Pokey LaFarge Stops and Smells the Lilacs

The first Rochester Lilac Festival dates back to 1898. It added musical entertainment just a few years later in 1901. Over a century later, in 2015, Pokey LaFarge would grace the Lilac Festival stage playing music that harkened back to the festival’s humble beginnings. While his music does pull from many early music influences like Western swing, ragtime, old-time country and jazz, it manages to rise above a simple throwback. Still, Pokey LaFarge was bringing the festival way back. And he was doing it playing his new and original music, leaning heavily on material off his latest release, Something In the Water.

Everything about LaFarge fits into the persona of the music. His name, his hometown of St. Louis, the way he carries himself, his incredible voice and the company he keeps. His band, with Adam Hoskins on guitar, Ryan Koenig on harmonica, banjo and percussion, Joey Glynn on upright bass, Chloe Feoranzo on clarinet and saxophone, TJ Muller on trumpet and banjo, and Matthew Meyer on drums, kicked the set off with a jazzy intro for their time-shifting leader to waltz out to. LaFarge amassed the perfect outfit to suit his musical vision. Not only in the instrumentation, but the players he has chosen match and enhance the old-time nature of the music both in their playing and persona.

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Musically, the band was able to adjust to the needs of every tune, giving each one it’s own individual character. Even in reaching its goal of sounding old, it came across quite fresh. The band contracted and expanded, forming different configurations. When Meyer took a break from the drums, it left the audience to fill in with a dance of claps and stomps on LaFarge’s instruction. The horn players each had a turn on the bench as well. A trumpet or harmonica could be swapped for a banjo or percussion. And they all chipped in with their voices, each taking at least one turn on harmonies. Of particular note was a duet with Chloe Feoranzo on “Let’s Get Lost” off of LaFarge’s self-titled album.

The festival was blessed with an unusually hot opening weekend, prompting LaFarge to declare, “Let’s forget spring and skip straight to summer,” before kicking into “City Summer Blues” featuring Adam Hoskins on slide guitar. “Wanna Be Your Man” got TJ Muller up front and center with some nifty trumpet work. They closed out the set with a cover, a rousing rendition of Bob Willis’ “What’s the Matter with the Mill” that gave every member of the band a chance to shine on a solo and the crowd one last chance to dance in the grass under the hot sun.

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The crowd had steadily grown throughout the set, as passersby from the festival grounds were drawn in to the sweet sounds of old-time jazz and country. The music might even have transported some from a Lilac Festival past. I could have sworn I saw some flappers out there…