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Pokey LaFarge: 'The Best Music Is Yet to Come'

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The musician is in a good place right now. - PHOTO BY NATE BURRELL
  • PHOTO BY NATE BURRELL
  • The musician is in a good place right now.

Standing outside his landmark music store in the Delmar Loop on a recent, overcast Saturday afternoon, Tom "Papa" Ray is absolutely in his element. It's Record Store Day, and with bands playing on the sidewalk outside Vintage Vinyl, a makeshift performance area under the store's mezzanine finds at least 100 fans forming a ring around LaFarge and his band just prior to the group's scheduled noon set. With traffic moving at the Loop's languid weekend pace and the lightest of mists in the air, the seven-piece stands with instruments in hand for a good minute or two, as Ray launches into an introduction he's given more than once, in more than one setting.

To Ray, St. Louis has been missing the mark for a while when it comes to championing arts and culture. While the city chases sports teams and businesses looking for the best deal (or best hand-out), Ray says, St. Louis' strongest elements, including its music, are given little to no attention or support by the powers that be. And here is a group carrying St. Louis' banner to the world.

As he speaks, a few heads nod in agreement. And as Ray hits his crescendo, he throws things to the lead performer, who, as always, easily slips from bystander to center of attention.

Even with a tight set time of only 30 minutes, LaFarge is able to run through a good chunk of his newest album, as well as Emmett Miller's "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)" which he sets up with a story about David Lee Roth's unexpected Miller fandom. At one point, LaFarge throws a nod to each of the band members and the crowd cheers accordingly. As short, promotional shows go, this one gets an A grade, even as the band passes on playing its familiar material, the known cuts like "Central Time" or "Something in the Water."

Orlandez Lewis, Vintage's effervescent promotions chief, says that promotion of the upcoming album surely played into LaFarge booking the gig. Still, he says, "At the same time, Pokey is one of those that when he performs gives it 110 percent every time. ... He always shows love to St. Louis, and us at Vintage Vinyl. And we're all huge fans of him at the store."

Despite being a name-brand act, LaFarge charged no performance fees for the gig, Lewis notes. "The intimacy of it was a major standout. All kinds of ages and faces came out for it. Which is a perfect representation of not only our customer base, but of the St. Louis music scene in a whole. It was very beautiful."

Though the material is new, the response is solid. Brown coaxes an excellent mix, right there on the street corner, and the song's inherent hooks do the rest. With some of the crowd traveling to town for the gig and with Ray's windup introduction, the show feels a bit more like a concert than the performances of some of the other bands, who hurriedly toss their gear into place, playing only to friends and curious passersby.

Within a few seconds of ending, LaFarge's band, like any other on Record Store Day, begins striking gear, making way for another group. This will be the band's last full show in St. Louis for a good month. Makeshift "stage" or no, it's a good one.

These days, LaFarge and his wife, Megan Mae Newman, are awaiting a move, into a three-story, brick charmer on Cherokee, just a stone's throw from the Mud House, where he and the band are regulars. Though he's arguably the most famous musician touring out of the city these days, his appearances at the coffeeshop have the vibe of the everyday; he greets workers, finds a seat on the patio with friends, enjoys life without the trappings.

And yet, there are those moments when folks who aren't daily visitors notice him and talk and ... yeah, there's that moment of star stir.

LaFarge is in that interesting zone now: established, but still growing, with a history that's embraced by the most avid of fans. In other words, he has a catalog. Many of the songs of his prior six records (along with some EPs, singles and a Dutch live set) have entered the public's consciousness, becoming part of his fans' personal soundtracks.

"I don't really think too much about my catalog," he says. "You do have to be aware of it, because fans wanna hear certain stuff, but I can't always please them in that regard. Sometimes, you can bust out a solo or, when the band's behind me, do a verse or chorus of a track and that usually suffices. It's just off the cuff that way and the risk factor is there. People love you messing up live. It's another way of breaking that fourth wall."

Even with his band in Europe earlier this month, LaFarge allowed himself a few solo shows, as "I think I'm in a good place for that. I'd been in the mindset of making as much sound with three, four, five people and I ultimately wanted a bigger orchestra; I knew I had to have that for the sound. But you also need to satiate a part of your creative mind that wants a little more minimalism, not so much noise.

"Songs change almost night to night," he suggests. "That's just what happens when you start to perform things live: You learn more about the songs. That's the great thing about creating a song. A sculpture, when finished, is done. A painting, it's done. A collection of poems is done, unless you keep writing and do another edition. Songs change every night. There's improvisation at your fingertips, every night. The fans aren't there in our minds every day; they're not at every show. It can be jarring for them, this change, you know?"

The band's now a bit removed from its biggest change in personnel to date, which occurred when horn players Chloe Feoranzo and TJ Muller left the group; she embarked on a career in New Orleans, while the Englishman began a role as bandleader of the Gaslight Squares, while still playing with his former bandmates in the Sidney Street Shakers and other guises.

Koenig knows that the previous lineup drew a lot of folks into the band's orbit, and that its sound, inflected by the trad jazz backgrounds of those horn players, was a definite part of the appeal. But ...

"The core of the band has maintained the whole time," he says. "He's been playing with the South City Three pretty much since day one. I think the hardest part is that we've involved our with players with a lot of personality and it's how some people come to know the band. If you see the band the first time and you're into it, you remember the players who left. It's interesting. I'd like to think overall, that it's been a résumé point, or a badge for everyone involved in it."

Feoranzo says there was no animus. After four years, she was simply ready — ready for "something different." She explains in an email, "The band was going in a different direction musically, and at least for myself I was ready to get off the road for a bit.

"I am absolutely grateful to have been asked at all," she adds. "We did some amazing things — so many different countries, the David Letterman show, the Grand Ole Opry, Garrison Keillor's 'Prairie Home Companion' twice — so I will always be thankful to the group and for the opportunity to travel and perform around the world at a young age. Touring is a hard life and I learned so much about the lifestyle and how to survive on the road with that band. Definitely earned my touring stripes with them."

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Bill Christman is one of St. Louis' certified geniuses, having created Beatnik Bob's in City Museum, as well as his home base, Joe's Cafe. The primary stage room and its affiliated gallery play host to a variety of Thursday night entertainments, under the guise of a private club, rather than a full-on, advertised concert venue. While the room can get crowded with a salt-and-pepper audience on a regular Thursday evening, when LaFarge played a few weeks back, Christman found himself looking for a new method of crowd control.

On that night, he and several friends check each patron for a Dixie cup; these 50-year-old relics come from Christman's own collection, and he shaped each into a unique "ticket," though many of the people rolling up to the room claim to have theirs inside with a friend, or they're waiting on their cup, or they paid for the cup but never received it, or ... the variances are enough to make Christman swear a little bit, even as he takes time out to introduce newcomers to the hen that's pecking around at his feet. (Which would seem random anywhere else in the world, but not at Joe's.) You get the sense with Christman that he wants to do little more than create things for people to enjoy, but that he'd pick the things over the people if ever forced to choose between the two.

This one is a solo show, with just Brown on hand; as people roll into the venue, a few note that LaFarge is nearby with Newman and friends, eating Thai food. At the venue, Christman tells folks about the hen who showed up four years ago, now pecking around the entry at showtime. It's all very idyllic, kind of a small-town vibe and a uniting of two esoteric characters in performer and presenter. It's a tune-up gig of sorts, and done in a cool way.

It will also be one of the last times LaFarge gets to do something like that for the moment. This weekend he plays the Pageant, with his new record's release show set for May 20. And after that, LaFarge and company will pack bags and become "a big, happy family," in Brown's words. By mid-June, the touring machine will fire up and LaFarge's side projects will be monitored from the road. And that's become a growing list recently, with everything from a limited release beer (Pokey Pils from 4 Hands), a small clothing line (with New York's Knickerbocker Manufacturing) and even acting work (he plays Hank Snow on CMT's Sun Records).

While the U.S. will be the main target of 2017's early dates — the East Coast and Midwest in particular — LaFarge dreams about "Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand. That'd be sweet. Japan, that'd be great. I'd love to buy green tea and decipher all the architecture and clothing.

"That's the love of traveling that came before being a musician," he says. "Writing took me into singing and writing songs. I always knew I wanted to write and travel. That was always kind of there. I always traveled a lot as a kid and read a lot of literature; the Beat writers and early 20th century American authors. They drew a picture of this being a big fucking country, and I knew I wanted to travel it.

"I'm living my dream."

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