An Oldies Marathon Runs a Few Extra Miles
By JON PARELES
NEW ORLEANS — Men whooped and hollered, rasped and preached. Women sassed, strutted, hurled accusations and wailed away tears. Guitars twanged and cackled, horns laughed, and drums pounded backbeats and chattered with funk. Tuesday was the first of two nights of the seventh annual Ponderosa Stomp, a party on its way to becoming an institution. The Ponderosa Stomp is an oldies marathon as dreamed up by record collectors: the kind of music fans who prize soul veterans’ rare B-sides and limited-edition garage-rock singles, the wilder the better.
The lineup features rockabilly and rhythm and blues, and the audience at Tuesday’s concert at the House of Blues in the French Quarter, with nine hours of music on three stages, was dotted with women in vintage promwear and men sporting greased-up hair and flashy Western shirts.
The Stomp is officially dedicated to “unsung heroes” of rock and R&B: people like Wardell Quezergue, the arranger behind New Orleans R&B classics from the brass-band mainstay “It Ain’t My Fault” to Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” and the Green Fuz, credited as a five-man band that released one single, “Green Fuz,” a song that was revived by the Cramps. “Green Fuz” was recorded in 1969 in a diner under renovation, and reverberation from bare walls gave it a memorably murky sound. Band members didn’t like the recording and shot BB guns at part of their lone pressing of 500 copies. The Green Fuz was scheduled to be reunited, after 40 years, at Wednesday’s half of the Stomp.
Where a typical oldies show runs through familiar hits, the Ponderosa Stomp digs deeper. Tuesday’s set lists included a handful of well-known songs. But many more were known only to aficionados of figures like Barbara Lynn, a Texas R&B singer who had a 1962 hit with “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” and is also a stinging left-handed blues guitarist, or Travis Wammack, a frenetic, chicken-plucking, string-bending Memphis guitarist who has been recording since the 1950s.
Mary Weiss, who was the lead singer of the Shangri-Las, did get around to “Leader of the Pack,” but not before belting some of the group’s nonhits like the B-side “The Train From Kansas City.” Mac Rebennack, known since the late 1960s as Dr. John, did a set of songs from his days as a pianist working in New Orleans studios as the ’50s ended, among them “Bad Neighborhood” and “Storm Warning,” that he has rarely performed since. The drummer from the Meters, Ziggy Modeliste, was in the band, led by Mr. Quezergue.
The Ponderosa Stomp is the brainchild of Dr. Ike, a New Orleans anesthesiologist whose real name is Ira Padnos. “People think there’s a vision in this,” he said on Tuesday afternoon while juggling guest-list requests and last-minute amplifier complications. “When we started, all I wanted to do was put a mike on the floor, throw a show and go home.”
But his curatorial zeal has, perhaps inevitably, led to an ever-expanding mission. “People just go, ‘Who the hell are these guys?,’ ” said Mr. Padnos. So the Stomp created an extensive Web site about its musicians and has moved into oral history. “These guys have seen it and heard it and done it,” he said.
There is now a monthly Ponderosa Stomp series at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art here, where musicians talk about their music between sets. The Stomp has also presented shows at McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn and at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Tex.
This year’s Stomp added a free daytime conference, held at the Louisiana State Museum in the historic Cabildo Building on Jackson Square. Musicians, backstage figures and music historians shared their memories; audience members asked questions, like which microphones were used at certain sessions. Joe Bihari, a founder of Modern Records who crossed the United States recording blues, R&B and country music, drew a wave of applause when he said, “Recording today, which I do not like — it’s too clean.” He added, “We made distortion.”
Lazy Lester, the 74-year-old Louisiana bluesman and harmonica player who recorded “Pondarosa Stomp” in the ’50s, spoke about turning a darkroom into a studio echo chamber by sealing it, stuccoing the walls and painting it with 14 coats of Dutch Boy paint. “I’m glad I’m living, because that Dutch Boy paint was full of lead,” he said with a chuckle.
On Tuesday night the Stomp mingled high-octane rockabilly, elegantly dynamic Southern soul, intricate New Orleans R&B and some kindred untamed music, like James Blood Ulmer’s electric power-trio blues spiked with polytonal jazz. William Bell and Betty Harris sang about love, cheating and heartache in galvanizing Memphis soul. The Collins Kids, the siblings Lorrie and Larry, had Lorrie singing about her “Rock Boppin’ Baby” answered by Larry’s zooming, precise rockabilly and proto-surf-guitar lines on his doublenecked guitar. The Tail Dragger, a Chicago bluesman in a suit and cowboy hat, glared balefully as he sang about woman trouble with a growl worthy of Howlin’ Wolf. Sonny Burgess, whose startling guitar solos leap between country twang and jazzy chords, and the rockabilly singer Hayden Thompson, cut loose on their old Sun Records repertory.
The wild men and women at the Ponderosa Stomp are older and mostly grayer now. A few strained at their old material. But by rediscovering songs and stoking a battle of the bands, the Stomp stirs up some anarchy. Roy Head twirled his microphone, sang advice to lovers with some explicit gestures, and merged rockabilly presence with soul shouts suggesting James Brown. Backing him up was Stanley Dural, known as Buckwheat, who leads a top Louisiana zydeco band, on organ. At one point Mr. Head joyfully embraced Mr. Dural, then turned to the crowd. “Buckwheat, you sure got soft lips,” he said.
Al Johnson, known in New Orleans for his hit “Carnival Time,” played one set alone at an electric piano, bringing out the ache in a Fats Domino song, “My Girl Josephine” that plaintively asked, “Do you remember me?” At the Ponderosa Stomp the clear answer was yes.
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Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company