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Tales from the Woods, Ponderosa Stomp #2 Review, Night 1

The Annual Tales From The Woods USA Vacation - 2003
Part 1, as penned by Ken Major

April 29th 2003, Ponderosa Stomp, Night 1
"I Don't Want No Bald Headed Woman Telling Me What To Do"

So with thanks to the TFTW International Travel Dept we arrived in a timely and safe manner on a steaming Tuesday evening at Louis Armstrong Airport, New Orleans. John had already received the Ponderosa Stomp tickets in advance, but only for Wednesday and Thursday, having been convinced that we would be in no fit state to go gigging on the evening of arrival. However being aware that Nathaniel Mayer was booked for tonight, the lure was too great and we decided that, after booking in to our hotel, we would grab a cab to the downtown Rock’n’Bowl and take a chance that we would purchase a ticket at the door. Unfortunately we knew we would have missed at least 3 hours of this, the blues night, (the above sub-title by the way is a Gino Washington song), but Ian McNeil had already flown in a day earlier to catch the Tuesday night show, so there was every chance we would meet up to reflect on and share the evening’s experiences.

The Rock’n'Bowl is situated in the Mid City Lanes, downtown N.O. Immediately next door is Thrift City - a huge second hand clothing emporium and I guess we must have spent a couple of hours there rummaging for '50s box jackets and Hawaiian beach shirts. The Bowl is on 2 levels, the first is sub ground and boasts a mighty long bar with an adjoining dance hall which made an occasional welcome relief from the event upstairs. From the pavement a short but steep flight upstairs took us into the lanes. At the top of the stairs the hall sweeps from left to right with about 10 bowling alleys across the far wall, the left wall had a counter selling artists records and Stomp memorabilia with a horseshoe bar located between that wall and the stairs. The right wall housed the stage, and between that wall and the stairs were tables.

My overall impression was that this was no David Lloyd family bowling leisure centre, more a stretched version of a blacked-out North London rock club and, amazingly, some lanes were actually being played! The hall was quite busy but certainly nowhere near full, and having fleetingly viewed who was on stage we took the opportunity to grab a bite and drink at the bar. Average audience age appeared to be a comfortable middle age, no posers (well, apart from Beatle Bob), no dancers, but a credible mix of real music fans. There was an awareness that these guys/gals were in "in the biz" and therefore knew their stuff, with the likes of Alan Clarke flying in from California, Billy Miller (Norton Records) from New York, Mr. Angry 3500 miles from Southend-On-Sea, and even a New York Times photographer.

The diversity of music we saw over the three days ranged from the bizarre to the cult, and one would have to be a Bill Millar to enjoy most of it. More than some of the 60+ performers were unknown to me and, to make things more difficult and confusing, we had multi layers of back-up musicians and artists jamming for the sheer fun of it. Some of the music you would not find in my record collection; however, since 'Tales From The Woods' appeals to appreciators of all kinds of rootsy sounds, I will attempt, as a minimum, to at least convey the audience reaction and adulation these Living Legends received, and where possible add a little historical data.

Having missed the King Lloyd Band, the Kenny Brown Band, Jimmy T-99 Nelson and the Re-Birth Brass Band, I did catch the Sun Ra band finishing their 7 - 8pm slot, which was to be their first of almost a dozen sets throughout the event; however, not possessing a workable watch I assumed it was now well past 8pm. Ra died in 1993 and the band was taken over by John Gilmore, but is now fronted by alto saxophonist Marshall Allen. The 20 strong Sun Ra Arkastra swamped the stage and created the impression that Flash Gordon was partying with the Martians. Wearing weird "outta space" garb it was a photographer's and a jazzmo's dream. A cosmic performance that had Ian McNeil running out of the door in disbelief but scores of fans screeching for more after Ra's interpretation of "Going Back To Chicago".

The Ra band had their roots in R&B but during the 40 minutes or so it took to quit the stage "free jazz" ruled the roost. Who am I to determine what order and when notes should be played, let alone by whom and by what! When the last man left the stage, being the drummer of course, the audience were roaring for more, and more they got but a little later on. I never did find out if the band had played some R&B and/or blues during the event.

Somewhat fazed by the Sun Ra Arkastra my ear senses became a little more accustomed to the funk/punk/jazz sounds of 61 years young James Blood Ulmer, reforming his band especially for the night with Calvin Weston, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. James was born in St. Matthews, S. Carolina and taught to sing and play guitar by his father who fronted a gospel group called the Southern Sons. At 17 James moved to Pittsburgh where he backed groups like the Del-Vikings, later debuting on the King label with organist Hank Marr and recording "Sound From The Market Place".

Now entwined in modern jazz, James worked with several renowned jazz musicians including Art Blakey and Joe Henderson. He eventually landed a gig with the mighty John Coletrane in New York and then hooked up and toured with Ornette Coleman where his style changed to express the progressive jazz styles. Interestingly, James caught a dose of "wrongwayitis", belatedly discovered the Blues, and made the first of two blues albums, "Memphis Blood" being one recorded at the Memphis Sun studios. James visited London in '91 where he played mainstream jazz. Currently he has 15 albums to his name.

Supporting James on electric bass, Philly born Jamaladeen Tacuma also backed Ornette Coleman with his Prime Time band, then released several albums under his own name on Grammavision and worked with The Roots and James Carter. Tacuma can be heard on James's first album "Tales Of Captain Black". Fellow Philadelphian and drummer G. Calvin Western joined Ornette Coleman's Prime Time band at the age of 17 and was introduced to the mysteries of Coleman's "Harmomelodic Theory". He later joined James and then John Laurie, James Carter, and currently leads his own "Big Tree" band.

The trio that represented the James Blood Ulmer band laid down what I recognise as Jazz funk, chunky chopped chords and jazzy improvisations, possibly the definitive line-up for Jazz Funk purists. My apologies for not catching the titles.

What with the intensity of all that is jazz I don't think you or I would follow up with Motown! Well, the Knights could have, and in fact got very close, but with a nice Cliff Jones swerve we did hit Detroit in 1962, but successfully avoided Gordy’s studio to meet with the r-e-a-l raucous R&B sounds from the other independent Detroit studios, including a little later Fortune Records.

The first of two whirlwinds to hit the stage that night was the familiarly named (George) Gino Washington. With Michael Hurtt, Jimbo Mathus, Scott Bomar and Derek Houston serving as house-band for both him and Nathaniel Mayer. Soulman Gino, clad smartly in a red suit, white shirt and white striped tie launched into "I'm A Love Man", writhing, twisting and spinning across the stage, his numerous fans, including Nortons Records’ own Billy Miller having released a Gino EP were having ball, and although Gino possibly may just be about 60 his energy left us all breathless.

In ‘62 Gino cut "I'm A Coward/Puppet On A String" on Correc-Tone, later having them re-cut on Sonbert and becoming a hit when taken over by Ric-Tic's first release as "Gino's A Coward". So slowing things down somewhat Gino thrilled with his own "Puppet" then tore into a shrieking falsetto "Gino's A Coward". Falling to his knees and throwing the mic from one hand to another the USA's answer to the Wigan Casino's soulboys were surely in the house that night by the roar of appreciation. Finishing with "Do The Monkey With Me" (bit like the "Bristol Stomp) this soul shaker quit the stage probably thinking, "Beat that Nat". And, by the way, Gino does know all about the other Geno, do not mention the RamJam Band within his earshot!
If you thought that was wild, you ain't seen nuthin' yet! I have no doubt most of you all possess HMV 45-POP 1041 matrix 449A-1N, Nathaniel Mayer's "Village Of Love" or its Fortune label originator; if you do you will agree the flipside "I Want A Woman" is one of the greatest wailers ever. If I were to tell you I saw this man perform that song, that night, unfortunately I would be lying; however I did witness this legend and after such a sensational performance by his good friend Gino he was utterly unbelievable.

A tall, lean partially grey haired with grey moustache but looking somewhat older than his Detroit patriot, Nat spiced up his white suited attire with a green silk shirt open to the second button. I am not so sure Nat's career and life is that well documented or known. I imported and distributed several of his Fortune 45s many years ago but sadly never obtained the "Village Of Love" album, but for me he shared the title Soul Major along with Solomon Burke of whom we knew plenty. Sightings of Nathaniel are rare, but in 1980, backed by Filthy McNasty Group Plus Free Style on Love Dog Records, one single was released, "Raise The Curtain High" by one Nathaniel "Nay Dog" Meyer. My expectation was of a retired soul/R&B trouper, expected to re-plod some belated soul steps to satisfy maybe one or two fans that remembered him in the audience. What I did not expect was a) the mass turn-out by the fans b) the audience reverence and knowing every word to all the songs c) the dynamic and wild performance.

With arms flaying in the air Nat launched into the first of five songs, all from Fortune, the first three being "I Had A Dream" "From Now On" and "Leave Me Alone". Gino was breathtaking but in control, but this guy was totally outta sight. Crouching, pouncing, leaping in the air, I looked out for the St. John's ambulance, nowhere in sight. Head and shoulders going one way and legs and hips seemingly going in two other directions we stood aghast, if not just for the gymnastics but equally for his vocal power and intensity. Whipping around to the drummer or guitarist and encouraging 200% support, the fervour was incredible. Grimacing and contorting his face as if possessed by demons, when the good Dr. Ike attempted to call time, either because the allotted slot was timed out or because of danger to health, his, mine, and everybody else's, Nat told the Doctor to "get off his stage" 'cause he obviously hadn't finished yet.

In fact we and Ike had a second lesson of time control with the Frogman later. Fourth number was "Village Of Love" and did the audience still have lungs enough to sing the every word - you bet. The last number was "I Want Love & Affection (In The House Of Correction)", and again everybody sang along and Nat just would not slow down. After the performance individuals were seen to shake their heads in disbelief, even John H. appeared happy and quite speechless. All that and Gino for a grand total of 45 scheduled minutes. As far as I was concerned there was no need to follow this up, if I had caught the next plane home I would have had my money’s worth.

Next on stage, reputedly 9.15, one "Little Boy Blue". I love rockin' nursery rhymes and believing this to be a pseudonym for a certain great white rocker I was amazed to be greeted by the 88-year-old Marvel, Arkansas bluesman Robert Jnr. Lockwood.

If I had thought about it I would have remembered Robert Jnr. cut "Little Boy Blue" on a Bluebird 78rpm back in '41. I confess I am not a keen on what I would call the modern B.B. King sound, but pre-war blues is my bag; acoustic, 12 string and slide particularly, Lonnie Johnson, Fred McDowell, and Robert Johnson definitely. Mr. Lockwood fell a little awkwardly into my bag since his guitar style is and probably always was a little more progressive than most Delta players. Backed up by Magic Slim's "Teardrops", Robert, wearing sky blue trousers and matching shirt with embroidered silk pattern and a huge R pendant neck chain, got real lowdown with his sunburst electric Gibson, dipping in and out of the Robert Johnson songbook and cutting some distinctive blues chords.

This is not surprising since Robert Jnr. is the stepson of Robert Johnson and it was he who taught Robert Jnr. how to play guitar in the '30s. A documentary of Lockwood would, I guess, be the real life backdrop to many of the Delta bluesmen. Travelling the Delta as a kid he played with Sonny Boy and worked his way through Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago, returning to Helena where he became a regular on "King Biscuit Time". With his original style Lockwood had no problem finding work in the jukes, and in 1953 moved up to Chicago Chess studios as a session man, including cutting "My Babe" with Little Walter. Staying in Chicago during the halcyon blues decade, Lockwood recorded for several major and minor labels, and then moved to Cleveland in 1961 where he has remained ever since. In the '80s Lockwood and Johnny Shines teamed up to record for Rounder, started his own record label and in 1989 was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall Of Fame. Now 12 years away from a century the man still does 80 press-ups daily and does not look a day older than Dave Travis!

Who could seamlessly follow this Delta legend? Well the Mystic Knights got it right again, when on trooped Howling Wolf and his original back-up band; well one could only pretend the mighty man was present which he may well have been in spirit; if so he would have seen all his guys together for the first time in 50 years! So in no logical order this was the Wolf Pack:

Wolfman 1 - Henry Gray: Now residing near Baton Rouge, Henry was born in Kenner, La. Joined Howling Wolf in 1956 and stayed for 12 years. However it was Big Maceo Merriweather who taught him his famous piano style, and after starting out with the Little Hudson's Red Devil Trio he later joined Little Walter who named him "Bird Breath"! Henry also worked with Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Rogers and Billy Boy Arnold amongst others. Dressed smartly in white shirt, piano keyboard patterned tie, and a homburg la Fats Waller, Henry pounded a portable electric keyboard, unfortunately now de rigour at most musical festivals.

Wolfman 2 - Jody Williams: Enticed out of a 30 years retirement in 2001 Jody looked youthful albeit with rather more hair in his grey beard than on his head. Guitar strapped across his shoulder with "Jody" emblazoned down the leather strap, and "Lightning Black Jody" painted in red across the black Gibson. Jody's pedigree is mind-blowing. He led Howling Wolf's band in the early '50s, then a little later led Bo Diddley's band, even playing on many of Billy Boy Arnold's VJ tracks. He even provided the guitar lick on Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange".

Wolfman 3 - Hubert Sumlin: On stage for the second time that night clutching a red Fender Strat and dapper in a suit, tie and homburg, the young 72 years old Hubert was clearly delighted to be in the presence of his buddies and fans alike. Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and after learning the quaint diddly bow, Hubert was given a guitar and teamed up with schoolmate James Cotton, and later formed a band with Pat Hare. Hubert's first acquaintance with Howling Wolf in West Memphis, Arkansas is worth a mention. Apparently after being thrown out of a club where the Wolf was playing he tried to peer through the club's back window by standing on a crate. The crate collapsed and Hubert fell into the club and the Wolf persuaded the manager to allow Hubert to stay. Whilst Hubert and Cotton were working the jukes they landed a radio show, and curiously it was Howling Wolf who began to watch the shows and eventually took Hubert with him to Chicago as his rhythm guitarist, with Jody Williams and Willie Johnson taking leading lead spots. Hubert eventually took over lead until an argument with the Wolfman (brave-man!) led him to join Muddy Waters’ band where he stayed for a year. The Wolf then enticed Hubert back where he stayed for 20 years.

So, again with the "TearDrops" providing a further layer of support, I was transported away to those American Folk Blues Festivals days of the early '60s where I first saw the Man. Enviously as I peered around the audience, I had no doubt older fans had travelled from Chicago to re-live their '50s first hand experiences; such was the cool in the hall that night. That distinctive haunting raw Chess sound filled the room and Keith Woods must have flinched in his sleep that night as the Wolfman stepped on his grave. Most of the classics were provided for plus others such as "Rambling On My Mind", Jody's own "Lady Lou", plus the familiar "Evil", "Little Red Rooster" etc and of course "Smokestack Lightning". "Smokestack" certainly sent a chill up my spine as I remembered in my late teens purchasing this and its big brother EP on Pye International R&B. Perhaps note for note quality may be poetic licence since more than one vocalist took the lead, but what I heard were faithful renditions to my ears and some slight sadness that that may be the first and last time the group will ever appear together, however do not underestimate the secret powers of the Mystic Knights Of The Mau Mau - what say you Dr. Ike?!!

So, at some ridiculous time in the early morning John Howard and myself gave in gracefully, leaving at least another 30 performers to appear on stage, but not necessarily for the first time that night. Outside in the slightly cooler air, fans were gathering to review the previous events and taking the opportunity to snatch a chat with some of the legends. It was easy grabbing a cab and before long I was nicely tucked up in bed after frantically assuring myself I did actually have film in my camera!
To be continued
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Keith Woods

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