The Ponderosa Stomp calls forth musicians who are still rocking
By BILLY THINNES
A story about one event that spans two evenings should be a pretty straightforward affair – discussing the concept, the entertainment, the expectations and the opinions of organizers and previous patrons. However, the event in question here, the Ponderosa Stomp, is a hard pebble to grasp, a greasy, nebulously defined object that looks and feels different, depending on the angle from which it is perceived. The essence is that it is a showcase for forgotten and underappreciated forefathers of rock music, musicians from the ’50s and ’60s who cut amazing records in their little tributaries of sound – rockabilly, soul, R&B, funk, blues and swamp pop. What is revealed upon further inspection is that the musicians comprising the bill – masters of their tributaries, quintessential sidemen, ferocious flashes in the pan from yesteryear – form the interlocking network of rock ‘n’ roll that enabled folks like Elvis to do their thing. Their influence still reverberates today in the work of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and even John Mayer.
The Stomp is produced by the Knights of the Mau Mau. Like any New Orleans organization that produces an event or party worth its salt, the Knights are shrouded in mystery. Led by the enigmatic Dr. Ike, and a cadre of able assistants with noms de plume like Senor Chubba, Lord Dent and the Infamous Shmoo, the Knights appear to have their organization running like a somewhat problematic yet captivating early-model Cadillac convertible. The Knights decide upon the 40-some artists they will feature each year (this is the fourth Stomp) by hanging out, pulling records, soliciting suggestions and even fielding phone calls from artists over the brink of obscurity, who will remind the Knights of a great session the artist did for a label like Arco or Chess, and then request a slot at the Stomp.
“The thing about the Stomp is we want the artists to basically do what they are known for,” Dr. Ike says. “We will track down music for them, we will go build a band or get the right people behind them. We want them to be comfortable and do what they are famous for, that’s something we try to stress.”
When queried about this year’s Ponderosa Stomp, Dr. Ike breaks into an unrestrained and animated mumbling monologue: “I am very excited that Travis Wammack is coming – he is going to be incredible. He is the missing link between Link Wray and Lonnie Mack – he [Wammack] was this teenage guitar prodigy out of Memphis and cut all these insane instrumentals in the mid-to-late ’60s like “Scratchy” and went on and became a big session guitar player at Muscle Shoals [Alabama] on records for people like Aretha Franklin. Then there is Link Wray, he’s the beginning of heavy metal. Blowfly is coming – he’s the beginning of rap, he was doing nasty shit right there, some crazy, wild party records.”
Dr. Ike continues, with no need to stop for air or contemplative thought, full speed ahead like a dynamic off-the-cuff guitar solo: “This year, the really special things from Louisiana are that Little Buck Sinegal is reforming his band from 1968, and they will back Barbara Lynn. We are also throwing a killer New Orleans review featuring Deacon John with Eddie Bo and “Carnival Time” Johnson – Zigaboo [Modeliste, of the Meters] will be playing drums for a lot of that.”
Wammack, who had an extended stint in Little Richard’s touring band, echoes Dr. Ike’s excitement when he says, “I’m ready to come down and rock it. I’ve seen the lineup, and I think it is going to be great. We are looking forward to bending some strings and having a great time.”
Wammack says he is looking forward to seeing “some of the artists I played with on records like Ace Cannon. My first on-the-road tour was with Matt Lucas, and I saw Matt is going to be on the show so I am excited about that.”
Fans and supporters of the Ponderosa Stomp are equally effusive in their praise. Terry Stewart, CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, calls the Stomp “one of my favorite things.” Billy Miller, who runs Norton Records out of New York, says, “There is a lot of stuff that we just don’t get to see elsewhere, like the swamp-pop guys. [They] always get some real left-field stuff that always kind of works out – things that Dr. Ike likes that really surprises people. He doesn’t play it safe with who he is putting on there.”
“It [the Stomp] is a marathon thing – there are no dull spots, so you are in for a lengthy time there,” Miller says. “Everybody is upbeat about it. The cool thing is, it doesn’t go on for days – it is real high-flying and action-packed in a short amount of time. I like when they have people coming up with other people—seeing James Burton playing ‘Suzy Q’ with Dale Hawkins was really something.”
Louisiana natives Burton (a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and Hawkins will be back again this year.
“The thing about the Stomp is that it is real,” says Hawkins. “That is the main thing. What is happening now is that old is new, the music we plowed the roads with is back in style.”
Hawkins is a rockabilly pioneer, but he is quick to deflect praise from himself and direct it elsewhere. “Rockabilly is when bluegrass got hit in the butt,” he says. “If it hadn’t have been for Scotty Moore [also on the bill], well, let’s tell it like it is. He is the man. He was the first one and, as a matter of fact, helped hold it together for Elvis. Had he not hit that seventh [note] on ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky,’ there would be no rockabilly.”
The final word on this gathering of eclectic Americana musical legends of yore goes to Earl Palmer, a New Orleans drummer of some renown (ha, he’s actually the man, having played with everybody from Fats Domino to Frank Sinatra). Palmer is hosting the event this year, and describing the various musical styles represented, he says, “Thank God for the Ponderosa Stomp—there is a lot more of the vice versa than the otherwise!” •