Live: Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three @ Sophia’s, California

PokeyThe other day I ended up at a restaurant watching American folk bands again – this time a Thai kitchen-cocktail bar with a stage on the front deck. Dim mood lighting and wooden floorboards complemented the music, which was billed as modern bluegrass but encompassed a range of styles.

Support came from Frank Fairfield, a kick-ass Californian one-man-band who came to the stage floor with a banjo, fiddle and guitar. Solo bluegrass may seem a bit strange these days, what with all the successful folk revivalists rocking out and harmonising in bands. But this guy writes traditional, enjoyable folk music with an Appalachian tinge. His musicianship wasn’t simplistic in its traditional sound, but also wasn’t overbearingly hyper in the bluegrass stereotype.

A slightly twangy voice was complemented by lyrics referencing old blues and folk songs, and improvised yells stirred the crowd. He stomped his feet as he played the hell out of his violin, the greatest fiddle playing I’ve heard since Warren Hood of the Waybacks, though a slightly different style. His banjo and guitar nearly matched up to that brilliance, constructing lulls and swells and solos behind the winding vocals. He’s due in Europe at the end of August for a month’s worth of concerts and festival slots.

Missouri’s Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three also played traditional style bluegrass folk, though as a four-piece band. While the songs were well-written, they struggled to differentiate themselves from one another, though it was perhaps only Frank’s great support slot that paled them by comparison. As Pokey stood on a chair so the people at the back could see, the mutual enjoyment of band and audience was clear. With one finger-picked and one slide guitar, old fashioned vocals with unmiked harmonies, and harmonica call-and-response, the show turned into an actual hoe-down. Aside from an occasional snare roll there were no drums, and the crowd were moved to dance by the boomy, grooving double bass alone. Hand claps, loud cheers and spiralling dancers fuelled the band’s energy. They’re playing the UK in August and September.

Words: Alice Knapp