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Party Time: Now Dig ThisThe place: Partytown USA, yes, New Orleans. The venue: The Howling Wolf ai 907 South Peters Street. The atmosphere: electric. This is the setting for two nights of rip-roaring music, from 7.30pm until around 3.00am.
The building is on a corner in the Warehouse District, just a step from the French Quarter. One bar is accessible from the street and there are tables and chairs on the sidewalk where artists and audience mingle. Nobody seems to bother about autographs; some pictures are taken but overall, in keeping with this ciiy, the whole deal is friendly and casual.
lnside it's standing room only with an appreciative crowd of around 2000 there to watch and listen ratherthan dance. There is a long barthat runs the whole length of the backwall. Business is steady, but nobody gets drunk. Like I say, it's all about the music...and what music!
Friday night kicks off for me with stars from J.D. Miller's studios. There's Classie Ballou, Carol Fran, Lazy Lester, Warren Storm and James 'Guitar' Johnson. These are all South Louisiana artists with their own brand of blues, r&b and swamp pop. Classie starts this segment, a big bear of a man with a shock of white hair and a smile as big as the crescent city itself. He plays a mean guitar and vocally he is still as strong as when his Excello and Goldband records were issued back in the '50s. Next up is Carol Fran; she has suffered a stroke and is not confident enough to play piano but she is still a sassy lady with a twinkie in her eye who confides that her song 'Emmitt Lee' is about a night she'll always remember. She sings a number of her Excello songs powerfully and has the crowd with her all the way. The band, Lil' Buck & The Top Cais are a first rate r&b outfit who backed up all the artists on this segment.
Then comes Lazy Lester, harmonica playing legend from Excello who backed many other artists in the '50s and '60s as well as having a bunch of great discs himself. He runs through a fine set, singing and alternating between playing his guitar and harmonica. After a while he is joined on stage by Warren Storm, "The Godfather of Swamp Pop", a man who lives to perform and loves every moment of it. His voice is as good as ever and it is really interesting to hear his music given a blues edge by the addition of Lester's blowing.
This segment of the show is completed when James Johnson joins them on stage with his wonderful r&b guitar work. These guys play so well together it's easy to see how they combined so effectively all those years ago on many of those recordings from the Miller studio in Crowley. Time to replenish my glass whilst the stage equipment is changed for a section of the show dedicated to Cosimo Matassa and the wonderful records emanating from his studio in New Orleans throughout the lifespan of r&b and rock n roll. Fronted by piano playing legend Allen Tousssaint and his band, this is what New Orleans music is all about - rollicking good time music that has the whole crowd bouncing along with it"
Toussant is joined on staoe bv Clarence 'Froqman' Henry, a real favourite with the fans and he of the moment added to the show for all of us
Frogman was followed on stage by Robert 'Barefootin" Parker who continued the New Orleans r&b hour with a strong performance backed by Allen Toussaint's rolling piano. At end of this set I quit the main hall to head for cellar and some Zydeco. So I missed Jean Knight, Little Leo and C.P. Love.
The cellar, or "The Den", is a small space holding comfortably fifty people or about twice that many at a squeeze and there you really do feel transported back in time to the cellar clubs and bars of the '40s and '50s Warren Prejean & The Zydeco Creole Ramblers prove to be an excellent change of style and sound before I head back to the main stage for a last burst of r&b before the swamp pop and rockabilly segment.
Al 'Carnival Time' Johnson is a little too soulified for my taste and in keeping with his nickname he has two costumed "lady(?)" dancers on stage with him. I have to confess this this is not to my taste. Equally I don't know quite what to make of G.G. Shinn, referred to by some as the Cajun Liberace. He performs swamp pop with a strong voice, but the presentation doesn't really go with the music for me. Although I am in the minority as he goes down well with the crowd.
Next on stage come Michael Hurtt & The Haunted Hearts, a great rockabilly outfit (somebody should bring them over to the UK). They are augmented by Warren Storm on drums and Armand St. Martin on piano to provide the backing through this part of the show. Sadly the one who is so renowned as a showman this is sad. He hadn't shown up at rehearsals earlier in the day and I think that if he had it would have been realised that he wouldn't be able to cut it.
Very worrying at the time, as he starts to leave the stage he collapses and lays in a heap at the foot of one of his backing singers. Bizarrely, although she had helped him on to the stage - the first place, as he lays at her feet, perhaps dead, she ignores him to continue shouting into the microphone "Yeah, give it up for Frankie Ford! Oo-wee Frankie Ford, yeah!" Other people rush onto the stage to make sure he is OK and to help him to his feet.
Fortunately, following that, we have the very polished rockabilly performer Jay Chevalier up to entertain us. Jay never disappoints. He's written some fine songs, his voice is great and he rocks as he always has. The Haunted Hearts with J.D. Mark and Mitch Palmer alternating lead guitar duties and John Trahey slapping at his string bass, provide the perfect backdrop to a great session that is all too short.
Jivin' Gene rounds off this segment and as always he is spot on. He is an infectious character and has the audience with him from start to finish. Whether he's singing his own songs like 'Up Up And Away' and 'Breaking Up ls Hard To Do' or any of the endless number of songs he seems to know, he is good value.
Closing this night are The Creole Zydeco Farmers, up from the cellar, sorry Den, and this time featuring Jockey Etienne they provide a finale that leads the happy crowd off to their homes, hotels or all night bars - this is New Orleans!
Saturday night kicks off with a short but rousing blues set from Little Freddie King before we get a real treat...r&b songstress Lavelle White is probably unknown to most; she had a handful of records in the late '50s / early '60s on Duke as Miss Lavelle. Well. fifty years on and here she is belting out rocke= and blues songs alike, backed with the roc.qabilly band of Deke Dickerson & The Ecc:- Phonics augmented by Armand St, Marr.: piano and a sax section. What a blast and ! - certainly going to hunt out her old vinyl.
Next up is Tennessee native Clifford Curry with more rocking r&b truly enhanced by Deke and the boys. Then a major treat, Big Jay McNeely, in his eighties but blasting the sax like you wouldn't believe. He enters, blowing all the way, from the back of the hall, making his ... mind-numbing set that sees him come down from the stage again to play his way around in the crowd.
Not an easy act to follow and the band that has that unenviable task are Arch Hall & The Archers, a sixties band who aren't to my taste and are unlikely to appeal to many readers of the mag. But then we have a real real treat, a Chicago blues legent in the shape of Billy Boy Arnold, again backed by the versatile Dickerson band and ... For a contrast and change of pace you couldn't wish for mare than the next act. He looks frail these days but, dressed in black slacks and a pink jacket, we have the we have the whirlwind that is Joe Clay. Belting out his rockabilly classics he is hunched over the microphone then hurtles round the stage before jumping down into the crowd singing all the way. His voice may have lost a little of its edge but, man, he is entertaining, finishing his act by taking over the drumsticks to give us a crashing solo.
And that is about the end of my nights at the Stomp. With Lady Bo playing some mean guitar on stage and the remainder of the night devoted to soul music, hunger gets the better of a couple of us and we say our goodbyes to our friends amongst the artists and crowd and head off into the New Orleans night in search of food.
The next morning I am off to Crowley and the Excello Reunion of All-Star Swamp Blues Legends. But, before I get to that let me... Sout the Ponderosa Stomp. The festival and he continues to do a fabulous job at rounding up this many artists to perform.
Besides the shows there are also conference facilities at which many of the artists talk about their life and times, plus there are films of musical performances and a two-day record fair. Yes guys, you'd love it! So, save your pennies and come join us next year. l'm sure it won't take too much pressure to get Ken Major to organize another pilgrimage from the UK.
Written by Ian Saddler for issue 345 of Now Dig This, December 2011