Sunday, Oct. 27 witnessed Pokey LaFarge’s glorious return to Ann Arbor, headlining The Ark’s annual Fall Fundraiser. Described as a “pre-war soul” by the event’s Detroit-based MC, DJ Del Villarreal, and known to The Daily as our favorite musical time-traveler, LaFarge was a welcome sight. For those unfamiliar, LaFarge, a borderline regular on the Ann Arbor music scene, is an artist who carefully walks the line between indulgence in nostalgia and new experimentation. His music, steeped in the age-old foundations of rootsy Americana, mixes dashes of jazz, old-time country with bright splashes of French and Spanish flair.
Unsurprisingly, LaFarge put on a fantastic show. Equal parts crowd-pleasing, fun and vulnerable, the show filled the house and there wasn’t a frown in sight. But I have already done my fair share of Pokey-centric reviews, write-ups and headlines. There is little more to be said about the magical musical mastery LaFarge wields on and off stage. In fact, aside from a few sneak peeks at his upcoming album, LaFarge performed as expected –– he’s always been a reliable, consistent artist. That’s not to say his performance at The Ark wasn’t all parts exhilarating and awe-inducing. Rather, what made this show worthwhile were the moments in between –– in between songs, lyrics, people –– that reaffirmed why Pokey LaFarge remains a beloved favorite both in Ann Arbor and around the world.
Here are a few of these defining “Moments in Between:”
You Gotta Earn It
The lights dim, the crowd took its seats and Ann Arbor’s “Honky Tonk Angel” took the stage. Polite and well-mannered, the audience waited in anticipation, bellies full, the room warm and drowsy –– but drowsy isn’t in Pokey’s dictionary. “Get up,” heaving the crowd to their feet with a command –– screw angels, it seemed the God of Folk had descended from his dusty mountain cabin this evening. The crowd stumbled to their feet, joints popping, backs cracking. “A pre-show stretch,” LaFarge encouraged; a satisfied sigh and a lazy groan answer. Grumbles turn to chuckles, “Make us earn it,” a heckler joked –– LaFarge gave nothing away for free. “The Devil Ain’t Lazy” opened the show –– very subtle, Mr. LaFarge.
The audience clumsily sang along, mistimed claps and slurred lyrics in all their glory. A devoted fan sang word for word with Pokey –– by the third song, he threw her a playful, measured look, as if in silent acknowledgment of a capable foe, then continued playing. He asked us about the Michigan mitten –– we obliged. “But what about the U.P.?” We all questioned, cueing a familiar existential crisis. The Lions won and the Giants suck; Pokey LaFarge sang “drinking tea from my paper cup;” “Sing Ave Maria,” a heckler called out –– LaFarge responded in disbelief, and challenged his audience to come sing it instead. “And a clinking van is a happy van, I always say,” LaFarge instructed –– and a clinking backpack is a happy backpack, I always say, when it comes to Friday hangovers. “Hold on, I got it,” LaFarge cried resolutely, obliging a song request then forgetting the lyrics –– once, twice and third time’s the charm as the words finally flowed out.
As patrons filed out the doors, the dedicated –– the old-hats –– waited patiently. Chants of “Encore, encore” gradually grew in momentum. Half the room was empty, doubt crept in –– would Pokey really leave us hanging, just like that? It was as if we were all jilted lovers, taken by surprise, betrayed. Then, when hope grew most bleak, LaFarge ambled back on stage –– only to hop right off. Climbing onto a chair and gathering us around like a flock of sheep, he strummed his guitar for one last song. “We’re drinkin’ whiskey tonight,” the audience danced feverishly around him, as if in ritual. Patrons happily belted “Drinkin’ whiskey” in bawdy drinking-song style. We danced with Pokey, we danced with one another: Eyes smiling, teeth flashing –– it was a moment of pure revelry, unfiltered happiness. Who needs whiskey when you got good music?