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SOUTHERN LIGHTS: Ponderosa Stomp holds its own next to JazzFest: Stomp #4 Review: TUSCALOOSA NEWSSOUTHERN LIGHTS: Ponderosa Stomp holds its own next to JazzFest
By Ben Windham
Editorial Editor, TUSCALOOSA NEWS
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a 10-day celebration of the great appetites of life, seems to get bigger and bigger.
This year it drew something like 450,000 people. Some of them were so hungry for the festival’s music, food and culture that they coughed up $550 for a weekend VIP “Big Chief" pass.
A few miles across town, there’s another festival. At best, it drew a couple of thousand people. But as a celebration of music and culture, it’s just as vital as/sJazzFest.
It’s called the Ponderosa Stomp. Held on the Tuesday and Wednesday between JazzFest weekends, it’s staged at Mid-City Lanes, a bowling alley a couple of doors down from a thrift store in a shabby strip mall on South Carrollton Avenue.
Locals call the place Rock-N-Bowl. Zydeco, blues and rock groups have used it for years, setting up on a corner bandstand as bowlers take turns in knocking down the pins in the 15 lanes.
The atmosphere is casual, to say the least. The sound of strikes and spares punctuates the second-line rhythms of the local bands. Announcements like “Smith party of five, your lane is ready" joust with the music.
This year marked the fourth anniversary for the Stomp and the third year that it has used the Rock-N-Bowl to present its mix of rockabilly, swamp pop and greasy rhythm and blues.
It’s a perfect marriage of place and purpose, this beat-up bowling alley and the funky festival. And like all good marriages, it’s a real labor of love.
The Stomp is the brainchild of Dr. Ira Padnos, an assistant professor of clinical anesthesiology at the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. “Dr. Ike," as he’s known to Stompers, puts aside his clinical garb and wears a completely different hat at the Rock-N-Bowl.
Sometimes it’s a fez. This year, he opted for an English-style topper.
Slightly chubby, well-scrubbed and youthful looking -- if I had to guess, I’d say he’s in his late 30s -- Padnos would be hard to pick out of a police lineup as an incurable Rockacrucian. But as a collector of rare records since his boyhood days in Chicago, he knows that the music he loves has a supremely tonic and healing power that sometimes transcends the science of medicine that he practices in his day job.
To share and perpetuate this secret knowledge, he was instrumental in the formation of The Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau, a loose (very loose) conglomeration of fellow music addicts which stages the annual Stomp. It began on a shoestring budget; and though it has grown an international cult following, it’s still far from a moneymaking machine.
What makes it a great event is its roster of artists, many of whom may never headline or even appear on stages of major venues like JazzFest. A sampling from this year’s Stomp includes Nokie Edwards of the '60s instrumental combo The Ventures; blues shouter H-Bomb Ferguson; Memphis sax man Ace Cannon; guitar legend Link Wray; bluesman Robert Lockwood Jr.; and jazz-blues fusionist James “Blood" Ulmer.
What makes the Stomp even greater is its total informality.
At the JazzFest, police barricades, security guards and 15-foot high stages separate artists from performers. At the Stomp, I stood right next to fabled Louisiana bluesman Lazy Lester in the men’s room. On the dance floor, I boogied alongside '60s Texas rocker Roy Head.
The closest thing I’ve ever seen to absolute bliss was the look on the face of a Japanese fan at the 2003 Stomp after Scotty Moore, Elvis’ original guitar player, signed his T-shirt.
JazzFest runs like a well-oiled clock but the Stomp is nothing but loose. Padnos likes it like that. The two evenings usually run an hour or two behind schedule because he’s reluctant to pull a hot performer off the bandstand. He also keeps running in surprise artists.
On the second night of this year’s Stomp, for instance, he introduced Grace Broussard, who reprised her 1963 hit, “I’m Leaving it up to You," that she cut originally with her brother Dale.
One of the biggest surprises came at the 2003 Stomp. It featured the avant-garde jazz of the Sun Ra Arkestra for three nights running. After their set -- which was wildly received by the audience -- ended, classic New Orleans rhythm and blues singer Clarence “Frogman" Henry came on and rocked the house. The music mixed like red beans and rice.
The audience for the Stomp -- which gets its name from the title of a 1966 Lazy Lester instrumental on Excello Records -- is as diverse as the performers. There are scenesters in Blues Brothers outfits; tattooed rockabilly boys from England in carefully cuffed vintage jeans; wild New Orleans lounge ladies; and geeky record collectors and music freaks.
At the far end of the alley from the bandstand, you can buy beer and food from the kitchen. The Stomp also sells T-shirts and CDs that you’ll never find anywhere else. This year, I picked up a compilation titled “White Trash Rock," filled with rare sides from the '50s and early '60s.
But the live music’s the main attraction.
“We’re losing so many of these first-generation artists," Padnos told the Stomp audience between sets, mentioning names like New Orleans rhythm and blues stars Ernie K-Doe and Earl King and Memphis rock legend Paul Burlison, all of whom died in the past few years.
“It’s important to hear these performers and dance to their music," Padnos says earnestly of Stomp’s lineup. “Ten years from now they may not be around."
More or less his standard set-change spiel, it fell on the ears of an antsy audience who’d been waiting to hear Archie Bell.
A Houston R&B star whose 1967 recording of “Tighten Up" was an instant beach classic, Bell didn’t disappoint, either. Flashy in a bright red shirt and backed by a crack group led by guitarist Lil’ Buck Sinegal on guitar and zydeco man Stanley “Buckwheat" Dural on organ, Bell skated, skanked and had the Rock-N-Bowl bopping.
But there’s a lot to what Dr. Ike was preaching.
Just before JazzFest, for example, John Fred Gourrier died; in 1967, he’d hooked up with some of Fats Domino’s group to record a national hit, “Judy in Disguise," under the frat-boy name of John Fred and his Playboy Band.
And Gatemouth Brown, whose wonderful amalgamation of country, blues and jazz seems to sum up much of what Southern music is all about, has terminal cancer and emphysema. Doctors told him not to expect to live past Mardi Gras this year but somehow he managed to perform on stage at JazzFest and then make an in-store gig at the Louisiana Music Factory in the French Quarter.
Down to 100 pounds, breathing on an oxygen respirator, barely able to hold his electric guitar, Brown is going out his way -- on the road, playing his music.
To hell with the hospital.
Musicians like these are, as Padnos preaches, a vanishing breed. Each year, there are fewer and fewer artists like Travis Wammack, Ray Sharpe, Warren Storm, Rockie Charles, Eddie Bo or Detroit wildman Nathaniel Mayer to come and tear the roof off at events like the Stomp.
Legacy and continuation of the culture are questions that hang heavy in the air these days. Once almost totally a showcase for local artists, JazzFest has turned more and more to booking performers like Widespread Panic, Elvis Costello and The Dave Matthews Band to pay the bills.
Yet the music at the heartbeat of the Ponderosa Stomp is like Gatemouth Brown. It dies hard.
Seventy-one-year-old Lazy Lester, looking fit in his jeans and straw-brimmed hat, was holding forth philosophically on the subject in the men’s room.
“Ya know, we got a little 4-year-old ’round the house," he said. His grandson? Great-grandson? I didn’t interrupt him to ask. “And whatever I do, he do. Copy me in everything.
“Well the other day, I was singing the blues -- wailing, ya know -- and he be singing ’em too," Lester says, chuckling. “Wailing just like me."
He smiled, shook his head in mock disbelief, and quoted one of John Lee Hooker’s classic lines:
“It’s in him and it gotta come out."