Pokey LaFarge brought his distinctly old-timey brand of what he calls riverboat soul to Berlin’s Imperial Club last night. Making his debut in the German capital with his five-piece band, LaFarge, dressed in a dark suit, fedora and two-tone brogue shoes, introduced Hoagy Carmichael’s “Riverboat Shuffle” by asking the audience the name of the city’s river. “Spree,” shouted the crowd in the peculiar German pronunciation of “schpray.” “Right,” said LaFarge, not attempting to repeat the word himself, much to the locals’ amusement. The dapper bandleader then kicked into a spirited rendition of Carmichael’s tune, with some inspired harmonica and washboard playing from his bearded cowboy sidekick Ryan Koenig.
LaFarge has a particular fondness for blues, country and western swing and treated the audience to several Bob Wills songs, including “My Window Faces the South.” Crooning about the Swanee River and strumming away on his archtop guitar, LaFarge looked and sounded every inch the slick riverboat gambler or savvy shoreline barker as the clarinet of Chloe Feoranzo and the cornet of TJ Muller wailed away alongside. And he kept up the tempo with “Okie Boogie,” a rockin’ tune from the ’40s by Jack Guthrie, who he rightly described as “Woody’s little known cousin.”
But while LaFarge hankers for a time of obscure and scratchy 78s, there’s nothing precious or museum-like about his approach to music from bygone eras. A consummate showman, he brings real joy and palpable energy to those old tunes, driven to make them relevant in an age of so much electronic dance music and dubstep (the reggae variant LaFarge couldn’t remember the name of at one point during his between-song patter—“Sometimes I think I’m 30 going on 70,” he joked).
The St. Louis native’s commitment to updating vintage styles really shines through on his own songs, and he and his band served up many of them during the two-hour show at the Imperial, drawn from albums like 2011’s Middle of Everywhere and this year’s self-titled recording, released on Jack White’s Third Man label. The plaintive “What Will the Rain Bring” conjured up visions of Django Reinhardt on a Mississippi showboat, while the chugging “Day After Day,” featuring band member Adam Hoskins’ jaunty guitar, enlivens a tale about the drudgery of the workaday life. LaFarge dipped into two songs from his 2010 album Riverboat Soul with “Two Faced Tom,” a peppy, humorous ditty about adultery with a murderous twist, and “La La Blues,” a giddy number that sums up his sunny outlook. “I’ve got this old thing called the laughing hearts disease,” sang LaFarge. “I’m gonna laugh my way to any old place I please.”
LaFarge, who contributed a song to Boardwalk Empire, finds himself in the forefront of an old-time renaissance that includes other revivalists like New Orleans’ Luke Winslow King and Australia’s C.W. Stoneking. But he refutes any suggestion that the music he makes is a throwback not capable of being modern. As he told one interviewer: “Timelessness is what I’m working towards and time is the very thing it will take in order to solidify myself in the eyes of the world. I’ll let the fads (like dubstep) fade away, I’ll let the generations evolve, and I’ll evolve with them.” He added: “It’s important for people to remember that any legendary musician has had one foot in his roots and one in the future.”
Before he closed his set to rapturous applause from his new German fans, LaFarge accepted a request from one audience member, a tall, willowy blonde, to play “Let’s Get Lost,” a slow number from his latest album about a lovesick jobless dreamer. “I’d like to circle round the whole world twice,” he sang, “just gettin’ lost with you by my side.” By the time LaFarge and his merry minstrels left the stage and bid Berlin “auf wiedersehen,” a roomful of followers had just happily gotten lost with him.
Cover photo by Glenn Hall