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Sunday, 21 August 2011 12:05

Concert review: Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three (with Colonel Ford) turn back time at Off Broadway, Friday, August 19

Concert review: Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three (with Colonel Ford) turn back time at Off Broadway, Friday, August 19 Nate Burrell
Written by Scott Allen
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Imagine Off Broadway as a speakeasy across from the dormant Lemp Brewery in the late 1920s. Last night one needed only observe the line of people waiting to see Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three to know this was a joint with a rare brew.

Though there was no bathtub gin to celebrate the group's release of the new album "Middle of Everywhere," the liquor and beer flowed freely. Outside on the patio, the venue served alcohol slushes and hot dogs; both bars, inside and out, were busy with a constant queue for tallboy beers and cocktails.

Arriving at Lemp Avenue at 9:30 p.m., I stood in the ever-growing, blocks-long line. With three-quarters of the bar chopped off earlier this month, Off Broadway can now squeeze in even more patrons. Last night the club needed all the room it could muster. Owner Steve Pohlman told me after the concert that just fewer than 400 people attended the late show after the early-seated set drew over 200. Demand was so heavy for the late show that many were turned away at the door disappointed; it was an easy sellout.

Finally making my way inside the venue at 10 p.m., I found Colonel Ford already plowing through an opening set. The local sextet plays '40s and '50s hillbilly swing that takes the listener back to the days of the country jamboree without the hats and outfits. Led by former members of the Rock House Ramblers -- bassist Dade Farrar and guitarist Gary Hunt -- the duo exchanged lead vocals like veterans, complimented by outstanding lead guitarist John Horton (RHR, Bottle Rockets, Magnolia Summer), fiddle and electric mandolin player Justin Branum, and Danny Kathriner (RHR and the Half Knots) on drums. Last night Colonel Ford reserve player Bob Breidenbach filled in for Farrar's brother Jay on pedal steel.

Happy to be playing for the enthusiastic crowd, the band brought LaFarge on stage to thank him for the invitation. LaFarge then joined the band on the '20s jazz ballad "Right or Wrong." All of the Colonel's old favorites were superbly rendered, with Branum and Horton catching plenty of applause for their mandolin and guitar work. After playing "Panhandle Rag" and the Faron Young classic "If You Ain't Lovin' (You Ain't Livin')," Hunt heaped praise on LaFarge, and the band cleared the way for the headliner.

During the opening set the temperature level inside quickly rose. A girl standing close by joked to a friend, "I don't know how these hipsters are wearing scarves and sweaters right now." She was right. A good chunk of the crowd -- consisting mostly of 20-somethings, sporting vintage clothing and well-coiffed hair -- must have been roasting, as my t-shirt and jeans were quite wet already. Yet, the crowd was abuzz with excitement throughout the performance.

After a quick changeover, Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three took the stage ready to perform their second full show of the evening. Dressed in a dark striped suit, short-sleeved red collared shirt and tie, LaFarge thanked the crowd for waiting in the heat. As the group got the show moving, time melted away; the only thing missing was the crackle pop of the needle in the groove of a 78-rpm record on the Victrola.

Greatly expanding their set list from the recent Newport Folk Festival performance, the quartet blasted through 25 songs over two hours getting the audience lathered into one hot sweaty mess. Playing generous amounts from their first album, "Riverboat Soul," as well as the new album, LaFarge mixed in a few decades-old jazz standards to bolster his original tunes.

Starting with the classic "Some of These Days," LaFarge and the South City Three began the night much like the Newport date a couple of weeks ago. A few songs in LaFarge asked the crowd to help on "Pack It Up," the single the group recorded for Jack White's Third Man Records label. The energy ratcheted up again, as the crowd sent shouts of the song title back to the band.

The group played seven songs before even touching on material from the new album -- a welcome indicator that this would be a long night. Before new song "Mississippi Girl," LaFarge advised the crowd to "get your turntables fired up because vinyl ain't going away." Fittingly, the new album has a 180-gram vinyl edition; LaFarge wouldn't have it any other way.

While Pokey serves as bandleader and Master of Ceremonies he lets the South City Three put the shine on the music. Guitarist Adam Hoskins is fluid with quick solos, Joey Glynn holds down the bottom end on upright bass, keeping both beat and melody at once, while Ryan Koenig often steals the show with his adroit washboard playing and superb chops on the harmonica.

Halfway through the night the crowd started to thin a bit, yet LaFarge showed no sign of slowing down. The new album dominated this middle portion of the set as LaFarge advised the audience that the group planned to "play as long as we possibly can." Near the end of the main part of the set list, LaFarge began conferring more with his band. Moving back towards the album "Riverboat Soul" the band ended the main set with "In the Graveyard Now," followed by introductions and solos from each member.

The evening concluded after one in the morning with a four-song encore of "Garbage Man Blues," followed appropriately with the W.C. Handy standard "St. Louis Blues." LaFarge's own "La La Blues" induced an excited sing-a-long, and then the final notes rang out with "Move Outta Town" -- advice St. Louisians should hope this band never takes.

By the end of the evening everyone needed a shower, but LaFarge's infectious smiled had completely spread throughout the crowd. Conditions may have become a test case in the survival of the fittest, but the audience drifted easily back into 2011, met the cool night air and hummed all the way home.

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