Thursday, 8 March 2018

GIG REVIEW: Pokey LaFarge - 02 Institute, Birmingham. Wednesday 7th March 2018

Few could remember the last time Pokey LaFarge played Birmingham; a situation now suitably remedied after a packed Institute rocked to the core of American roots music. In a vibrant haze of the sounds of the South floating north to where it gets a touch more rusty, bands getting close to the authenticity of our headliners tonight are rare on the ground. The line-up may be slightly impeded with the temporary side lining of one of its main players, but an exuberant audience rose to the challenge to fill the gap. It helped that Pokey and his three accomplices turned in a scintillating performance of rip-roaring music. Throw in smidgeons of old time country, blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll take you into Pokey LaFarge territory, but it is how these styles are executed that gets folks fully on board, a successful formula keeping the band firmly in prime time exposure over the last decade.

For an hour and half this evening, the art of rocking, serenading, rejoicing and participating filled the air, all orchestrated by the charisma of Pokey. It helps if you have an ace guitarist as good as Adam Hoskins at your right hand side and a rhythm section in the guise of Matt Myers (drums) and Joey Glynn (upright bass) keeping impeccable time. Filling the gap left by the accident recovering fifth member Ryan Koenig has been a critical task facing the band on this return to European venues and the success can only be measured by the reception given to the remaining quartet playing their hearts out.

Right from the opening bars of ‘Better Man Than Me’, taken from the latest album, through to classic Pokey in the crowd engulfing ‘La La Blues’, the pace only frequently dipped, and that was for songs packed with a slice of privileged sensibility. A key moment occurred straight into the encore when the uplifting chorus of ‘Cairo Illinois’ threaded through an enthralled gathering. Earlier Pokey had given his band members a brief breather to allow him the space to deliver ‘Josephine’ in all its emotion. However, this proved a solo exception as the entity of the unified band decorated the evening that few would argue peaked with a rousing version of ‘Central Time’.

Other notable tunes on the evening came in the waltzing melody of ‘Goodbye, Barcelona’, the indulgent ‘Drinkin’ Whiskey Tonight’ and the smart lyrics making ‘Something in the Water’ more than just a supreme album lead off title track. Pokey does not leave too much gap between records, and with last year’s release, MANIC REVELATIONS still finding new homes, hot off the press material is getting a preview as exemplified by this evening’s playing of a song titled ‘Rotterdam’

Whatever number played, a dedicated fan base lapped up every moment of their hero playing a full-length performance in a Midlands town. From a personal perspective, the delights of seeing them play festival sets at Cambridge in 2014 and Forecastle in 2016 were blown away by a sparkling performance that totally ruled a venue.

Opening for Pokey LaFarge on this tour is New Orleans-based country singer-songwriter Esther Rose, who accompanies her own acoustic guitar with a lap steel playing sidekick. Together, they blend a contrasting sound formed of atmospheric twang and a vocal style capable of bringing any remote dive bar to heal. Whereas Pokey takes the southern sound north, Esther took it further west. More the wide open spaces of New Mexico than the tightly knit semi-urban communities of southern Illinois. The title track from her recent album ‘This Time Last Night’ proved the consensus pick of the half hour set.

Consensus on Pokey LaFarge was rock solid on the overall appeal and only likely to be open to debate on which song proved the crowning moment. No doubt, a school of thought put the whole evening on a pedestal and that would be an assessment difficult to oppose. Winners were all round though: a band having a ball of a time; an audience grasping a rare opportunity to see a true American roots band in full glory and maybe just a city showing that it can come to the fore with supporting this type of music.

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