ABOVE: Pokey LaFarge | SUPPLIED PHOTO
BY MARY HOULIHAN | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
Watching Pokey LaFarge and his band on stage is almost akin to taking a trip back in time. Outfitted in snappy attire that is a nod to a dapper style from an earlier decade, the band plays a perfect, somewhat unconventional, mix of early jazz, ragtime and folk.
But LaFarge is no nostalgia act. In fact, he hates the word retro. While he loves the string band music of a past time, he also wants to bring it into the present and pass it on. He’s done the usual things such as performing on “Late Show with David Letterman,” “A Prairie Home Companion” and NPR. But LaFarge also has forged a fruitful connection with Jack White. He’s opened for White, recorded at his studio and is working on a secretive new project with the Nashville artist/producer. And he also has been spending time in Chicago recording material for a new album with the local trad jazz group The Fat Babies, as well as other Chicago musicians.
It’s all in the name of getting his updated old-time sound to new audiences. And now he’s come up with another unique idea, something he’s calling the Central Time Tour, which is currently wending its way through the Midwest and includes performances by Dom Flemons, Joel Savoy, Jesse Lege & The Cajun Country Revival, The Tillers and The Loot Rock Gang.
“I want to showcase many different bands on one stage,” LaFarge says in a phone conversation from his St. Louis home. “A lot of this is underground music; you don’t hear it on top 40 radio. I want to expose audiences to music they may not have heard before.”
Flemons, formerly a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, serves as emcee for the show, which will be styled like the classic revue shows of the 1950s. There will be banter; there will be improv.
“Pokey is one of the great ambassadors of the old time field of acoustic music,” Flemons says. “He’s developed his own shows to reflect a lot of different types of music all at one time.”
The tour takes its name from the lead tune on LaFarge’s recent self-titled album. The song is a swinging testament to his love for the Midwest: The Missouri is my right arm, the Ohio is my left/But I’m livin’ on the Mississippi River where I like life the best/I don’t mind the west coast, and I don’t mind the east coast/Oh, baby but I ain’t gonna live on no coast.
“I believe in the Midwest; it’s who I am,” LaFarge explains. “It’s a cool place to be, and I want to embrace it.”
Pokey LaFarge’s Central Time Tour Featuring Dom Flemons, Joel Savoy, Jesse Lege & The Cajun Country Revival, The Tillers and The Loot Rock Gang 8 p.m. Sept. 19 Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Sold Out (773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org
With this tour LaFarge, takes that idea one step further bringing a roster of talent with him that step into a variety of traditional musical styles. Joel Savoy, Jesse Lege & the Cajun Country Revival honor and preserve the Cajun culture of southern Louisiana. The Tillers, from Cincinnati, are former punk rockers who give their folk sound a distinctive bite. St. Louis-based The Loot Rock Gang provides dual vocal harmonies on songs that swing with infectious rhythms.
LaFarge was introduced to an array of music at an early age. He grew up in Normal, Ill., where he was a young student of American-bread sounds — jazz, ragtime, country and hillbilly music. As influences, he cites the “older cats” at a local pizza joint where he hung out who introduced him to a variety of artists including Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Wayne Hancock, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys among others. His grandparents encouraged him to dig into the history of his country and its music.
“I was just looking for something different,” LaFarge says. “I was always an expressive person and luckily I found my outlet. So now it’s just a matter of always challenging myself and becoming better and finding new things to be inspired by.”
LaFarge is on a mission, encouraging fans worldwide to think differently about what it means to celebrate musical traditions. Simply put, Pokey explains, “It’s not retro music. It’s American music that never died.”