Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three at Off Broadway, 8/19/11

Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three Off Broadway August 19, 2011

To celebrate the release of their new album, Middle of Everywhere, Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three played to two sold out crowds at Off Broadway. The later show promised to be one of the quartet's beloved crowded shows filled with fans dancing sweaty jigs, while the 7:00 performance was a more relaxed, seated performance.

"It's not every day you get on stage and the sun's still up," LaFarge noted as the band took the stage for the 90 minute set that included old favorites like "Can't Be Satisfied" with ample material from the new album, like the dark and smoky "Feels so Good", which throbbed with Joey Glynn intense upright bass and strong rhythm guitar from Adam Hoskins.

Despite extolling his love of summer - "It's why I'm wearing a wool suit!" - LaFarge also joked that, if the audiences for both of the evening's shows were inside the venue at the same time, it would be so hot they'd have their first naked show. Aside from mopping sweat with a blue bandana between songs, the warmth didn't seem to ruffle him or that natty wool suit.

"Brick Thieves", the band's contribution to the soundtrack for Bill Streeter's new documentary, Brick by Chance and Fortune, is a moody stomp with a haunting call-and-response refrain. It exemplifies what makes LaFarge and company so unique with taking a musical style associated so closely with a specific era and using it to tell stories that are either timeless or modern.

The latter's the case in "Brick Thieves", which protests the very current, very real problem of bricks from demolished buildings in North City being stolen and sold for drug money. It's akin to a modern poet who reverts to sonnet structure. If it's not done sincerely, it's nothing but a novelty. Done right, the old style grabs attention that's been dulled by so much modern music that sounds alike. LaFarge has the necessary sincerity to guide his message to his audience.

"I'm proud to be an American not because of my government, but because of the music," he said while praising the virtues of American musical genres before "Digging My Potatoes". Multi-instrumentalist Ryan Koenig wailed on the harmonica, dueling with bassist Glynn.

LaFarge dedicated "If You Can't Make Money, You Better Make Friends" to his mother, who was in the audience. He wrote the song based on the advice she gave him about life as a traveling musician. Koenig added cash register ka-chings and falling coin effects though a variety of percussion instruments attached to his washboard.

Most songs from the new album, including "Drinkin' Whiskey Tonight", have been performed in concert for at least a year; the album was recorded in 2010. With an audience full of friends, family, and hardcore fans, no one missed a beat in singing along with the song's chorus.

For "Mean Policeman", LaFarge played a banjo that had rested behind him all evening. His grandfather, a banjo player who gave LaFarge his first childhood guitar and banjo, was in the audience. LaFarge issued plenty of self-deprecating apologies about his banjo skills before and after the song, but it was unnecessary. While he's not a pro picker, he has enough skill to benefit the song while creating a sweet, sentimental moment.

As time ran out, he announced they had time for one or two more songs and audience members started yelling out requests. LaFarge played along. "If you're not staying for the second show, now's the time to make your requests." The band settled on a song, but in the quiet before they began, someone in the balcony shrieked, "Right Key, Wrong Keyhole!"

"Oh, let's do that!" he said, the band shifting gears into the song.

As darkness fell outside, they brought down the show with the familiar opening cry of "St. Louis Blues": I hate to see the evening sun go down. W.C. Handy's song that gave birth to the blues took an exotic twist with flamenco-style guitar and finger snaps before tearing into the swing of the chorus. Their unique take on the ubiquitous tune gave it new life and new energy, connecting the St. Louis birth of the blues with an audience generations later. It's not background music with Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three play "St. Louis Blues" - it's a local anthem.

After a pause that seemed to indicate the end of the show, they swung into "La La Blues", with LaFarge saying, "This is our 'Freebird'." The audience reaction proved him right, with arms raised and the sing-along strong to end the night for some.

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