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Living Blues: Ponderosa Stomp 2002 Review

Strategically nestled between the two weekends of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the first annual Ponderosa Stomp presented an unprecedented lineup of roots music artists in the spirit of Jazzfests of years past. The organizers, the "Knights of the Mau Mau." have previously staged events at the cozy but cramped Circle Bar, but wisely switched to the airy, balconied room of the Fine Arts Cetner for the trio of eight-hour musical marathons.

The inital, blues-themed evening kicked off with the downhome band from Centreville, Mississippi led by bassist King Lloyd (Palmer), a former bass player for Slim Harpo who currently performs regularly at neighborhood jukes in New Orleans. The band was joined by Chick Willis, adorned fully in white, who performed an extended version of his bawdy signature "Stoop Down Baby (Let Your Daddy See)." Next up was Kenny Brown, erstwhile guitarist for R.L. Burnside, who demonstrated his mastery of the North Mississippi Hill country blues style together with R.L.'s grandson Cedric on drums. The North Mississippi theme continued with a full ensemble of Othar Turner's Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, featuring Turner's granddaughter Sharde, 12, on fife and Chip Daniels and R.L. Boyce on drums.

Avant-garde jazz guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer, who recently recorded an impressive CD of blues standards, "Memphis Blood", was something of the wildcard for the evening, as the Stomp was one of the first occasions on which he performed songs from the album live, and he was saddled with an unrehearsed pick-up band. Enlisted for the task were King Lloyd, Chicago guitarist Jody Williams, and Mississippi Delta drummer Sam Carr, and the set appeared to flow flawlessly, with Carr, who was in poor health last year, in glorious form at times playing the wall behind his kit.

Billy Boy Arnold's set found him reunited for the first time in over three decades with Jody Williams and pianist Henry Gray, who both played on Arnold's classic sides for Vee-Jay. Despite problems with his monitor, Arnold put on a top-notch performance, backed by a band that also included bassist Jeff Sarli and three heavyweight New Orleans R&B veterans- guitarist Ernest McLean, and original member of Cosimo Matassa's studio band, tenor saxist Herb Hardesty, the soloist on many classic Fats Domino records, and legendary studio drummer Earl Palmer.

An unscheduled highlight of the event immediately followed Arnold's set, when Henry Gray kept on playing into the intermission, and Jody Williams, King Lloyd, and Jerry McCain's drummer Ardie Dean joined in the fun. Williams' own set later in the evening- backed by the trio of New Orleans veterans- showcased the brillance of his guitar work, but the set was marred by the band's unfamiliarity with some of William's unconventionally structured songs, notably "Lucky Lou".

An exemplary demonstration of deep-in-the-groove Chicago blues was provided by Magic Slim and the Teardrops, who were reunited for the evening with guitarist John Primer, who left the band about five years ago. I missed the end of the show when the band backed Hubert Sumlin on a set of Howlin' Wolf classics, but Sumlin was reported to be in top form, and the same could be said of his performances in Memphis during Handy weekend several weeks later.

The second evening highlighted Lazy lester, whose 1965 Excello recording inspired the name of the gathering. In the cover story of the last LB. Lester bemoaned the fact that producer Jay Miller's refusal to allow him to record country music prompted him to quit playing music. The producers of the Stomp sympathized, and one suspects a longtime dream was fulfilled when Lester, sporting an acoustic guitar, sang a set of country standards in front of a remarkable band featuring rockabilly guitarists Paul Burlison, Scotty Moore, and James Burton, former Texas Playboy herb Remington on pedal steel, and fellow Crowley session man Warren Storm on drums.

Several sets followed with different aggregations of rockabilly legends, including a pairing of wildman Dale Hawkins and James Burton, author of the Suzy Q guitar riff. The musical highlight of the evening for many was provided by Tony Joe White, who donning a harp rack and supported by just a drummer, evoked Lightnin' Hopkins ina set that included his signature "Polk Salad Annie".

Lester pulled out the harp on an extended set that featured swamp pop all-stars Guitar Gable and his original Musical Kings drummer Jockey Etienne, Roy "Boogie Boy" Perkins, Warren Storm, guitarists Rudy Richard and Lil Buck Sinegal, and King Lloyd. The evening concluded with a set by Jerry McCain spotlighting the frentic rock'n'roll recordings he made for Excello. This was McCain's first performance in six months because of health problems, but he lived up to his reputation as a vigorous live performer and was backed on guitar by both Lazy Lester and Lil Buck Sinegal.

Each evening featured performances by Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands, and after sets by the White Cloud Hunters and the Hot 8 Brass Band on the final evening. 89-year-old Reverend Gatemouth Moore took the stage and shouted out several of his blues compositions, including "I Ain't Mad At You", backed by veteran Memphis guitarist Calvin Newborn. The rest of the evening featured Louisiana R&B, and kicked off with performances by guitarist Barbara Lynn of "You'll Lose A Good Thing" fame and Carol Fran, whose set was tarnished by a lack of a rehersal with the band and the unfortunate placement of the grand piano on the floor off the stage.

The Dave Bartholomew Orchestra, a predictably tight ensemble, played more standards than gems from the 82-year-old trumpeter's Imperial recordings, but was nevertheless a sight to behold, particularly with the addition of Palmer, Hardesty, and McLean. The trio joined forces with the wonderfully eclectic pianist/vocalist Eddie Bo, assisted by Charlie Miller on trumpet and former A.F.O. Executives Harold Battiste on saxaphone and Chuck Badie on bass, on a set that evidenced the strong links between modern jazz, classic New Orleans R&B, and funk.

Deep soul singer/tugboat captain Rockie Charles and veteran blues shouter Clarence Samuels, who died several weeks after the event, fronted a remarkable family band led by Waco, Texas-based guitarist Classie Ballou, whose grandson Cedric Ballou stepped up from the drumset and strapped on an accordian for several zydeco numbers.

The last-minute cancellations due to illness by Earl King and Oscar Brown, Jr. were offset by several surprise apperances the final evening. Big Jay McNeely arrived at the event on crutches and looking glum but gave one of the most spirited performances of the Stomp, at one point ordering the house lights dimmed and honking his day-glo painted tenor while leading a parade through the crowd, Lonnie Brooks closed out the event with a nod to his Louisiana "Guitar Junior" days, reprising "Crawl, Family Rules, and Roll, Roll, Roll", and leaving those who stayed for the duration more than satisfied but on the verge of sensory overload.

For more information, and to keep abreast of future Knights of the Mau Mau events, see www.knightsmaumau.com

-Scott Barretta
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