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Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three

Middle of Everywhere – 2011 (Free Dirt)

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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CDs by Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three

"Americana" is one of those semi-meaningless genre labels that gets slapped on anything with an acoustic instrument that can't be called country, folk or blues outright, it seems; the music of Pokey LaFarge is one of the few instances of it actually being an appropriate tag. What's more American than a performer who combines the tones, tunes, and timbre of Jimmie Rodgers, Emmett Miller, Charlie Patton, Bob Wills and Al Jolson into a swinging approximation of all of those early practitioners of popular music?

Throughout a slate of originals and classics from Sunny Side of the Street to Weedwacker Rag, Lafarge and company honk, hoot and holler their way along a Mississippi River's worth of styles and genres, from ragtime to vaudeville, blues, jazz and Tin Pan Alley with equal aplomb. The closest thing to this in popular music since the 1920's was probably the short-lived swing revival of the 1990's which brought us the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, among others, but LaFarge is less a revivalist than a re-energizer, infusing contemporary fire into a musical dustbin's worth of ashes.

The South City Three is a trio of St. Louis musicians whose accompaniment saves LaFarge from solo street barker status, as their infectious asides on everything from banjo to harmonica and steel guitar lend the tunes more depth and sophistication. These relatively unadorned tracks nonetheless still come out like Lomax-era field recordings minus the tape hiss or acetate surface noise, pristine takes on a vintage sound that sheer enthusiasm and energy makes new again.