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Ponderosa Stomp: For Those Who Riff Young

Maximum Performance

It's not like one needs more ways to fill the time in New Orleans, especially during Jazz Fest. But in its eighth year, Ponderosa Stomp has become a must-see bridge between the two Jazz Fest weekends. A two-night, 40-plus-band extravaganza now augmented by a three-day music conference, Ponderosa Stomp rediscovers lost legends, launches comebacks, initiates reunions, and uncovers secret histories as it celebrates an honor roll of unsung heroes of American music. And, sometimes, the unsung heroes behind unsung heroes.

"When we started out we had no real design, we were just doing shows with artists we admired," says Ponderosa Stomp founder Ira "Dr. Ike" Padnos, a walking vinyl records database who's an anesthesiologist by day. "The idea was to bring musicians who never played out to New Orleans -- lost heroes, sidemen, one-hit wonders. We want to show history, where music comes from, strip away the museum and oldies show mentality. If you listen to this music you realize how much influence it has had."

There are no old-timers trying to find the beat they left behind, no moth-eaten songs or musicians here. Just fired-up veterans making "old" material sound newly spawned. Dr. Ike and his Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau cohorts have scraped, begged, cobbled and labored to grow P-Stomp into a party of the funky best of sometimes forgotten, but eternally vital, music. And it's the best music camp I can imagine.

 

P-Stomp Music History Conference

We can't know all great music, but P-Stomp can help us try. With sponsorship from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Louisiana State Museum, P-Stomp's non-profit foundation stages a free daytime conference at the Cabildo, on Jackson Square. To call what goes on a collection of panel discussions, oral histories and exhibits neglects the glee of Memphis soul greats Otis Clay, Teenie Hodges and Roosevelt Jamison while they're talking up their sessions at Hi Records, or the agility with which Dennis Coffey demonstrates some of the guitars riffs he laid on a slew of Motown hits. Then there's the subtle weightiness of seeing the piano recovered from Fats Domimo's Katrina-ravaged home in the Ninth Ward and the insight that Marshall Chess and, later, a panel of recording engineers including Mark Bingham and Cosimo Matassa lend to early recordings of early R&B hits.

A discussion of the search for Robert Johnson's death certificate and an interview with Detroit garage rocker Question Mark provide some hoots. But this year's "Celluloid Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll" film series is the real ear-opener, ranging from a "Dirt Road" homage to Texas psychedelia and a bioflick of Wanda Jackson to a collection of home movies of Nashville producer Cowboy Jack Clements. The most remarkable, and rarely seen, are the vintage show clips -- Lloyd Price, Chuck Berry, Billy Williams Combo, Gladys Knight, the Hassles, Eddie Kirkland with Foghat and many others -- that film archivist Joe Lauro assembled for a one-time-only showing in "Heroes of Ponderosa Stomp."

 

P-Stomp Night One

P-Stomp's daytime conference was almost as fun as the night concerts on the House of Blues's two stages. Almost. Nothing compares to the electricity generated each evening by nine hours of sets jam-packed with revues and reunions. Night one kicks off with 78-year-old master of the ivories Little Willie Littlefield, whose solo set is spiced with the boogie-woogie, R&B triplets that were the original source of Fats Domino's piano style. Lil Greenwood, who sang with Duke Ellington, looks and sounds nothing like an 83-year-old recently released from the hospital as Herb Hardesty blows tasty sax lines behind her powerful, class-act vocals. Switching from refined to raw, guitarist James Blood Ulmer thumps me with body blows of acid blues as learned at the School of Ornette Coleman.

It's still early, and it feels like I've already heard a week's worth of music tonight. My feet are ready to start the walk back to our bed, but my brain is full of P-Stomp endorphins and wants more more more. Lucky for me I tune out my feet and tune in Otis Clay, performing with the original Hi Rhythm Section, the same crew who backed Al Green, Ann Peebles and Clay on most of his Memphis recording sessions. Clay is in good voice for a strong set that continues his modus operandi of putting the soul in gospel and the gospel in soul. He pays tribute to Otis Redding and Albert King, whose influences shine through, and shared the spotlight on the Al Green hit "Love and Happiness" with Hi guitarist Teenie Hodges, the song's co-writer.

Getting the Hi Rhythm section back together is one of the notches in P-Stomp's belt, and demonstrates a key in making the Stomp work: putting together solid backing bands that sometimes have to play the material of several performers per night. Deke Dickerson & the Eccofonics, a sharp trio in their own right, are one of the chief backing bands, handling with aplomb the shifting rockabilly styles of Alton Lott, Johnny Powers, Carl Mann and several others. Dickerson' s Ecofonics are also the rock-solid foundation for the Louisiana Hayride rockabilly of singer Dale Hawkins and nimble guitarist James Burton (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis). The set, only their second together in 40 years, features a potent version of Hawkins' 1957 hit "Suzie Q," a song he recorded as the first white artist for the Chess label's Checker Records, as well as Sister Rosetta Tharpe's bouncing 1939 hymn "This Train" in a demonstration of how it became Willie Dixon's blues-rocker "My Babe."

It only lasts for one song, but it's perhaps P-Stomp's best pairing: Skip Pitts, guitarist for 37 years with the late Isaac Hayes (known to some of us as South Park's Chef), with original Detroit Funk Brothers axeman Dennis Coffey. After leading his blistering-beat, Memphis-based Bo-Keys band, which includes Professor Longhair percussionist Alfred Uganda Roberts and Dr. Ike's wife Sam on sax, through a couple nuggets from "Shaft," Pitts set up the duet with Coffey on a riff he originally wrote, the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing." It's a battle of Coffey's pyrotechnics vs. Pitts more nuanced licks. There's no "winner," but it does appear, at least to the uninformed eye, that there is no love lost between the two. Backed by the rest of the hyper-rhythmic Bo-Keys, Coffey continues through a set that shows off the guitar work he lent to the Temptation's "Ball of Confusion," cresting with his solo hit "Scorpio."

Reunited Boston rockers the Remains crank it up much louder than they'd probably been able to in the 1960s on a new ode to their "Buick Dynaflo," a vintage hit "Why Do I Cry," and a pile of garage rock covers. My ears are still ringing as I listen to Howard Tate backed by an eight-piece band on the main stage. Philadelphia's soul gentleman, who performed his first gig in three decades at the first P-stomp, absolutely wails through a set heavy with deep R&B and soul ballads, singing "Shoot 'Em All Down" live for the first time in 30 years plus a stirring post-Katrina version of the 1929 lament "Louisiana."

Quickly, I jump back to the Parish stage where psychobilly Texas enigma The Legendary Stardust Cowboy is in the middle of an over-the-top, bare-gut trip on his own spaceship, after which he'll be reunited with earth. Before splashdown, the Ledge barks out his "Bathroom Blues" and a love song to a girl from "Tokyo," also the title of his recent album that, apparently, rhymes with "Hiroshimo." Another jump takes me to Texas rockabilly bluesman Ray Sharpe, who's kicking out "Mary Jane," originally recorded on a session with King Curtis and Jimi Hendrix. I hang around for Lady Bo, who proves to be as much of wild chile as her late husband Bo Diddley, playing scary guitar lines in a set that has a lot more energy than I do as she closes out the first night at 3:15 a.m. My feet can finally head home with my brain in tow.

 

Tuesday - P-Stomp Night Two

It's early Wednesday evening, swamp blues harmonicat Lazy Lester, whose 45 RPM single "Pondarosa Stomp" lent its title to the festival, is on the HOB's main stage, a time slot opposite the Haunted Hearts Gulf Coast Revue with swamp pop hero Warren Storm. It's hard to tell just from looking at the P-Stomp schedule, with all the potential surprises from its relative unknowns, just where to concentrate one's sonic attentions. But again this evening provides rewards no matter which acts are on stage, from more rockabilly with Joe "Cracker Jack" Clay and Roddy Jackson, to El Paso rocker Long John Hunter, to a cool late-night freakout with the "96 Tears" boys, Question Mark & the Mysterians.

It's a pretty smart move for the 2009 P-Stomp to reunite recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Wanda Jackson with guitarist James Burton since, after playing with Jackson in the 1960s, he went on to lead Elvis Presley's band and her new CD is an Elvis tribute. It doesn't take long for Jackson, her sweetly deviled voice backed nicely by the suddenly ubiquitous Eccofonics, to raise the roof on a delighted crowd. She also throws a few straight country tunes into the mix of Elvis classics and rockabilly howl. "All these rockabillies in one town, that's dangerous," says Jackson. "Mardi Gras has got nothing on you guys." Meanwhile, Mississippi's Wiley & the Checkmates, a marquee act on the chitlin circuit soon after they formed almost 50 years ago, are tearing it up in the Parish room with their own party, led by dynamic vocal shots from leader Herbert Wiley and special guest Bobby Patterson plus some big-time flirting with the dancers.

The Muscle Shoals duo of songwriter Dan Penn and keyboardist Bobby Emmons are a gentle revelation as they run through a bunch of Penn's love songs including "I'm You're Puppet," "You Left the Water Running" (originally sung by Otis Redding), and "Sweet Inspiration," a wedding song for P-Stompers Alison and Lefty, who were married on stage earlier in the evening. Singer Roy Loney and guitarist Cyril Jordan, performing Flaming Groovies tunes together for the first time since 1971, turn in a loose but fierce set. Playing through much of their Teenage Head album, backed by the A-Bones with Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan on keys and guitar, they peak with a majestic version "Shake Some Action." At this point I swear my ears are bleeding. Nope, just temporarily out-of-order.

Luckily they were working earlier when P-Stomp hit a trifecta with consecutive soul-seared sets by Robert  "Barefootin'" Parker, an All-Star New Orleans Revue, and GG Shinn (who looked like a happy middle-age-plus preacher in his Sunday suit but sang like a blue-eyed 20-year-old sensation, showing quite the range on high notes). All three enjoyed backing by Lil Buck Senegal and the Top Cats big band, who matched the wonders of the Hi Rhythm Section's glorious grooves of the night before, lick for lick. It was hard to beat the Jackson-Burton and Loney-Jordan reunions. But the New Orleans Revue was simply the best 75 minutes of music you'd ever want to hear, and likely won't ever get to. Dedicated to late pianist Eddie Bo, with a six-piece horn section and Stanley "Buckwheat Zydeco" Dural on organ, it was a remarkable shuffling, rolling treat of soul, rock, R&B, blues and a lot in between, complete with dance lessons. Ten different singers took the microphone, from Al "Carnival Time" Johnson and Bobby Allen's "Soul Chicken" to Rockie "Stax of Love" Charles and Earl Stanley's "Let Me Chop It."

So, some of you are asking--just who are all these people and why haven't you heard of them before? Do yourself a big favor and check out the ponderosastomp.com website (and help Dr. Ike pay the bills by buying some merch while you're there). It should be enough to convince you to make the trip to New Orleans next April when we'll Stomp all over again.

Next up:  New Orleans Jazz Fest, Second Weekend.

 

All artist performance photos by Jacob Blickenstaff

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