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Stomp 2009 Night 1 Review: NY Times

The Ponderosa Stomp: A Gathering of Survivors

By JON PARELES, NEW ORLEANS, La.,–

Guitar twangers, soul belters, blues shouters, rockabillies, funk generators, garage-rockers and psychedelic holdouts - that’s the annual Ponderosa Stomp, the two-night musical marathon, from 6 p.m. to after 3 a.m., tucked between the weekends of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Founded by Dr. Ike, an anesthesiologist named Ira Padnos with a record collector’s dedication to the combination of obscurity and wildness, the Stomp is now in its eighth year in New Orleans, where I’ll be hearing way too much music (and blogging about it) till the 40th annual Jazzfest ends on Sunday.

The Ponderosa Stomp - named after a collector’s-item single, “Pondarosa [sic] Stomp,” by Lazy Lester, who’s due to perform on the second night - has been spreading. Now a nonprofit foundation, it has produced shows in Austin, in Memphis and, this summer, in New York City, where Midsummer Night Swing and the Lincoln Center festival had the Stomp book a night each of Memphis soul (July 16), rockabilly (July 17) and New Orleans R&B (July 19).

But those lineups are only a fraction of what the Stomp assembles for its annual revue at home, on two stages at the House of Blues here.

During the day, the Stomp has organized its second annual conference with panels of musicians and music experts unveiling their memories.

Dr. Ike said on Tuesday that raising the $200,000 for this year’s Stomp had been difficult during the economic downturn. Many of the sets were recorded for the July 4th “American Routes,” the public-radio show.

Among other things, the Stomp is a gathering of survivors: musicians who have been been picking, pounding and wailing professionally for many decades, and whose gray hair and career setbacks haven’t tamed their music yet - and sometimes not their showmanship. The first night featured music from Texas, Tennessee, Detroit and Boston.

Some glimpses:

Little Willie Littlefield, a Texan boogie-woogie pianist and singer who started recording in the 1940’s, led off Tuesday’s lineup with unswerving left-hand propulsion while his right splashed and tinkled all over the place. A few songs into his set, he pulled off his jacket and tie and placed his right shoe up on the piano.

The rockabilly singer Dale Hawkins and the guitarist James Burton, whose 1957 collaboration on “Susie Q” jumpstarted both of their careers - and finished their Tuesday night set - were first reunited (after four decades) at a previous Ponderosa Stomp and enthusiastically returned. No
wonder: Mr. Burton, who played with Ricky Nelson in the 1950’s and Elvis Presley through his Las Vegas years, is a grandmaster of twang, sly and precise. He places the exact triplet run, bent note, jazz chord or bluegrass filigree where it will make a solo leap out–spurring Mr. Hawkins to sing with extra gusto.

Mr. Burton also backed Emmylou Harris in her Hot Band in the 1970’s; his successor was the guitarist Barry Tashian, who in the 1960’s had led a Boston garage band, Barry & the Remains, that was the opening act for the Beatles’ last American tour. Now reunited, the Remains tore into their 1960’s repertory with adamant glee. Closer to the pop craftsmanship of the British Invasion than to simpler mid-1960’s American garage rock, the songs revolve around minor chords and seethe with resentment against errant girlfriends. And they take peculiar turns, particularly in “Don’t Look Back,” which starts with accusations and breaks into something like gospel - “Truth is the light/light is the way” - before getting snide again.

Cheryl Gerber for The New York Times Dale Hawkins performing at the Ponderosa Stomp.
Dennis Coffey was the studio guitarist that Motown called on to bring psychedelic immediacy to Temptations songs like “Ball of Confusion.”

He sat in with the soul and funk band the Bo-Keys, one of the preservationist bands that makes the Ponderosa Stomp work. (The Stomp also had Deke Dickerson and the Eccofonics for rockabilly and the A-Bones for garage-rock.) Mr. Coffey has turned nonstop jitters into memorable style. His right hand was on a perpetual tremolo, moving rapidly across the strings in scrubbing funk chords or stuttering melody lines; his left was restless on the fretboard, doing twitchy, zig-zagging improvisations or leaving jet trails of glissando. Every phrase took on an extra core of percussive syncopation, making the music boil up from within.

The Texan rockabilly singer Ray Sharpe, backed by the A-Bones, was an apparition in beret, shades, short-sleeved jacket, gold chain, patterned shirt, cutoff jeans, knee socks and Nikes. Playing lead guitar with an attack like Chuck Berry plus reverb and singing in a siren voice, he flung anarchic whoops, hollers and extra syllables into songs like his 1959 hit “Linda Lu” and a song he recorded in the mid-1960’s backed by King Curtis on saxophone and Jimi Hendrix on guitar, called “Mary Jane.” He insisted it was about a girl, and laughed.

Classie Ballou, a guitarist from South Louisiana who was an essential sideman for the zydeco accordionist Boozoo Chavis and the R&B singer Rosco Gordon, was a full-throated lead singer on his own. But he concentrated on his superb lead guitar, playing wiry, lucid, incisively melodic solos over rhumba-blues grooves from his band, which includes his children and a grandchild.

Little Joe Washington, a Texan guitarist, wore a cowboy hat over his gray dreadlocks. As his drummer and bassist rolled through blues shuffles, Mr. Washington sang about “lovin’” and got seriously physical with his guitar. He made it squawk, ambled through long woozy lines, jabbed quick blues phrases; he scraped the strings with his pick, rubbed the guitar on his hair and spent a lot of time playing it with his mouth, pausing only to exclaim, in a falsetto, “Daddy, don’t stop!”

Mr. Washington segued easily into James Blood Ulmer, the guitarist who circled back to the blues via Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic jazz, leading his own trio. He was just as spiky and free-associative as Mr. Washington, though he substituted politics for raunch.

Alton Lott, half of the rockabilly duo Alton and Jimmy who recorded for Sun Records, had a glittering G clef on his cowboy shirt and sang song after song about girls who got away, including “No More Crying the Blues” from 1959. He claimed to have just seen her at their 50th high-school reunion: “Good thing I let her go,” he declared. He was part of a mini-revue of Sun alumni, along with Johnny Powers, Carl Mann and Cowboy Jack Clement, Sun’s recording engineer, who became a country songwriter. Mr. Clement played a forlorn, metaphor-slinging songs about lost love and songwriting, particularly writing songs about lost love.

Two full-fledged soul singers, Otis Clay and Howard Tate, were in the lineup, both reveling in the slow-building dynamics of gospel. Otis Clay was backed by the Hi Rhythm Section, from Memphis, where he had recorded in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He announced that his music hailed from Memphis, Chicago (where he lives) and Mississippi (where he was born). And it did, as he could move between the gritty vehemence of Memphis soul shouting and the smooth-soul suavity of Chicago, sometimes in a single line. “I’m no angel,” he sang in one song, “but I can take you to heaven tonight.”

Mr. Tate, who recorded in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s before disappearing from music, made a 2001 comeback at one of the Ponderosa Stomp’s New Orleans precursors, parties at the Circle Bar. His imploring high tenor, and his leaps into falsetto, were still strong.

Performing well past 3 a.m. was Lady Bo, who played guitar in Bo Diddley’s band during his hitmaking late-1950’s heyday. Leading a trio, with her guitar sound swathed in echo and flanging effects, she lent her husky voice to what became psychedelic meditations on the rhythms and machismo of the 1950’s–including new lyrics, proclaiming “I’m a Woman,” for the Muddy Waters-Bo Diddley song “Mannish Boy.”

It’s hard to tell if the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, born in 1947, is a weirdo or a conceptual art act. (David Bowie has recorded one of his songs, “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship.”) With his band (including Klaus Flouride on bass, from the Dead Kennedys) playing taut, stop-start punkabilly vamps, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy declaimed, crooned and barked his lyrics, determinedly avoiding anything like a recurring rhythm.
By the time he performed his 1968 single, “Paralyzed,” he had also stripped until he was topless except for his black cowboy hat, his eyeglasses and a white neckerchief, flaunting a serious belly.
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