Maybe it's age or my ever-increasing tailspin of stagnating taste, but I just don't find music festivals palatable in the slightest these days. Multi-day romps to summertime smorgasboards is for the birds. No matter if it takes place in Chicago or Austin, it's always hotter than Hades, the sound tends to be questionable and the mixture of mammoth crowds and massive stages leaves the user with a less than personal experience.
Then there's New Orleans' Ponderosa Stomp. Instead of concentrating on booking tomorrow's It bands, the petite, two-day nonprofit festival concentrates on highlighting artists whose contributions to music generally can't be heard on your FM dial. That's because for most of the performers' musical contributions and heydays happened some 40-odd years ago.
Now 10 years old, the Stomp has hosted everything from psychedelic warriors like Roky Erickson to the rockabilly stylings of Duane Eddy to this year's Stax Records Review, which featured Eddie Floyd and William Bell (amongst others).
The festival is a celebration of sometimes overlooked and many all-too forgotten artists, the session musicians and sidemen who all too often, sadly, have failed to get their due. Some of this year's Ponderosa performers wrote songs later recorded by others who turned them into million-selling chart-toppers: Sir Mack Rice's "Mustang Sally" or Beaumont native Barbara Lynn's "Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin')," which was covered by the Rolling Stones.
On the contrary, this past weekend's festivities at downtown nightclub Howlin' Wolf were nothing but smiles and celebration.
Sporting a white-and-gold sequined suit, the prodigal son of New Orleans was in fine form for a tribute to J&M recording studio owner, Cosimo Matassa. The man spent his evening behind a baby grand piano and tickled all 88 keys just to prove he was as sharp as he's ever been. Renditions of Toussaint-penned or -produced songs filled the evening with covers of Lee Dorsey's "Yes We Can" and "Get Out My Life Woman," which may be one of the most covered songs to ever come out of Orleans Parish.
Octogenarian Parker joined Toussaint onstage for just one solitary song, his lone hit for the Nola label, "Barefootin." Parker's hip new dance never quite swept the nation, possibly due to the perils of dancing sans shoes. While the dance never found popularity, the song sure did and went on to sell plenty of copies in 1966. Parker inspired the entire Howlin' Wolf audience to shake and shimmy.
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Frogman recorded his first and largest hit, "Ain't Got No Home," more than 55 years ago and though most of body has seemingly withered with time (he joined Toussaint for two songs and entered the stage with his walker) amazingly his voice has not. He fully represented the spectrum of his talents, singing both the falsetto and bass parts to "Ain't Got No Home" without blinking an eye.
The patron saint of the Ponderosa Stomp and writer of its namesake song, Lazy Lester once again brought his down-and-dirty harmonica blues stylings. The former Excello recording artist is the last of a breed of performers including Slim Harpo and Roscoe Shelton.
The hardest working band during the Stomp, former Clifton Chenier guitarist Buck and his boys has served for years as the majority of Ponderosa performers' backing band. Not to be outdone, he also gave the crowd faithful renditions of his own material to boot. Swamp-funk stormers like "Monkey In a Sack" and "Cat Scream" sounded as tight as the day they were recorded for the La Lousianne label in the early '70s.
Creole queen Jean Knight was the weekend's meeting ground between Memphis and New Orleans. After the Stax label released her multiplatinum hit "Mr. Big Stuff," Knight went back to her roots for a cover of Rockin' Sidney's "My Toot Toot."
Former Duke Records recording artist and current Austin resident Lavelle White proved she could still belt it all out in her '80s just as well as she ever could. Her showcase highlighted her earliest work for Don Robey's Houston-based label such as "Stop These Teardrops" and "Stolen Love."
It's hard to believe that Big Jay McNeely recorded his first record in 1949. Not only is he still alive, he provided the Stomp with a saxophone-honking good time. McNeely made his entrance by walking through the crowded floor playing his sax before heading to the stage and subsequently stealing all the thunder for the evening.
Though Mack isn't a household name, his resume sure is. The writer of "Mustang Sally" and "Born Under a Bad Sign" spent most of his career crafting hits for other Stax artists, as well a few for Motown. It was the first time in years that someone started performing "Mustang Sally" and I didn't mind one bit. His grizzled demeanor that comes with age and having Memphis' Bo-Keys backing him only aided the situation.
There was no artist I had more trepidation about seeing perform all weekend than Eddie Floyd. As a fan of the singer best-known best for his hit "Knock on Wood," a half-hearted or just plain poor performance would have been disenchanting, and I'd rather stay home and listen to his records than witness such a thing. Fortunately, that wasn't be a problem.
The man was a silver-maned firecracker onstage, and the only problem was getting a picture because he simply refused to stand still. Floyd owned the stage as if he had been the only one on it all evening. "Big Bird" - the song he penned while waiting for a flight from London to take him back to the states for Otis Redding's funeral - inspired a raucous singalong.
With a few surprise performers like the Batiste Brothers and numerous 10-piece band changes throughout the evening, by the time William Bell climbed the stage in his brown leather suit and white sunglasses, the clock was easily approaching 2:30 in the morning. I'm not sure if Kanye West owes his fashion sense to William Bell, or the other way around, but I like to imagine the former.
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Bell had the late night crowd swooning along to his powerful ballads like "You Don't Miss Your Water (Till Your Well Runs Dry)," proving he's lost none of the range that made his hit records in the first place. During a sublime rendition of "I Forgot to Be Your Lover," everything fell into place as the Ponderosa Stomp chugged to a close and I loudly remarked to nobody, "This is really fantastic" while staring on in amazement.
"You damn right it is!" answered an unsolicited voice. I looked to my right only to find the source was Eddie Floyd, also watching in awe.