Ponderosa Stomp – House Of Blues (New Orleans, LA)
For six years now, the Ponderosa Stomp has shone a light on rock ‘n’ roll’s pioneers, regional smashes, one-hit wonders and also-rans. It has played South By Southwest the last two years, but its spiritual and actual home is New Orleans, and it returned there this May after a year in Memphis.
For champions of the underground, those for whom obscurity only confirms an artist’s misunderstood genius, the Ponderosa Stomp is validation. Inevitably, someone steps up and burns for a set, suggesting that the world missed a singular talent. This year, that person was Ralph “Soul” Jackson, whose “Don’t Tear Yourself Down” found recognition among northern soul fans. With a band that included Alex Chilton, Scott Bomar (musical director for the Black Snake Moan soundtrack) and New Orleans underground sensation Mr. Quintron on organ, Jackson performed with the passion of a man who had a lot to work out.
Since Chuck Berry, legends have often been unimpressive live because of their indifferent attitudes toward bands, settling for cheap and/or comfortable company. But by providing bands that love the classic singles, the Stomp puts artists in the best possible light. Lil’ Buck Sinegal and Stanley “Buckwheat Zydeco” Dural (on the B3) played funky, James Brown-influenced R&B in the late 1960s, which made them a crack band for Dennis Coffey (who forced fans of his acid-funk “Scorpio” to endure a lot of extended guitar solos to hear the hit), and also for Barbara Lynn, who was a lovely presence onstage. Guitarists in the audience admired Lynn’s seemingly effortless shift between playing lead and rhythm with an open hand. On warm, funky versions of “We’ve Got A Good Thing Going” and “What’d I Say”, she garnered the first major ovation of the night.
Texas soul shouter Roy Head, like Lynn, is a Stomp regular, and he was shot out of a cannon this night. He condensed an hour’s worth of wired, unpredictable, lurid energy into a 20-minute set, culminating with a couple of falls flat on his back during his signature song, “Treat Her Right”. Head highlighted the Stomp’s unintended sideshow undercurrent: There’s simply something odd about a man in his 60s kissing the emcee on the lips.
The evening’s centerpiece was a set with Wardell Quezergue, the arranger of classic New Orleans singles such as “Mr. Big Stuff” and the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko”. Quezergue conducted a large band that included surprise guest Allen Toussaint on keyboards. Everyone in the room realized they were seeing history when Dave Bartholomew joined Quezergue and Toussaint; the three men had a hand in almost everything worth hearing in New Orleans R&B from the ’50s to the ’80s.
Quezergue’s set veered from a rocking “Barefootin'” with singer Robert Parker to light jazz that might be satisfying to play, but, well, it’s no “Barefootin'”. On a small patio stage, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson played Fats Domino’s “My Girl Josephine” and Ernie K-Doe’s “T’Ain’t It The Truth” alone on piano and delivered what we wanted from the Quezergue set.
At the same time, Memphis songwriter Dan Penn struggled to be heard over a chatty crowd in the Parish. Still, he hushed the audience as much as was possible with a beautiful, slow “Do Right Woman” and a rendition of “The Dark End Of The Street” that was one of the artistic highlights of the night. It was one of the few occasions when performances prompted songs to give up fresh takes on old stories. It worked so well, he repeated it in a set on the main stage before the headliner, Roky Erickson.
While aging is an unspoken part of many Stomp stories, Erickson seemed to have escaped time and didn’t look like a man in his 60s. That and the blithe look on his face restored all the weirdness to songs that had lost their edge for me over the years. “Bloody Hammer” was once again as inexplicable as the first time I heard Roky sing, “I never hammered my mind out/I never had the bloody hammer.” The throat-peeling shriek Erickson unleashed during the opening of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was genuinely chilling, and suggested that there is still a complex world going on inside his head, his placid smile and thank-yous after every song aside.
Then there was more. Augie Meyers, Willie Tee with Tammy Lynn, Lazy Lester, Little Freddie King and others…but by that point I’d been wandering the House of Blues and the corridors of time for eight hours, and that’s enough. One of the humbling truths of the Pondersosa Stomp is that the old boys will outlast you.