by Mike Wheeler
I first stumbled upon Pokey Lafarge & The South City Three back in 2011. They had an afternoon slot on one of the smaller stages at The Newport Folk Festival, and my friends and I were blindsided by the set and his booming voice. We had come for the likes of Doc Watson, John Prine, Jim James, and Levon Helm, but spent more time talking about Pokey on the ride home than any of our aging idols.
"He's got that X factor, man."
"Someday we'll be saying 'remember when'."
I've since caught sets with his expanded lineup, each show topping the last. So when I heard he was playing a solo set at the Bluegrass Music Museum Concert Series, I couldn't help but satisfy my intrigue. He's a mysterious dude. I've bumped into his bandmates on the road, sharing beers and stories, but always find myself tip-toeing around the topic of the man in charge.
Thursday's set turned out to be just the glimpse into the mind of Andrew Heissler I'd been waiting for. He shared tales of life on the road, played some Jimmie Rogers, Hank Snow, other deep-cuts, and apologized for his sleepy state, having flown in from Memphis at 3 a.m. He called himself out for restarting Warren Zevon's "Carmelita,"-- adding, "I'm completely sober tonight, and I haven't sung any songs about drugs or alcohol," at which point he revealed the song's infamous subject matter to monstrous laughs-- the sold out crowd wrapped around his finger every step of the way.
It felt like a back porch hang, aided in part by the museum's quilt-lined stage. Fan-favorite waltzes and cherry-picked ringers more than satisfied everyone's musical needs. His signature charm intact, Pokey managed to get away with a healthy dose of attitude and grit, flexing impressive off-the-cuff banter throughout the night. It seems the eager ragtime caricature of his early days has given way to a refined entertainer, equal parts music historian and comedian.
Pokey closed the night with "Let The Good Times Roll," initiating a call-and-response singalong. "Do y'all like Sam Cooke in Owensboro?" he yelled over his driving finger-picked guitar. Perhaps it was a self-aware 'that ain't bluegrass' moment, but this crowd was just as intent on absorbing his spoken phrases as his musical ones; tone and genre be damned. And for someone with so much nostalgic power at his fingertips, it was a refreshing treat to see the Central Time Crooner hanging loose, and humanized.