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2009 Stomp Review: NY Times - A Festival of One-Shots and Shoulda-Beens

A Festival of One-Shots and Shoulda-Beens

By JON PARELES, May 1, 2009
NEW ORLEANS -- "You'll be back again," sang Barry & the Remains, starting their headlining set on Tuesday night at the eighth annual Ponderosa Stomp. It's a song about a straying girlfriend, but the Remains could have been singing about themselves and many of the four dozen acts -- rockabillies, bluesmen, R&B shouters, swamp-rockers, honky-tonkers, psychedelic bands -- playing the House of Blues here in the Stomp's two nights of nine-hour shows.

In the mid-1960s Barry & the Remains toured the United States with the Beatles and made an album of crafty, surly garage-rock. Then they broke up, becoming one more rock-history footnote.

But there are lives beyond the footnotes. Musicians turn to other groups or jobs, and recordings linger, awaiting rediscovery. The Ponderosa Stomp finds the musicians behind the vinyl relics, and on the Stomp's two stages many of its performers defied gray hair and wrinkles to belt 50-year-old songs with rowdy intent.

This year, on Wednesday night, the Stomp reunited the singer Roy Loney and the guitarist Cyril Jordan, the two original songwriters of the Flamin' Groovies, a fuzz-toned, post-psychedelic, pre-punk San Francisco band; they had not performed together since Mr. Loney left the band in 1971.

Backed by the garage-rock revivalists the A-Bones, along with the guitarist Ira Kaplan from Yo La Tengo, their songs summed up the Stomp: steeped in older rockabilly and R&B and, in songs like "Teenage Head" and "Shake Some Action," hopped up on hormones, noise and anarchic glee. Mr. Loney and Mr. Jordan embraced after the set.

The Stomp's long lineup also included the 80-year-old Alabama bluesman and harmonica player Jerry McCain; Lady Bo, who played guitar in Bo Diddley's band when he made his hits in the late 1950s; Wanda Jackson, a rockabilly singer who had Elvis Presley as a mentor; the gospel-charged soul singers Otis Clay and Howard Tate; the organ-driven garage psychedelia of ? and the Mysterians; the swamp-pop drummer and singer Warren Storm; and the rambunctious rockabilly singer and guitarist Ray Sharpe.

Lazy Lester, the harmonica-playing Louisiana bluesman who released "Pondarosa Stomp" as the B-side of a 1966 Excello Records single, was also on hand, with Presley's longtime guitarist James Burton and the organist Stanley Dural, a k a Buckwheat Zydeco, among his backup musicians.

The Ponderosa Stomp festival was started in New Orleans by a record collector devoted to the obscure and the untamed: Ira Padnos, an anesthesiologist who also calls himself Dr. Ike and who introduced bands on Wednesday night wearing scrubs and a fez. (On Tuesday he wore an American Indian headdress with horns.) Now a nonprofit foundation, the Stomp in the last two years has presented daytime conferences in which musicians and experts delve into memories for discussions and oral histories.

The foundation has also produced shows in Austin, Tex.; Memphis; and, this year, New York City. Midsummer Night Swing and the Lincoln Center Festival have engaged the Stomp to book a night each of Memphis soul (July 16), rockabilly (July 17) and New Orleans R&B (July 19th). Dr. Ike doesn't just choose musicians; he also, often, persuades them to revive songs they haven't played in years or decades.

Concentrating on lesser-known tunes and performers, the Stomp can stir thoughts about careers, genres, songwriting and luck -- not to mention the catalytic effect of ex-girlfriends in the history of rock 'n' roll. Heartache and smoldering lust filled set after set. Dan Penn sang the hymnlike hits he wrote for others ("I'm Your Puppet," "Do Right Woman," "Dark End of the Street") in a duo with the keyboardist Bobby Emmons, revealing a rich, hickory-cured voice of his own.

Little Joe Washington, a Texas bluesman, got intensely physical with his guitar, squealing in falsetto "Daddy, don't stop!" between solos played with his mouth on the strings.

Both nights were full of performers citing dates and reminiscing over recording sessions and regional hits and misses. Mr. McCain, the Alabama bluesman, introduced one song by saying that when he recorded it in 1959, his manager hadn't gotten it played on radio stations. Then the Fabulous Thunderbirds recorded the song, "She's Tuff," in 1977: "Worldwide hit," Mr. McCain said with a shrug.

Ms. Jackson noted that her song "Fujiyama Mama," which cites Nagasaki and Hiroshima and vows, "I can cause destruction just like the atom bomb," was a No. 1 hit not in the United States but in Japan. "I don't think they really understood the lyrics," she said with a smile. She drew a huge response for "Funnel of Love" -- an old B-side that, she said, collectors had urged her to perform onstage.

The Stomp also celebrates sidemen: the studio musicians behind memorable licks and solos. Dennis Coffey, the guitarist who psychedelicized Temptations songs like "Cloud Nine," revealed the makings of his jittery wah-wah funk: nearly constant tremolo strumming and twitchy improvisations that make every note palpitate with syncopation.

Herbert Hardesty, the saxophonist who was a mainstay on Fats Domino's recordings, sat in with many performers on both nights, showing his jazz leanings. Classie Ballou, a stinging Louisiana guitarist who led a band with his children and a grandchild, had also been a studio musician for the zydeco accordionist Boozoo Chavis and the R&B singer Rosco Gordon. And the unassuming Mr. Burton, who has also worked with Rick Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello, lent his twangy, articulate, brilliant leads to the rockabilly singer Dale Hawkins -- they collaborated on the 1957 hit "Susie Q" -- as well as Lazy Lester and Ms. Jackson.

One key to the Ponderosa Stomp is its backup bands, enthusiastic students of the songs and musicians they join onstage. Along with the A-Bones, it had Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-Fonics as rockabilly and country specialists and the Bo-Keys for funk and soul. The guitarist Lil' Buck Sinegal and the Topcats had Buckwheat Zydeco sitting in on Wednesday night as they steamed through New Orleans funk and R&B for the singer Robert Parker and a string of one-song performances by singers including Tony Owens and Rockie Charles, like an old New Orleans jukebox stocked with valuable collectors' items.

There's something wistful about the Ponderosa Stomp, with so many performers whose early triumphs were fleeting, and some whose voices haven't been treated well by time. But more often, there's exhilaration, a chance to prove that for many of the musicians, the spirit in their songs has long outlasted their youth. L. C. Ulmer, a bluesman from Mississippi born in 1928, played eerie, droning, irregular rural-style solo blues, now electrified. At one point he was joined onstage by three women in burlesque costumes, shimmying by his side. He finished the song exultantly: "I feel like I'm 16 again!"
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