Ponderosa Stomp – Gibson Guitar Factory (Memphis, TN)
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi River ran in reverse, depositing the New Orleans-bred Ponderosa Stomp on Memphis’ shores.
Though this year’s relocated event was suffused with melancholy for its organizers in the Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau, who had mounted the festival in the Crescent City for four years, the ’06 Stomp nonetheless delivered the roots-rocking goods. Several hundred festivalgoers from around the globe converged on the downtown Gibson Guitar Factory to wear it out for three days.
The Mystic Knights may be a nonprofit group — proceeds from the Stomp were donated to MusiCares and the New Orleans Musicians Clinic for Katrina relief — but they sho’ nuff know how to throw a party. The festival is in fact an outgrowth of some good-time get-downs that Chicago-born ringleader Ira “Dr. Ike” Padnos, today a New Orleans anesthesiologist, used to toss for his friends. He views the event as a “killer jukebox” encompassing the breadth of roots styles: rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, garage rock, R&B, soul, and blues.
In its fifth incarnation, the Stomp brought forth its usual complement of musical surprises; examining the bill, I exclaimed to myself more than once, “My God, is that performer actually still alive?!” As old as many of the entertainers on hand may have been, the best of them had one thing in common, born of long and often hard experience: They knew how to sell a show to the audience.
With more than 60 acts playing on three stages from 5 in the afternoon until well after 2 in the morning, there was no shortage of hair-raising highlights. The first gooseflesh appeared on day one during a short, delicious a cappella set by the Climates, a little-known doo-wop quartet that recorded for the latter-day Sun Records. Rockabilly singer Joe Clay galvanized things early; kicking off with “Ducktail”, the greasy hit he appropriated from Rudy Grayzell, the 68-year-old got hot fast, bounding behind the drums for one number and leaping into the audience for another.
Not to be outdone, callisthenic Texan Roy Head delivered a set that saw him drop-kicking the mike into his own hands during his hit “Treat Her Right” and launching himself onto the floor to do the Gator as fans gaped in astonishment. (Several hours and shots of tequila later, Head returned for a second, slightly sodden set.)
The first night was heavy with vintage soul and R&B acts. Looking ultra-sharp, and backed by the mighty Hi Rhythm Section with the estimable Teenie Hodges on guitar, Syl Johnson took everyone to school with a blast through “Take Me To The River” and “Back For A Taste Of Your Love”. A large combo fronted by guitarist Lil Buck Sinegal and organist Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural grappled with the arrangement to Archie Bell’s “Tighten Up”, but the exuberant Bell nonetheless demonstrated his memorable dance step with aplomb.
Sinegal’s unit was more effective behind the Mardi Gras romp of Eddie Bo, Willie Tee, and Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, who got the crowd waving handkerchiefs second-line style. The night finished with blowout stands by Ohio garage quartet the Alarm Clocks and Wisconsin frat-party stalwart Harvey Scales, whose version of “Disco Lady” (which he co-authored with Johnny Taylor) brought on a stage rush by some bump-happy women.
Early in the evening of the second day, Bob Wills’ longtime steel guitarist Herb Remington (backed by Los Angeles guitarist Deke Dickerson’s band, which performed yeoman service all three days) played a deft, swoon-inducing set that included Wills’ “San Antonio Rose” and Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk”. Bassist B.B. Cunningham, backed by guitar icon James Burton, lit things up with a version of his shaggy Hombres hit “Let It All Hang Out”. Mellow-voiced Hayden Thompson proved there is no such thing as a “minor” Sun rockabilly artist. And 74-year-old Sonny Burgess, with Elvis’ drummer D.J. Fontana manning the skins and keyboardist Smoochie Smith pounding the keys, rampaged like a wild teen through his Sun hits “Red Headed Woman” and “We Wanna Boogie”.
But the day belonged to Travis Wammack, William Bell, and the Fabulous Wailers. Regional hero Wammack — who also sat in with his mentor Eddie Bond and (along with Burton) drummer-vocalist Matt Lucas — put on a mighty display of guitar power, torturing his Bigsby whammy bar on his instrumental hits “Scratchy” and “Firefly” and sleek southern soul tracks such as “Greenwood, Mississippi”. Bell, the most underestimated of Stax soul singers, sent the heart into the throat with a deep version of “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and a testifying “Everybody Loves A Winner” during an all-too-brief appearance with Sinegal’s group. Tacoma’s Wailers, helmed by big-voiced keyboardist Kent Morill, brought the night to a crashing conclusion with storming versions of “Tall Cool One”, “Dirty Robber”, “Out Of My Tree”, and the Northwest anthem they originated with Rockin’ Robin Roberts, “Louie Louie”. Dancers overran the stage.
By the third day, attendees’ energy began to flag, and no-shows by the likes of Scotty Moore (in attendance but unable to play) and the Rebirth Brass Band (evidently lost en route) put a crimp in the schedule. But the event still offered its share of unexpected pleasures, the biggest of which was a loudly received impromptu one-man-band performance by Rockin’ Enocky of the Japanese surf band Jackie & the Cedrics.
Excello swamp-bluesman Lazy Lester (whose 45 “Pondarosa [sic] Stomp” gave the event its name) reappeared for a second day of unbilled performances. The harp man backed Texas singer/guitar-slinger Barbara Lynn; hampered by arthritis, Lynn still won the crowd with warm versions of “You’ll Lose A Good Thing” and “We Got A Good Thing Going”.
Though he took the stage with a walker, New Orleans’ Clarence “Frogman” Henry, author of the festival’s unofficial theme song “Ain’t Got No Home”, packed his set with plenty of hometown bounce. After a late-evening lag spawned by an eerie, overlong Johnny Cash tribute by Cash’s group the Tennessee Three, things burned to a close with quick, potent outings by Corpus Christi garage-bashers Zakary Thaks and suave, signifyin’ soul man Bobby Patterson.
Plans call for the Ponderosa Stomp to return to New Orleans next year. Be there or be square.