Photo by Nate Burrell
It’s just after 2 p.m., six hours before showtime, and Pokey LaFarge is sequestered in the third-floor green room of the Castle Theatre in downtown Bloomington, Illinois. He’s tired, strung out from this morning’s two-hour van ride down from Davenport, Iowa, where he and the boys were playing to a raucous house mere hours ago. He sits alone in the corner. Saturday sunlight streams through single-pane windows as he carefully rolls a cigarette.
The silence is interrupted by a knock at the door. LaFarge jumps up, swiping stray bits of tobacco from his fingers on his high-riding brown trousers. He greets a stagehand holding a bundle of purple daisies.
“Thanks,” says LaFarge, taking the bouquet, wrapped in cellophane, and placing it in a vase by the couch. “She’ll love these.”
“She” is LaFarge’s grandmother, who’ll turn 91 in a few days. For the past six years, no matter where the road has taken him, LaFarge has always made a stop in Bloomington as close to February 23 as possible to play this 101-year-old restored movie palace in honor of her and his late grandfather, who shared a birthday with his wife. They were married for 59 years.
Even at 33, LaFarge is a devotee of tradition—from his hand-rolled cigarettes to his vintage clothes to his music, steeped in ragtime, jazz, and Western swing. He plays a 1946 Epiphone Spartan archtop acoustic guitar; he’s a lifelong fan of the Chicago Cubs. This annual birthday gig is one of LaFarge’s favorite rituals. He was born and raised in Bloomington. Much of his family still lives here. His parents, siblings, cousins, friends, and, yes, the birthday girl herself make up a key contingent of the perennially sold-out crowd that has reliably rocked this ancient venue when LaFarge hits the stage.
“I wanted this record to be a bigger explosion. I wanted a bigger sound,” says LaFarge. “I feel like it’s more of a worldly record. It isn’t so much about where I come from as it’s where I’ve been and where I’m going.”
The warm welcome home is always a nice boost, especially at the end of a long trip, but tonight’s show should be an even bigger one, because it will be one of the last U.S. gigs they play before LaFarge releases his seventh studio album in May. The new record, Manic Revelations, is quite possibly the biggest departure of LaFarge’s young career. Like his hero Bob Dylan at Newport, LaFarge has “plugged in,” drawing on many more electric instruments. He’s brought in more horns. The music itself shifts more to the backbeat, giving the songs a 1950s and ’60s rock and soul feel. “I wanted this record to be a bigger explosion. I wanted a bigger sound,” says LaFarge. “I feel like it’s more of a worldly record. It isn’t so much about where I come from as it’s where I’ve been and where I’m going.”
At the moment, the South City–based musician’s trajectory seems almost limitless. He’s worked with Jack White and Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show. He’s played Letterman and Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. His crooning tenor can be heard on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and his guitar in the film adaptation of The Lone Ranger. LaFarge made his TV acting debut this spring, playing Canadian country singer Hank Snow on CMT’s period drama Sun Records. New York’s Knickerbocker Mfg. Co. released the first items in a new line of LaFarge-designed chore coats, Western-style shirts, and denim chinos in February.
Of course, the further artists drift from their origins, the more they risk turning off core fans. LaFarge has packed tonight’s setlist with songs from the new album among well-worn hits. It’ll be the first time his oldest, most loyal fanbase will hear the new sound.
LaFarge needs to rest. After soundcheck and a quick smoke, he slouches down on the green-room couch, pulls the flat bill of his Cubs ball cap over his eyes, and tries to sleep.
Photo by Nate Burrell
At times, it can seem like a little much: The old-timey music plucked on banjos and standup bass. The three-piece suits and fedoras. The pouch tobacco and hair slicked back with pomade. The throwback clothing line and nostalgic cameos. All from a smooth-faced Illinois native born in 1983?
“Initially I was a little suspicious,” says music writer Daniel Durchholz. “I was wondering if it was one of those things that required its own dress code, like the zoot suit thing of the 1990s. It wasn’t. As I got to know him, it wasn’t a fad. He was genuinely passionate about the music.”
Old Crow frontman Ketch Secor, who first met LaFarge as a teenage busker on the streets of Nashville 15 years ago, says the personal style stems from a deep appreciation of American music history. “It’s all part of the narrative,” says Secor. “What Pokey offers is more than just being a picker or a crooner. It’s in his DNA to do more. He’s highly stylized. I think Pokey’s fashion sense has a great reverence for the roots. These [early] musicians signed away all their rights to future royalties so they could get a car, a suit, a hat. They sold it all down river to look like they just crawled out of a birthday cake on the Fourth of July. That’s part of the act: You’ve got to look your best. Pokey knows it. That’s all part of the show.”
LaFarge’s narrative begins under the name Andrew Heissler, a perpetual straggler whose mother allegedly coined the nickname Pokey. LaFarge says he’s always gravitated toward older people, starting with a mother who collected antiques and a grandfather who played in the St. Louis Banjo Club. This piqued an artistic curiosity in LaFarge that has never abated. He went to the local library and rummaged through the record collection, unearthing older country and Western swing such as Bob Willis. He soon discovered bluegrass master Bill Monroe and bought a mandolin. At the same time, he was surrounded by classic rock, which led him to Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. He also hung out at a pizza joint in neighboring Normal, Illinois, where he discovered the blues—not just the newer electric brand but also the older acoustic stuff by the likes of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. He continued to dig for the roots—Roy Newman, Robert Wilkins, Skip James—deeper and deeper into the crackling phonograph past.
Along with his passion for old American music came an infatuation with old American authors—Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Jack Kerouac—and it wasn’t enough for him to just study early-20th-century literary travelogues and listen to traveling tunesmiths. The day after high school graduation, in 2001, LaFarge stuck out his thumb and began hitchhiking westward. “What the f— did I need to go to high school for? I got my education on my own,” he says. “I knew that I was destined for great things, but I didn’t necessarily know what it was. I just knew that I had to go and do something. You can’t just sit around and wait for the world to come to you.”
He bummed from Illinois to Oregon to California to Wisconsin to North Carolina. He played guitar and sang on barroom stages and public sidewalks. “I always thought he looked like Jimmie Rodgers and had an enigmatic way about him,” says Secor, who stayed in touch with LaFarge after letting him crash on his couch years ago. “There are not a lot of musicians who can tell you who Leroy Carr or Scrapper Blackwell is, let alone know the social context. As amateur musical scholar–type dudes interested in the roots of American music, you stick together.”
“I knew that I was destined for great things, but I didn’t necessarily know what it was. I just knew that I had to go and do something. You can’t just sit around and wait for the world to come to you.”
By 2006, Andrew Heissler had completed the transformation to Pokey LaFarge. (The name just sounded right, he’s said.) He self-released his first album, Marmalade, a bare-bones collection of old-timey originals that featured his slightly nasal vibrato and unique take on old-school blues guitar fingerpicking. But it was LaFarge’s attire—a gabardine suit—that drew the attention of Ryan Koenig and Joey Glynn, two-thirds of a touring St. Louis rockabilly trio called The Vultures who happened upon a busking LaFarge in Asheville, North Carolina. “We liked his style,” says Glynn. “He was fingerpicking these old blues tunes and some originals. The way he played guitar was different.” After striking up a conversation with LaFarge, Glynn and Koenig invited him to play at their show the next day. When the vagabond LaFarge moved to Louisville, months later, the two parties started trading shows and sharing bills.
In 2008, LaFarge moved to St. Louis, where he released his second album, Beat, Move & Shake, on local label Big Muddy Records. Glynn (who played bass on half the tracks) and Koenig introduced LaFarge to former schoolmate and guitar player Adam Hoskins. Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three was born.
“Part of the reason I moved [to St. Louis] and stayed is that I met a lot of people that respect me and treat me like a peer,” says LaFarge, “whereas everywhere else, I felt like I was running in place. When I moved to St. Louis, that’s when things really started to take off.”
Photo by Nate Burrell
LaFarge performs songs from the new album at the Castle Theatre in Bloomington, Illinois, where he returns each year to celebrate his grandmother’s birthday.
Night falls on Bloomington. The Castle Theatre marquee flickers to life behind the letters P-O-K-E-Y L-A-F-A-R-G-E S-O-L-D O-U-T.
At 7 p.m., the glass doors swing open to swallow a line of eager concertgoers that snakes around the block. Inside, the great rolling wave of people splashes against the stage, filling the pit and snatching up the metal banquet chairs and every inch of floor in between. They pile up against the two bars in back and up the stairs, spilling over the edge of the balcony as the opening act begins to play. The crowd is diverse in age, from a fedora-wearing 10-year-old worming his way to the front through a mass of twenty- and thirty something drinkers to LaFarge’s family and the days-short-of-91-year-old guest of honor, seated in a special VIP armchair with a clear view of the show.
Meanwhile, LaFarge is in the green room upstairs, fidgeting with a pink-and-black tie beneath a suit of denim so crisp, it looks as though it could stand on its own, cuffed over white socks and black leather shoes. He takes a swig of Red Bull, then pours a glass of Bordeaux that he’ll continue to drink onstage. He grabs his guitar and picks absently until he summons the band to quickly rehearse the five-part harmony breakdown just after the bridge of “Silent Movie,” one of several songs from the new album that will be alien to tonight’s crowd. After a few run-throughs, he checks his hair in the mirror. It’s time.
The seven musicians—LaFarge, Glynn, Koenig, Hoskins, drummer Matthew Meyer, and horn players Luc Klein and Reeds Ryan Weisheit—descend the stairwell into the roar of the awaiting throng. They huddle in the cramped corridor beside the stage as the emcee works up to the introduction.
Ladies and gentlemen: Pokey LaFarge!
The swelling cheers of the hometown crowd subside as the audience begins to sing along with the opening tune, “Close the Door,” a rollicking jazz number with a catchy la-di-da-di-dah refrain that even the few uninitiated can pick up on as they start to dance. Next comes “Something in the Water,” the swinging title track and lead single from LaFarge’s last album.
For the fourth song, LaFarge and company shift gears to “Riot in the Streets,” the more backbeat-driven rocker about the Ferguson unrest that kicks off the new record. A few dancers slow down; some heads stop bobbing; maybe a couple of people slip off to the bar or bathroom. Noticing the change, LaFarge turns to rally the band, brow slightly furrowed as if ordering more coal into the boilers, trying to steam through a suddenly icy sea. After another new track, the band skips a few new songs on the setlist. LaFarge presents his grandmother with her bouquet and serenades her with “Happy Birthday,” then follows with the band’s biggest hit to date, “Central Time.”
When it comes time for the South City Three to take over for a couple of numbers, LaFarge barges into the back alley with his wine glass and a pre-rolled smoke.
“Man, we had them swinging from the rafters last night,” says Klein, the trumpet player. “Maybe we need to play more ragers.”
“How many more ragers can we throw at them?” says LaFarge.
“Some slow ones?”
“We slowed it down,” says LaFarge. “That’s not working, either.”
“Give them a singalong,” says someone else. “Let them sing.”
“How many more singalongs do we have?” says LaFarge. “We played ‘Happy Birthday!’”
There’s a pause. Then LaFarge takes a couple quick drags before throwing the cigarette to the pavement. “F— it,” he says. “I’m gonna play my set.”
He marches back in, strips off his suit jacket, collared shirt, and tie. Down to a white undershirt, thin arms bare, he launches into the next song, dancing and singing until the veins of his neck protrude, desperate to win back the crowd.
Photo by Nate Burrell
The band—Adam Hoskins, Luc Klein, Joey Glynn,Matt Meyer,ryan Koenig, and LaFarge—at Joe’s Café.
Bloomington will always be Andrew Heissler’s birthplace, but Pokey LaFarge is from St. Louis. “I’ve lived all over the country, and I’ve traveled all over the world,” says LaFarge. “All of my family is in Bloomington—but St. Louis is the only place that’s really ever felt like home.”
The Gateway City and its adopted son have done right by one another. For an American music history nut like LaFarge, there aren’t many places in the U.S. with a richer heritage. Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, and Chuck Berry all had deep roots here, and those native influences, along with countless others lost to obscurity, have all seeped into LaFarge’s sound.
The most immediate impact on LaFarge since his landing on the west bank of the Mississippi in 2008 may have come from within his own band. Adam Hoskins had gone to school with Glynn and Koenig at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, where he took jazz guitar classes and studied the masters. He found a kindred spirit in LaFarge. “I’d only known a few people as into 1920s and 1930s blues as I was,” says Hoskins. “Blind Blake. Blind Boy Fuller. Lightnin’ Hopkins. We tried to emulate them. We got together and played tunes and exchanged knowledge.” “They learned from each other,” says Glynn. “Pokey started picking up on the jazz stuff. Over the years, every time we’d record a new album it was a little less country and a little more jazzy.”
The verve of classic uptown jazz seemed to be the final ingredient in a mix that would fuel Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three’s takeoff. In 2010 the band released Riverboat Soul, which won an Independent Music Award for Best Americana Album. The band made their Newport Folk Festival debut. Their follow-up album, 2011’s Middle of Everywhere, won the group’s second straight IMA. Guitar impresario Jack White brought the quartet into his Third Man Records studio, where White produced a Pokey LaFarge EP and enlisted the band as backup on a track from his debut solo album, Blunderbuss. LaFarge and company opened for White on his 2012 summer tour.
The ride was only beginning. In 2013, the band added a clarinet and trumpet and recorded their first full-length Third Man album, the self-titled Pokey LaFarge. The LP opens with the bouncy earwig “Central Time,” which may still be the band’s most recognizable single. The song landed them on the Late Show with David Letterman. “We’re going to take you back to St. Louis now,” LaFarge said before blasting the opening verse: The Missouri is my right arm, the Ohio is my left / I’m livin’ on the Mississippi River where I like life the best.
“I don’t think any true artist wants to be seen as retro,” says LaFarge. “They want to be seen as relevant today.”
Even after the band had shed the suffix “& the South City Three,” LaFarge represented St. Louis on the worldwide stage. He did so not only through his lyrics and sound but also through his work ethic, his loyalty, his willingness to stay when fame might have pulled him in different directions. “I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I told Pokey to move to Nashville,” says Secor. “It’s advice I’m glad he didn’t take. There’s something very important about region when it comes to roots music. St. Louis is the real deal. We’ve got all kind of guitar pickers in Nashville, but for him to stick it out in St. Louis has been wise. There’s a narrative to the story of Pokey and the St. Louis roots music scene. In this line of work, it’s all about creating a beautiful narrative.”
Fame tends to wrest away an artist’s control of his or her narrative. The more people became aware of LaFarge and his time capsule sound and look, the more they seemed to want to simplify what he was doing, to stick him in a category or, worse, in some sort of musical museum or nostalgia shop. The reviews and stories weren’t necessarily negative, but many writers failed to see the timelessness in LaFarge’s message and image and instead treated him as a novelty. The most common refrain was the label of “retro.” “I don’t think any true artist wants to be seen as retro,” says LaFarge. “They want to be seen as relevant today.”
The band jumped to Nashville’s Rounder Records and doubled down on their distinctive contribution to country blues, ragtime, jazz, and Western swing with 2015’s Something in the Water. But not long after the album came out, LaFarge felt the urge to break out. He dived into the online streaming services he’d long avoided and immersed himself in a universe of new and new-to-him music: garage bands, rocksteady, ska. “I felt like a kid again,” he says.
The result is Manic Revelations. In many ways, its 10 songs step away from the swing and jazz of the 1920s and ’30s and push toward the horn-driven soul and early R&B of the 1950s. “It’s hard to place where a lot of these songs are at genre-wise,” says LaFarge. “It’s a lot more backbeat. They’re not swinging so much. It’s big, energetic, powerful, loud. I think this record is going to go a long way toward shedding some of the dumb redundant shit that people say.”
The departure is so drastic, even the band took notice. “We mentioned it to him,” says Glynn. “Some of these songs are pretty different. I was worried that early fans would be alienated, that they might not be into it. It wasn’t really his concern.”
“This record is a culmination and a stepping out,” says LaFarge. “People don’t listen as closely as you’d like them to. They’ll just scrape what’s on the surface; then they’ll either push it aside or decide to dive in further. That’s up to them. I know we’ve made the best record we’ve ever made, and it’s going to bring a lot of new fans. No hard feelings to those who want to live in a small-minded world.”
The house lights are up. The crowd is gone, except for a few family members and friends who mill about while the staff put up chairs, close out the bar, and lock up.
Meanwhile, LaFarge escapes the hectic green room to find a quiet spot outside where he can sip Bordeaux, grab a smoke, and decompress. Despite finishing out the set with many of his old standbys, he never quite won back the audience. LaFarge led the band offstage and then returned so quickly, the people didn’t even have a chance to ask for the encore, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “C’est La Vie” that got a few couples dancing at the end. But the show was over before 11 p.m.
LaFarge doesn’t blame the crowd, but he doesn’t blame himself or the band, either. They poured in all they had left. Some nights are just off. “We’re used to central Illinois shows being crazy,” he later says. “When you are expecting an audience to act a certain way, you’re setting yourself up for a letdown.”
He’s also not too worried about the new songs. LaFarge knows that someone who hears something for the first time, especially something a little out of the ordinary, often stops singing along and dancing and just listens, taking it in—or visits the bathroom and goes to get a beer.
Either way, LaFarge and company will soon have plenty more opportunities to test the new material. After a quick break from the road, they’ll head to Europe at the end of April before coming back toSt. Louis for the record release party at The Pageant on May 20. Then it’s a summer of promotion across the U.S. and Canada. By August, the whole world will have heard the next evolution of Pokey LaFarge and passed judgment. All he can do is continue to work and stay true to his vision.
LaFarge rushes downstairs, heading directly for his grandmother, still seated in her armchair. He leans in for an embrace and a kiss on the cheek. “Hey, Grandma,” he says. “Did you have fun?”
“I had a great time,” she says.
The two talk for a few minutes, then hug goodbye. LaFarge breaks off to visit with other family and friends as Grandma, escorted by another family member, pushes her walker toward the exit. In the front pouch of the walker is the bundle of purple daisies.
“Happy Birthday,” says a stagehand.
She smiles: “Best one I’ve had yet!”