to toe-tapping old-timers with American flag pockets hand-stiched into their slacks.

Davis handled the opening duties himself for this show, playing standards ("Honeysuckle Rose," "Alcoholic Blues" by "Take Me Out To the Ballgame" composer and Hoosier Albert von Tilzer) on ukulele and trombone. Then, without a pause, LaFarge, on guitar, and his three cohorts (on guitar, string bass and miscellaneous percussion, respectively) took the stage, announcing that they hadn't slept or eaten in 24 hours, and that this was the earliest show they could remember playing in a long, long time, but that the power of caffeine would keep them going.

And it did: LaFarge does justice to his heroes, the now somewhat-obscure figures in the world of hillbilly, mountain and old-time music that made most of their recordings before WWII, and mostly during in a prime period that fell after advent of electronic recording in the mid to late '20s and before the Depression made it less than economically beneficial for labels such as Okeh to churn out niche old-time or "race" 78s. And it's almost all about the recordings for 20-something artists like LeFarge — folks like Mike and Pete Seeger had the opportunity to meet some of the musicians who made those recordings when they were re-discovered in the '50s and '60s, but this generation has only the records to learn from. So, did your average old-time musician have quite the strident, nasal tenor that LaFarge has adopted, or is that simply the style of singing, adapted to less than responsive microphones, that comes down to us from history, forever altered by the means by which it reaches us? And not that it's an either/or thing: former Hoosier Jake Smith once of the band the Mysteries of Life, now known as Jacob Smith in an academic setting, makes an interesting study of how vocal styles develop simultaneously with the entrenchment of recording technologies in his book Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media.

Regardless, LaFarge and his band sound authentic — and look the part too, down to LaFarge's slicked-back hair and suspenders and the washboard player's feathered fedora. His band even plans to release a 78 next year, which follows on their 7-inch now available on Jack White's Third Man Records (recorded under "interesting" conditions, LaFarge explained from the stage, because White's music couldn't be more different from his band's). But all these accoutrements would be moot if his band couldn't play - and they sure can. LaFarge and Co. ably offered up both upbeat dance band numbers (notably "Right Key, Wrong Keyhole") and surprisingly nuanced, dynamic and playful readings of slower tunes, including "Chitlin' Cookin' Time in Cheatham County," the A-side to that Third Man 7-inch. Thoroughly familiar with the repertoire, they made "St. Louis Blues" their own (the song being a required number, according to LaFarge, because they're from St. Louis) and gave an appropriately wry take on "Some of These Days."

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