It’s just after 2 p.m., six hours before showtime, and Pokey LaFarge is sequestered in the third-floor green room of the Castle Theatre in downtown Bloomington, Illinois. He’s tired, strung out from this morning’s two-hour van ride down from Davenport, Iowa, where he and the boys were playing to a raucous house mere hours ago. He sits alone in the corner. Saturday sunlight streams through single-pane windows as he carefully rolls a cigarette.
The silence is interrupted by a knock at the door. LaFarge jumps up, swiping stray bits of tobacco from his fingers on his high-riding brown trousers. He greets a stagehand holding a bundle of purple daisies.
“Thanks,” says LaFarge, taking the bouquet, wrapped in cellophane, and placing it in a vase by the couch. “She’ll love these.”
“She” is LaFarge’s grandmother, who’ll turn 91 in a few days. For the past six years, no matter where the road has taken him, LaFarge has always made a stop in Bloomington as close to February 23 as possible to play this 101-year-old restored movie palace in honor of her and his late grandfather, who shared a birthday with his wife. They were married for 59 years.
Even at 33, LaFarge is a devotee of tradition—from his hand-rolled cigarettes to his vintage clothes to his music, steeped in ragtime, jazz, and Western swing. He plays a 1946 Epiphone Spartan archtop acoustic guitar; he’s a lifelong fan of the Chicago Cubs. This annual birthday gig is one of LaFarge’s favorite rituals. He was born and raised in Bloomington. Much of his family still lives here. His parents, siblings, cousins, friends, and, yes, the birthday girl herself make up a key contingent of the perennially sold-out crowd that has reliably rocked this ancient venue when LaFarge hits the stage.
The warm welcome home is always a nice boost, especially at the end of a long trip, but tonight’s show should be an even bigger one, because it will be one of the last U.S. gigs they play before LaFarge releases his seventh studio album in May. The new record, Manic Revelations, is quite possibly the biggest departure of LaFarge’s young career. Like his hero Bob Dylan at Newport, LaFarge has “plugged in,” drawing on many more electric instruments. He’s brought in more horns. The music itself shifts more to the backbeat, giving the songs a 1950s and ’60s rock and soul feel. “I wanted this record to be a bigger explosion. I wanted a bigger sound,” says LaFarge. “I feel like it’s more of a worldly record. It isn’t so much about where I come from as it’s where I’ve been and where I’m going.”
At the moment, the South City–based musician’s trajectory seems almost limitless. He’s worked with Jack White and Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show. He’s played Letterman and Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. His crooning tenor can be heard on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and his guitar in the film adaptation of The Lone Ranger. LaFarge made his TV acting debut this spring, playing Canadian country singer Hank Snow on CMT’s period drama Sun Records. New York’s Knickerbocker Mfg. Co. released the first items in a new line of LaFarge-designed chore coats, Western-style shirts, and denim chinos in February.
Of course, the further artists drift from their origins, the more they risk turning off core fans. LaFarge has packed tonight’s setlist with songs from the new album among well-worn hits. It’ll be the first time his oldest, most loyal fanbase will hear the new sound.
LaFarge needs to rest. After soundcheck and a quick smoke, he slouches down on the green-room couch, pulls the flat bill of his Cubs ball cap over his eyes, and tries to sleep.
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