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Ponderosa Stomp makes for glorious party

House of Blues, New Orleans, April 29, 2009

Reviewed by Rick Cornell

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The annual Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans is a gathering of the legendary, the should-have-been-legendary, the could-have-been-legendary and every shading in between. With artists from the worlds of soul, rockabilly, rhythm and blues and garage and with two stages (separated by a floor, a staircase and presumably some state-of-the-art acoustical technology) that are occupied from 6 p.m. until 3:30 a.m. on back-to-back nights, highlight overload is a distinct possibility. Attempting to sum up the experience is akin to a food critic reviewing a 50-item buffet. Where do you start?

The musical foundation, as represented by bands that backed up several artists across the two nights on April 28 and 29, is as good a place as any. Deke Dickerson & the Eccofonics and hometowners the Haunted Hearts took turns supporting primal rockers (Dale Hawkins and Jay Chevalier), rockabilly stalwarts (Joe Clay and Johnny Powers), and swamp poppers (Jivin' Gene and Warren Storm).

A horn-happy ensemble led by New Orleans guitar hero Little Buck Sinegal (who played alongside Clifton Chenier among many others) and featuring Stanley "Buckwheat Zydeco" Dural, Jr., on B3 organ displayed exceptional flexibility and versatility. They were especially impressive during an all-star tribute to the late Eddie Bo, shifting styles on a dime as each new performer took the stage. On Tuesday night, the Hi Rhythm Section, still under the direction of guitarist Teenie Hodges, represented the longstanding, while on Wednesday, the young Checkmates out of Oxford, Miss., proved that upstarts have plenty of soul too.

The A-Bones - along with guest Ira Kaplan from Yo La Tengo - showed up in a couple places as well, and what they lacked in locked-in musicianship, they made up for in energy and enthusiasm. Plus the archaeological magic that the A-Bones' Miriam Linna and Billy Miller perform via their Norton Records made them a perfect fit for the Stomp, a festival built on discovery and rediscovery.

To that end Howard Tate, a soul man thoroughly enjoying his career's long-delayed second act, delivered the set of the night on Tuesday. Even though he can't take off on those flights of falsetto like he once could, he sounded magnificent on a survey of his best: Stop, Shoot 'Em All Down, Ain't Nobody Home, Look at Granny Run Run. A take on Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927 didn't quite live up to its immense promise, but Get It While You Can was majestic, with Tate's hardship-filled 30-year absence from the stage making that classic's titular plea that much more poignant.

A couple of hours before Tate's turn, the aforementioned Hi Rhythm Section took the stage and kicked off with Booker T & the M.G.'s Time Is Tight before being joined first by an unbilled Percy Wiggin and then Otis Clay. The latter shared a couple of his Hi hits, including Precious, Precious and an abbreviated Trying to Live My Life Without You, as well as an expert take on former Hi-mate O.V. Wright's A Nickel and a Nail before welcoming Wiggins back to team up on Love and Happiness.

And following Tate on the downstairs stage were The Remains, fronted by Barry Tashian who went on to play in Emmylou Harris' band for years and establish a solid roots career in Nashville after the Remains flashed and burned in the mid-'60s. The band nailed everything - from Hang on Sloopy and a brief Louie Louie tease to a pair of Willie Dixon tunes and their "Nuggets" gem Don't Look Back - to the point that you'd swear the quartet's members still get together at least once a week to rehearse in Tashian's basement even though they're spread out from Arizona to New England.

Wednesday was a night of varying moods, with Dan Penn's set the moodiest. Penn is a national treasure of a songwriter, and even if you don't think you know his songs, you do: The Dark End of the Street, I'm Your Puppet, Do Right Woman Do Right Man, Sweet Inspiration and a hundred others. Penn was joined by Bobby Emmons on keyboards, filling the Spooner Oldham role. (Similarly, even if you don't think you've heard Emmons, you have. He's played on a billion Memphis sessions; for instance, that's him on Elvis Presley's In the Ghetto and Dusty Springfield's Son of a Preacher Man.)

The pair followed the high-energy Eddie Bo tribute that left the crowd buzzing, a challenge for a hushed, stripped-down duo. Plus, early on the sound guy just couldn't seem to get things right on Cry Like a Baby - at least not right enough for Penn - so the pair abandoned the song after three false starts. That episode seemed to stick with Penn for the next couple of numbers, but he eventually put it aside and rewarded the crowd with gloriously down-shifted takes on Out of Left Field and It Tears Me Up. "Something about New Orleans always makes me slow these songs down," offered Penn. By this point, with the audience adequately quieted and the monitor adequately functioning, no one was complaining.

Wanda Jackson backed by Dickerson and crew can still shimmy and shimmer. The Queen of Rockabilly and newly inducted Rock and Roll Hall of Famer served up Mean, Mean Man, Hard Headed Woman, and Funnel of Love (recently resurrected by Southern Culture on the Skids on their "Countrypolitan Favorites" record), as well as a three-song tribute to her former tour mate and short-term boyfriend, Elvis Presley, featuring guest guitar from James Burton.

Upstairs, the Checkmates were the house soul band, first for their middle-aged frontman Herbert Wiley (with whom they cooked up a funkified version of Ode to Billie Joe), followed by the every-spry Sir Lattimore Brown and finally Texas soul king Bobby Patterson. Then it was back downstairs for a reunion of Flamin' Groovies founders Roy Loney and Cyril Jordan, supported by the A-Bones and Kaplan. Their set was goofy and grand and loud with Shake Some Action (arguably the Groovies' greatest creation) and a cover of Shakin' All Over hitting, appropriately enough, like earthquakes and sounding like they could collapse at any time. And that was all part of the charm.

But it wasn't just about the hour-long sets. Both nights carried their share of memorable individual moments and snapshots. There was Dale Hawkins, gaunt and dehydrated after his latest round of chemo, but still vibrant of voice and smile, and Burton revving up Susie Q, that opening riff that's part of the DNA of any guitar player arcing off the stage like a flaming arrow. There was Bonnie Raitt standing up from her balcony seat to point down at Wanda Jackson to say thanks for paving the way. There was Bobby Patterson, not necessarily resplendent but definitely visible in his black-and-white checkerboard jacket, easing into She Don't Have to See You (To See through You), an example of country-soul at its absolute finest. There was Jay Chevalier turning back the clock almost 50 years with the one-two punch of Billy Cannon and Castro Rock. And there was the crooked-grin glance that Little Buck Sinegal gave G.G. Shinn, blue-eyed soul soulster and former member of the Boogie Kings, when Shinn turned to give instructions to Sinegal's band. The look said, "Okay, you might be borrowing us for a set, but remember this is my band."

But the signature moment came very early on Tuesday night during a set by Classie Ballou, a guitar ace now in his sixth decade of making music. Ballou's sound, a combination of blues, proto-garage instrumentals, and New Orleans soul, is impossible to categorize, and these days it's a multi-generational affair as he's joined by his son on bass and grandson on drums. He dedicated one of his stinging hybrid concoctions, Classie's Whip, to the late Kellie Keller, whose Crescent City-based Circle Bar served as the launching pads for the comebacks of Ballou, Howard Tate and others. "This was always her favorite," said Ballou. It was a gesture that got to the heart of the Ponderosa Stomp. It's all about not forgetting the true innovators and true believers - those lost and those still going strong - and then wrapping those memories up in a big, noisy, glorious party.