[17 May 2009]
I felt like a tool asking the cab driver to take me to the House of Blues when he picked me up at the New Orleans airport. Though the town’s music scene is not quite what it was before Katrina scattered the people who were its lifeblood, it still has a livelier homegrown scene than just about any city in the country. So I was ashamed to ask this cabbie to deliver me to an outpost of a chain venue that charges exorbitant prices for shows put on in a mock-up of a run-down Mississippi roadhouse. It felt all the more ironic that I was going to the House of Blues because I was headed for the Ponderosa Stomp, a two day festival started eight years ago to offer a down-home alternative for the Crescent City’s signature festival, Jazz Fest, which has become increasingly commercial and generic.
If Jazz Fest features the predictable and famous—Bon Jovi was one of the headliners of this year’s Jazz Fest—the Ponderosa Stomp is dedicated to unearthing the R&B and rockabilly stars whose music is mostly prized now by obsessive record collectors. And there were a lot of them: The Stomp took place on two stages with non-stop programming for 16 hours over two nights, testing the stamina of even the most die-hard music aficionado. A working knowledge of rock and roll history was required to recognize even the biggest names on the roster of this year’s Stomp, because they’re mostly famous for having produced or written for legendary singers. These included Dan Penn, one of the forces of the Muscle Shoals studios that created Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding’s greatest hits and Cowboy Jack Clement, a Sun Records producer whose songs were made famous by Johnny Cash. If you’re not studied up on this era, the person you’re most likely to have heard of is Wanda Jackson, one of the few women to make a name in ‘50s rockabilly and who was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But most of the Stomp’s performers were solid working musicians in the ‘50s and ‘60s who made the occasional hit record but never achieved enduring status. Otis Clay, a Chicago soul singer who stood in the shadows of legends like Solomon Burke, was joined by the house band of Memphis’ Hi Records, which can also be heard on some of Al Green’s records. Dale Hawkins, famous for “Suzie-Q”, was reunited with guitar-man James Burton, who also played with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ricky Nelson in their prime. The Stomp also presents artists who were known mostly in the vigorous local scenes that dotted the country before the Clear Channelization of American music: Little Joe Washington, a blues guitar player from Houston famous for playing the instrument with his teeth and feet; South Louisiana’s Lazy Lester, who authored the song from which the Ponderosa Stomp takes its name; and a single “New Orleans Review” set that featured a litany of local luminaries.
Anyone who cherishes a time when hit records were regularly made by wild kids in slapdash studios needs to make a pilgrimage to the Stomp. It offers an opportunity to imagine what live music was like in America when you could turn on the radio and hear music that was exuberant, radical, and surprising. Where, if you drove south along the Mississippi from Chicago through Memphis to New Orleans, the sounds coming from your AM transistor radio would be enough to know that you were moving from one community to another that shared a common heritage, but had each lived it in its own way.
But if you come looking for a time machine at next year’s festival—or at the version to be presented in June at New York City’s Lincoln Center—be warned that witnessing the work required to conjure this lost era may intensify your awareness of how much time has washed away. In their day, these remarkable performers were electrifying because they gave their young audiences license to flout racial and sexual taboos. Rockabilly guitar licks were not just technical pyrotechnics, but the sound of working-class southern white boys who enticed girls to dance by adopting the sounds of their black peers. R&B’s large horn sections were the sounds of black communities finding new cultural and economic success alongside the political victories of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of the performers at the Stomp showed that they were still as gifted as they had been in their youth, but it just wasn’t the same watching them in front of an almost all-white audience of record collectors with nerdy backpacks, hipsters in vintage clothes, and gray-haired baby boomers reliving their youth. The House of Blues’ theme park atmosphere compounded the problem, and its $50 nightly entrance fee and touristy location may have discouraged the community members with some of the deepest connections to these performances from turning out.
That said—there were performers who seemed to be genuinely having so much fun that it penetrated the heart of even this historical curmudgeon. The rockabilly performers had a real advantage in this department because the house band provided for these acts—the Eccophonics, lead by the 40ish revivalist Deke Dickerson—were so tight that I have no doubt they could work an audience into a frenzy even if backing a musician who had in fact sunk into a coma. They provided an outstanding springboard for Wanda Jackson’s steam-hammer vocals as she walked the audience through the history of her hits in the ‘50s while wearing a multilayered red-fringed top. (As essentially the only woman who achieved any stature in the early days of rock and roll, Jackson is garnering attention she never received in her day and clearly is enjoying it, as she should.) When James Burton joined her for a couple numbers, she in fact was so into his playing that she actually forgot the words to the song she was singing. My favorite moment of the festival, though, was when the Eccofonics backed Cowboy Jack Clement on several slower numbers. He sung famous songs—“Just a Girl I used to Know”, recorded by George Jones, or tunes Johnny Cash featured on Live at Folsom Prison—but his delivery was so humble that for the minutes he sang them they were just good songs, not musical icons.
Without a tight backing band, the R&B acts I caught were at a disadvantage. (This liability was especially evident during the New Orleans Revue, when one performer after another was brought out for a single song, denying the group to ever settle into a tight routine.) But I loved James Blood Ulmer, a guitar player who once worked with Ornette Coleman, and whose performance married free jazz to angular funk grooves. Oxford, Mississippi’s Herbert Wiley—performing on the smaller stage in a room off the main theater – even lured me away from Wanda Jackson with a kick-ass version of the “Ballad of Billy Joe”.
God bless the Ponderosa Stomp and its volunteer organizer, a fez-wearing anesthesiologist known as “Dr. Ike” Padnos for doing their best to breath life again into music that mostly survives frozen on vinyl. I hope their work will inspire more younger musicians to not just idealize the sounds of the era they represent, but also to rediscover music’s power to shake up a nation, making it not just a better place, but a more fun one, too.