OR: HOW ROOTS MUSIC MADE ME BECOME A FASHION WRITER
This year, the Ponderosa Stomp is held at The Howlin’ Wolf, a music venue located in New Orleans’ central business district. The club is an ideal site for the Stomp in many ways. Named in honor of legendary bluesman Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnet, it is an auspicious location for one of America’s great roots festivals. The Howlin’ Wolf does an impressive job of combing all the infrastructure and amenities a modern music venue needs with the dark, slightly gritty down-home feel roots fans want.
The festival is running two stages simultaneously. The large main stage is suitable for larger and/or louder bands. The Den Stage, in contrast, is situated in a small, narrow room with great acoustics—perfect for smaller acts, instrumental groups or groups with a more intimate performance style.
The only fly in the ointment is that the hallway connecting the two stages has been taken over by the festival administration and the artists’ lounge, meaning that, to switch from watching one stage to the other, festival-goers (or even music journalists) have to exit the building, thread their way through the crowded central business district streets and reenter through a separate door. Still, the conference staff does need somewhere to set up and artists need somewhere to relax, so it is a small thing.
Grabbing a beer, I settle in near the main stage to await the first act.
The first night of Ponderosa Stomp is built around two tributes. The first is for seminal roots record label Excello. The second, to equally influential studio engineer and recording engineer Cosimo Matassa.
The 2013 festival kicks off with perennial Ponderosa Stomp favorite and Excello Records veteran, Bobby Allen. As an artist, Allen embodies the Ponderosa Stomp’s emphasis on multiple roots styles, all wrapped up in one stylish package—but with a special emphasis on soul and funk. A native of Crowley, Louisiana, Allen cut his teeth in local record stores and hanging out with the local blues icons such as Lazy Lester and Lightnin’ Slim.
As his career unfolded, Allen began to explore newer roots sounds such as soul and funk. He teamed up with Herbert, Wilfred and Wilbur Moore, three brothers who worked as session musicians for Excello, fronting a group called Bobby Allen and the Exceptions, later changing their name to Bobby Allen and the Hurricanes. With The Exceptions, Allen recorded for the Excello subsidiary label, Soul Sounds. He continues to play and tour widely.
In 1970, Allen recorded “Soul Chicken” a humorous novelty song of the variety was intensely popular in the late 60s and early 70s. Allen’s number had a difference, however, it also delivered world class soul music. It is little surprise when Allen opens his set at Ponderosa Stomp with “Soul Chicken,” which, along Lazy Lester’s eponymous “Ponderosa Stomp” has became an official anthem for the festival.
Allen’s set and discography also feature two songs that ensure his radio play peaks in December, “Please Santa, Bring My Baby Back” and “Lonely Christmas Tears,” both frequently featured on compilations of blues/roots Christmas music.
With his nimble soul pipes and relaxed yet engaging stage presence, Allen is a great way to warm the crowd up for two days of spectacular music.
Ponderosa Stomp founder and master of ceremonies Ira Padnos introduces the festival’s second artist, Clayton Sampy, by calling him “The closest you can get to Clifton Chenier these days.” Comparing Sampy to the artist that holds the same place in Zydeco that Hank Williams does in country or Elvis Presley in rock and roll is high praise that leaves Sampy with some big shoes to fill — but the man consistently delivers.
Not only is Sampy one of the world’s premier living Zydeco artists, but he looks the part. Taking the stage in casual attire, straw flat-brimmed hat and magnificent red keyboard accordion, he is a Louisiana Zydeco master straight from central casting.
If Sampy can talk the talk, he can also certainly walk the walk. Born in a small community outside of Lafayette, Sampy was raised in a hard working farm famil, with a father who frequently played accordion for house parties around the community. Taught by his father, Sampy was playing in bands by the age of 17 and rapidly making a name for himself with his heavily Creole accented brand of Zydeco.
With the first song of his set, “I’m Going to Hold You Baby,” Sampy shows that he is not just about the accordion as he reveals a smooth, velvety voice laden with bluesy hardness. The number is buoyed by great supporting instrumentation, including solid washboard playing. On the Ponderosa Stomp stage, Sampy is backed by Lil’ Buck Sinegal and His Top Cats, an blues act more than capable of holding stages and packing venues on their own.
The second number of the set is a cover of Hank Williams “Jambalaya.” Sampy kicks off the piece with an energetic, sonorous shout before he explodes into a rendition of the classic tune with heavy Creole and roots-swing flavor. Again, the instrumentation is as stellar as the vocal. It features some great barrelhouse-style piano while furious washboard playing anchors the song in its distinctive time and place. Most dramatic is Lil’ Buck’s guitar work, methodically teasing a beautiful Cajun/Swamp Rock groove out of his instrument.
The third song in the set begins with Sampy’s accordion skills on full display as he executes a gorgeous, funky accordion run. His percussive blues vocals are punctuated by short howls which are well placed in a club named “Howlin’ Wolf.” Indeed, the similarities to the signature sounds of Chester Burnett are uncanny. Instrumentation on the number is beautiful, in addition to Sampy’s accordion the number features strong electric organ work and blues guitar.
This is followed by a slower number than those featured in his set thus far, a Zydeco waltz buoyed by a chorus of shouts of “Oh why, oh why, oh why?” Concluding his set is another accordion-heavy Clayton Sampy song with Little Buck and the Top Cats putting a strong focus on guitar and percussion.
Two of the 2011 Ponderosa Stomps foci were the Queens of Gulf Coast Soul and Excello Records artists, both of which meet splendidly in the personage of Carol Fran. Long eclipsed in the popular imagination by the later and better known Stax and Motown strains of soul music, Gulf Coast soul flourished along a wide band from New Orleans to Houston and mated the classic sound and lyrical conventions of soul with a noticeable blues influence and flavoring from the other roots genre native to the area.
Famous for her powerful vocals, strong songwriting and flamboyant persona, Fran has peers among Gulf Coast soul, but no superiors.
She opens her set with a sweet, slow number that embodies the musical essence of Gulf Coast soul: strong, sassy vocals and irresistible rhythm and blues beats wrapped in warm southern charm.
Her second number, “Crying in the Chapel,” best known to most listeners through an Elvis Presley cover, is not only one of Fran’s most compelling songs, it comes complete with an unforgettable back story.
Fran released her version of “Crying in the Chapel” in 1962. Initially, the song sold well, if not spectacularly. A few months later, however, when Elvis released his version (without, it should be noted, any evidence the King was aware of Fran’s release) Fran’s sales were crushed. A few years later, she had a chance encounter with Presley in California. Fran, who gives no indication of ever having been shy about anything, confronted Presley over the issue, saying, “Mr. Presley, you cost me a lot of money.”
“How did I do that?” Presley asked her.
After telling him the story of her release of “Crying in the Chapel,” Elvis quietly got out his checkbook and wrote Fran a check. Still upset over the matter, Fran didn’t look at the check until several months later when Christmas was approaching and money in her family was tight. At last, Fran unfolded the check and, as she recalls, “I had never seen that many zeros on a check before.” At nothing more than Fran’s word about what had occurred, the King had written her a check for $10,000. “I took just a few dollars for myself,” she recalls. “And my family had a really good Christmas.”
In spite of a title that suggests somber overtones, Fran’s “Crying” is an up tempo affair, buoyed by jazzy piano accompaniment. As she sings “Crying” Fran’s voice really opens up, her powerful, sonorous pipes filling up the entire venue. After a performing career that stretches more than half a century, this soul maven can still really belt it out.
At the first chorus, the music shifts around a masterful, slow jazz piano solo. This is the first of several technically impressive and musically irresistible tempo changes within the number. During a mid-song bridge, Fran’s showmanship is also displayed via lively banter with band, showcasing an amazing ability to work the stage.
Like “Crying in the Chapel,” the third song in her set, “Emmit Lee” is Carol Fran classic that comes with an irresistible story. Released in 1957 on Excello, “Emmit Lee” was both Fran’s debut release and her first hit. Introducing the song to the audience, she explains it was inspired by a one night stand Fran had earlier that year, with a man whose name was actually Emmit Lee. “One of night of sin,” as Fran puts it, the clarifying, “not one night of sin, one night of pleasure.”
As a dreamy look of remembrance crosses her face, she continues, “And this one night lasted along time. It’s still going on. God Bless him, he did what he was supposed to do. It must have been good if I’m still singing about if 50 years later.” Fran explains that she and Emmit kept in touch over the years, kept talking about getting back together but never did. Suddenly turning serious, she says, “The next time I saw Emmit was at his funeral,” making sure the audience takes the appropriate carpe diem message from the story.
Musically, “Emmit Lee” is smooth Gulf Coast soul with a healthy does of ’50s R&B. The instrumentation and arrangement call to mind Fats Domino music of the same era and is rooted by a clear, beautiful, solid electric bass line. Fran’s vocals are magnificent, dramatically punctuated by powerful, high notes that seem to echo the passion she felt a half-century past.
The final number in Fran’s set is “Money (That’s What I Want).” Instantly familiar to the audience through its refrain, “The Best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees,” the song was originally recorded by Barett Strong in 1959, and became the young Motown’s label’s first hit, but has become a Carol Fran standard as well.
Fran’s version segues between beautiful soul wrapped in blues and a powerful blues cocooned in soul. The bridges feature great up-tempo guitar work from Lil’ Buck. During the instrumentals, Fran gets up and crisscrosses the stage, shimmying and shaking her hips. On the stage and off, this Gulf Coast soul queen still has a few moves to her.
Classie Ballou is precisely the kind of musician for which The Ponderosa Stomp was created. One of the great roots music guitar pioneers, Ballou recorded several highly influential tracks for Excello and other labels. His sound ties together multiple roots influences, united by brilliant rock and roll guitar. In spite of this extraordinary legacy, Ballou’s contributions to American music and especially American guitar remain too often overlooked.
The set opens wit “Lovin’, Huggin’, Kissin’ My Baby,” one of Ballou’s biggest hits. Immediately, his guitar work take center-stage, leading with a frenetic, driving tempo that picks up the rest of the band and drives them along with him. His finger work is aggressive yet crisp, invoking Chuck Berry while also sounding surprisingly contemporary. His vocal work on “Lovin’, Huggin’, Kissin’ My Baby” are not so much “singing” as a delightful series of shouts and hollers in pitch with the music.
In any roots genre, having a song named after you is a sure sign that you’ve paid your dues and earned your stripes. The second number of the set is “Classie’s Whip,” an instrumental number that allows Ballou’s guitar artistry to truly shine. “Whip” is masterpiece of old school rock and roll with a dash of surf rock. Ballou’s finger work is a true joy to watch on this number, his twang-infused licks buoyed by solid and relentless percussion. As Ballou plays, his cheeks are taut jaw firmly set in the image of a great guitarist focused on his craft.
Even more than most of his repertoire, “Classie’s Whip” is strikingly contemporary in its sound. Remove the hint of R&B, and it is not a stretch to hear a radio friendly number verging on pop-punk territory.
“Crazy Mambo” kicks off with an energetic, swinging guitar sound and full, rich horn accompaniment. The ringing strains of the trumpet are especially irresistible. Ballou also displays his ability to work a crowd, initiating an enthusiastic “Hey Now” call-and-response session with audience during the bridge. The guitar work on “Crazy Mambo” again invites stong comparison with Chuck Berry. But comparison is not equivalence, at the end of the day Ballou’s playing is less flashy but more intricate than Berry’s.
The fourth song in the set is “Hey, Pardner.” It begins with Ballou showing off his guitar skill at a slower tempo, sonorous and as equally powerful as his faster playing. Like “Crazy Mambo” the number makes full use of the horn section, the trumpet and twin altos providing gorgeous accompaniment to lead guitar
As the song progresses, the tempo of his guitar gradually builds, remaining as crisp and clean as it is powerful. And then, about midway through “Hey Pardner,” Ballou does what his guitar performance on the first three songs seemed to have been building towards — he shreds—in the sense a contemporary guitarist would recognize. After a minute of blistering guitar runs, it is clear that this icon of roots rock is also a guitar frontman in the modern sense of the term.
For his fifth number, Ballou gives the audience his take on the classic folk tune “House of the Rising Sun.” First recorded by Texas Alexander in 1927, “House” is best known to contemporary audiences through the 1964 recording by English garage rock outfit The Animals. Ballou’s interpretation of “House” is a revelation, with guitar work is as heavy and powerful as the Animal’s most ambitious licks, but with a roots rock the edge that far more authentically anchors the song.
Ballou closes his set with a sixth song, the name of which I did not catch. Like all the songs in his set, it is archetypal guitar rock, this time built on top of a classic R&B bass and rhythm line.
Beyond the sterling quality of his music, the too often overlooked Ballou is an important artist because he challenges the commonly offered, overly streamlined and simplistic narrative of music history in which the guitar hero is a modern innovation and roots rock guitar was passionate and charming but stylistically naïve. His aesthetic and approach to guitar is glaringly modern and his uncompromisingly driven, technically adventurous and beautiful string work is worthy of any of his later “guitar god” peers. As a child of the 1980s, listening to Ballou play, it is hard for me not to think, “Yes, Marty McFly, they were ready for this in 1955.”
EXCELLO TRIBUTE JAM
Of the handful of record labels that have truly shaped American music, a few, such as Sun, Stax and Motown, are household names even to casual music fans. Others, however, have left their stamp on music history yet languish in obscurity outside the circles of cognoscenti. One such label is Excello Records.
Established in Nashville in 1952 by Ernie Young, Excello really came into its own in 1956, when it established an alliance with J.D. Miller’s “Feature Records” operating out of a tiny studio in Crowley, Louisiana. Miller had an amazing ear for music and, working with Excello, helped both nurture and define the sound of genres such as Swamp Blues and Swamp Pop. Excello’s roster of artists grew to include a number of well-known and influential musicians in a variety of roots styles. Among the most important artists to record with Excello were Lonnie Brooks, Carol Fran, Slim Harpo, Silas Hogan, Lazy Lester, Lightnin’ Slim and Warren Storm.
As part of celebrating America’s musical heritage and giving unsung parts of that legacy their due, the Ponderosa Stomp made a tribute to Excello a centerpiece of the first evening’s lineup. Beginning in earnest with the Gulf Coast soul of Carol Fran and the energetic guitar of Classie Ballou, the tribute explodes to life as a trio of great Excello artists take the stage.
James Johnson was guitarist for the great Slim Harpo and is a formidable axe man in his own right. Johnson remains one of the masters of the finger-picking style of guitar work closely associated with Swamp Blues. Lazy Lester, another of the great swamp bluesmen, is also a kind of patron saint to the Ponderosa Stomp. The event takes its name from the title of an Excello B-side recorded by Lester. Vocalist and percussionist Warren Storm has excelled in a number of roots genres but remains most celebrated for his contributions to swamp pop.
Even before the first note is played, the presence of the three artists on stage has the Ponderosa Stomp audience wound up to a fever pitch.
The trio leads with a tune by the late Slim Harpo, an implicit tribute to another of the label’s leading lights. Storm sets the tone for the number, banging out a magnificent roots beat on drums, flailing in a magnificent black and gold embroidered shirt that would not have looked out of place in Elvis’s wardrobe. Lester and Johnson both lend beautiful guitar work to the number in distinctive, almost diametrically opposed, styles. Lester’s guitar is warm and languid (It should be noted that Lester has always maintained that his moniker springs not from any personal lethargy, but rather his relaxed performance style). Johnson plays his instrument with the calm precision of a surgeon, seldom taking his eyes off the instrument as if engaging in constant calculation.
The group follows with “Raining in my Heart,” another Slim Harpo number. Without trying to imitate Harpo, Lester’s natural vocal style, a slow, passionate mosey, is a fitting tribute to Harpo. Lester’s voice alternates lead lines with Johnson’s meticulous blues guitar. Later, Storm takes over the vocals, with a deep, rich and powerful voice that invokes a young Elvis every bit as much as his wardrobe calls to mind the later version. As Storm takes over vocals, Lester returns to guitar and is a joy to watch. As the Excello masters work their magic, the Top Cats’ saxophonist adds strongly to the bluesy melody of “Raining in My Heart.”
The third song in the tribute is one of Storm’s best known hits, 1956’s “Mama, Mama, Mama (Look What You’re Little Boy’s Done). At the Stomp tribute, unsurprisingly, Storm is front and center on this number. This is classic swamp pop, blending the conventions of ’50s pop with the traditions of Louisiana roots music and shows why Storm was and remains an icon of the genre. “Mama, Mama, Mama’s” vocals, half bubble gum and half gumbo, roll smoothly and easily out of his mouth.
If the audience had any illusions (and they shouldn’t) that Lil Buck and the Top Cats were just on stage to fill out the sound, the instrumentation on “Mama, Mama, Mama” erases them. They came here to play and do masterful job as the trumpet, guitar and sax trade melody and harmony back and forth.
This is followed by another swamp pop number spiced with a little New Orleans rhythm and blues. Again, the supporting instrumentation really sizzles, especially the saxophone, which does not so much anchor the number as lend it the steady undulating motion of a ship at sea. Reflecting the R&B influence, this song also features a hot-to-the-touch piano solo.
Few things could tear me away from this trio of roots legends before their set had concluded. Over at the Den stage, however, another American musical icon was tuning up.
The Louisiana born and Arkansas raised Bobby Rush is more than just an amazing musician. With the deaths of Pinetop Perkins, Honeyboy Edwards and Hubert Sumlin in recent years, Rush is one of our last living connections to the first generation of great Delta bluesmen.
Rush is, himself, a study in blues history. Once hailed as “The King of the Chitlin’ Circuit,” (the collective name of the clubs, bars and venues that served as a kind of African-American vaudeville from the early 20th century through the ’60s), he later became one of the first Delta bluesmen to make the move to Chicago, helping many of the well known later arrivals settle into to life in the Windy City. Rush has shared the stage with everyone from Pinetop Perkins, who was a personal friends as well as professional collaborator, to the Tina and Ike review.
Rush opens his set with a Jimmy Reed classic, “You Don’t Have to Go.” Rush’s rendition is very much in the mold of Reed’ original, down-tempo and languid, almost meandering. This is real old-school Delta blues with no fancy Chicago ensemble sound or flashy Texas axe work here. Rush strips America’s original music back down to its minimalist essentials: a soulful voice that verges on spoken word accompanied by simple yet elegant guitar or impassioned harmonica with a little toe tapping to mark rhythm.
Rush is a master storyteller and, between songs, holds the Ponderosa Stomp audience rapt with stories from his life – opening a window for them into the world of classic Delta Blues.
Rush’s father was a well respected pastor at a local church in Arkansas, in a era when many people earnestly referred to the blues as “that devil music.” In spite of that taboo (or, more likely, because of it) Rush was in love with the blues from the first time he heard it. At the age of seven, Rush received an acoustic guitar as a present from a cousin. He hid the instrument in the loft of the barn and only played when he was alone, for fear of what his preacher Father might do if he found it.
One night, after supper, Rush’s father said to him, “Boy, why don’t you go bring me that guitar out of the loft.” Rush obeyed, trembling as he handed the instrument over, certain that his father was going to smash the guitar and give him a whooping. In stead, his father said, “Let me show you how to play this thing.” Before playing one tune, his father looked at the young Rush, “I’m going to play a song about a girl who used to make me happy a long time ago.”
More than a half century later, relating that story to the Ponderosa Stomp crowd with a mischievous grin and almost boyish enthusiasm, Rush says, “At the time, I thought that song must have been about my momma. I now realize it wasn’t.”
Rush clearly has great affection for his father. And it is telling that, in the era of “That Devil Music,” his father, the pastor, never explicitly encouraged Rush to play the blues but he never explicitly told him not to play the blues, either.
Rush’s first public performances were as a comedian rather than a musician. He says his stabs at comedy were a dismal failure – his ability to work a crowd, however, suggests otherwise. Rush’s comedic skills, in the classic Chitlin Circuit fashion, are well on display during his set as he introduces his numbers with zingers like, “You can have your blues if your woman leaves you. You can also have them if she stays too long,” or “I’ve got a problem, and it’s about to get a lot worse, with juggling my woman, my girlfriend, and my wife.”
Rush also applies his talent for comedy to the classic blues penchant for lewd and often not particularly subtle innuendo. By the second song of his set, Rush is handing the audience lines such as “Baby, you’re just like a dresser, somebody’s always ramblin’ in your drawers.”
The third song in the set, “Chicken Heads,” is a Rush classic and the artist’s best known original song, pushing its way onto Billboard’s R&B chart when released in 1970. . The number may even be familiar to many non-Blues fans through its inclusion on the soundtrack for the 2006 Samuel L. Jackson movie “Black Snake Moan.” In its original, recorded incarnation, “Chicken Heads” is a delicious hybrid—a great Delta Blues song performed with an ear for the funk and soul sounds then dominating the airwaves. At the Ponderosa Stomp, Rush offers a radically different take on the song, a bare-bones vision that jettisons soul and funk in favor of exploring a pure Delta Blues sound. Upon casual listening, it is difficult even to identify the two versions as the same song. But Rush’s performance is every bit as glorious when reduced to its essentials as it is with all the bells and whistles included.
Rush then changes pace with “How Long,” which offers classic blues music wrapped around a civil rights and social justice theme. Again, it is a minimalist blues. Rush’s vocals border on spoken word and instrumentation is limited to a single chord progression on Rush’s guitar, accentuated by his toe-tapping. Through the simplicity of its vocals and instrumentation, “How Long” consciously focuses listeners’ attention on the song’s lyrics and message, referencing the lengthy and ongoing struggle for human dignity, of which the elder bluesman can say much from personal experience.
Rush pulls off serious numbers such as “How Long” masterfully but, for the remainder of the set, he returns to the bawdy blues comedy where, as a performer, he appears most natural and comfortable in his skin.
“Night Fishing” again showcases Rush as a true master of the classic blues art of humorous, unapologetic and not terribly subtle innuendo. Leading off with the fairly harmless “Night fishing, that’s when the catfish like to bite,” he ultimately progresses to the over the top, “Baby, you’ve got a good little catfish hole.” By this point, it should be clear that “Night Fishin’” has nothing to do with traditional angling. Musically, “Night Fishin’” is a traditional, if funky, blues. Lyrically, however, it abandons the classic AAB structure of blues for a more free-form spoken word narrative style.
With “Sue,” Rush tells the story of man reuniting with his high school crush … and how things go terribly, terribly awry.
Rush closes out his set with “I Got Three Problems,” another of one of his very popular numbers. This amusing and salacious number, effectively encapsulated by the lines,
I got three big problems, three big problems about to get me down.
I got three big problems: with my woman, my girlfriend and my wife.
Cosimo Matassa is a name that should be known by everyone with an interest in the history of American music but, too often, isn’t. In 1945, at the age of 18, Matassa opened a recording studio in the French Quarter of New Orleans. A decade later, he moved his operations to a larger facility, dubbed simply “Cosimo Studios.” That prosaic name, however, masks the magic that happened within its walls. As a studio owner, recording engineer and, occasionally, artist promoter, Matassa showed an incredible ear for talent. Over a career spanning four decades, he played a significant role in shaping the sounds of genres that include rock, soul, roots and blues—becoming especially associated with the “rock and soul” sound as well as what is fuzzily described as the “New Orleans Sound.” Over the years, artists including Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Professor Longhair, Little Richard, Guitar Slim and T-bone Walker passed through the doors of Matassa’s studio.
Beginning the tribute to Matassa is a longtime friend and collaborator, the pianist and vocalist Allen Toussaint. A living legend in American R&B, jazz and roots music, throughout his life Toussaint has also been an influential shaper and promoter of the New Orleans Sound.
Toussaint takes the stage wearing a magnificent patterned silver jacket and gracefully takes his seat behind the piano. To help deliver that trademark full, rich New Orleans sound, Toussaint has a large stage ensemble, including guitars, horns and percussion.
After treating the crowd to some festive New Orleans keyboard work and rollicking vocals, he moves into “Yes We Can,” a song written by Toussaint and recorded numerous times by numerous artists, most notably The Pointer Sisters in 1972. A message song, “Yes We Can” is a haunting plea for peace, justice and hard work to make a better tomorrow. Musically it is an uplifting song and Toussaint clearly needs no warm up to remind the audience why he is a living legend. His performance of “Yes We Can” is dominated by grand keyboard runs and buoyed by his full, rich NOLA voice.
This is followed with “Get Out of My Life, Woman,” a rootsy account of a love lost that refuses to go gently into that good night. Unlike much of Toussaint’s best known work, piano-driven New Orleans jazz and R&B numbers, “Get Out of My Life, Woman” shows heavy Delta blues influence. Beyond simply using the classic Delta AAB rhyme scheme, its imagery and vocabulary is classic Delta.
Get out of my eyes, teardrops. I gotta see my way around.
Get out of my eyes, teardrops. I gotta see my way around.
Get out of my life, heartache. I got heartaches by the pound
The effect of Toussaint’s warm, Big Easy voice with the cadence and diction of Delta blues is almost mesmerizing, a worthy performance in its own right. The number, however, does not ignore the rest of the ensemble on stage. “Get Out of My Life, Woman” is filled, from start to finish, with great horn flourishes and Toussaint’s trademark dulcet piano runs.
The band segues into the next song with a memorable guitar solo by Lil’ Buck, a classic “rock and soul” lick with contemporary sensibilities and arrangement. It sounds one part Memphis and one part Detroit but is, in reality, 100% Louisiana. Instrumentally, this number is one of the standouts not only of Toussaint’s set but of the entire festival. In addition to Sinegal’s string work, the Top Cats’ sax player gets off some great runs worthy of King Curtis (I’m thinking specifically of his performance on The Coaster’s “Charlie Brown”). Even Toussaint pushes himself above his typical bar, already set so high its almost invisible, with some wonderful high-end keyboard work. His fingers striking hard, leaving quick and filling the air with pure, perfect notes.
The final song of the set showcases the ensemble’s vocal and instrumental strength. Toussaint’s mellow, rich vocals are complimented by one of the Top Cats, the duet punctuated by horns, sax and guitar. All the while, Toussaint’s hands roll up and down the keyboard like a wave.
Before leaving the stage, Toussaint takes the microphone to say a few words about the man in whose honor they are all gathered for the evening, “Cosimo gave us a window to the world. We wanted to go through and he sent us through it.”
The tribute to Matassa continues with Robert Parker, frequently dubbed “Mr. Barefootin’” a reference to Parker’s most successful single. Parker’s formidable talent is uniquely his own but, like many artists on stage this evening, the gateway to much of his fame and success was opened by Cosimo Matassa.
A New Orleans native, early in life Parker fell in love with the saxophone. He played tenor sax in the Booker T. Washington High School band, where a veritable “Who’s Who” of New Orleans roots, jazz and R&B figures cut their teeth. He got his professional break with the late ’40s when no less a figure than NOLA piano master Professor Longhair took an interest in Parker, inviting him to join his band. Parker appears on the initial recording of Longhair’s classic, “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” In the following years, his sax backed many of the city’s most prominent artists including Dave Bartholomew, Fast Domino and Irma Thomas, all the while also serving as bandleader for the house band of New Orleans’ iconic Tijuana Club.
As his career progressed, Parker developed strong, pleasing vocals to accompany his powerful and distinctive sax work. By the late ’50s, he was experimenting with solo performance and fronting recorded sessions. His first taste of success was 1959s “All Night Long,” an upbeat instrumental number. In 1965, he signed with Nola, a small local label where he recorded “Barefootin’,” another up tempo number, this time with vocals, that was high-energy and highly danceable. When “Barefootin’” began to rack up significant sales and airplay around New Orleans, Nola contracted with Cosimo Matassa to get wider distribution for the song. “Barefootin’” went on to hit #7 on Billboard’s Top 100, #2 on its R&B charts and even #24 on the UK singles chart.
In 2013, the song returned to prominence when chemical company Behr used the tune in a commercial for its new outdoor deck coating — prompting an avalanche of internet inquiries about the song and the artist responsible.
While Parker’s later recordings never replicated the commercial success of “Barefootin’” he became a welcome presence on the R&B touring circuit, both nationally and internationally, as well as respected figure in the roots music community. In 2007, Parker’s contributions to music were recognized with induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Parker takes the stage at Howlin’ Wolf wearing a gorgeous plum suit. Grabbing the microphone, he launches into “Let’s Go Baby (Where the Action Is)” another of Parker’s better known numbers. As the foot-tapping, soul-tinged rhythm and blues number unfolds, Parker reveals a smooth voice perfectly suited for ’50s and ’60s R&B. Backed by magnificent horn flourishes from the band, Parker, with a magnetic stage presence, quickly gets the crowd dancing and swaying along with the music.
As the last notes of “Let’s Go Baby” die away, Parker launches into the number the audience knows is coming. He beckons the audience with the song’s fourth-wall breaking opening lines, allegedly borrowed from a Chitlin’ Circuit comic he met in Miami, “Everybody get on your feet … you make me nervous when you’re in your seat.” He explodes into song with the remainder of the first verse,
Take off your shoes and pat your feet
We’re Doing a Dance that Can’t be Beat
We’re Barefootin’, Barefootin’
For a song he has performed thousands of times, Parker still makes “Barefootin’” sound fresh, new and energetic. It deserves to be said that Parker does not move like a 71 year-old man. As “Barefootin’” unfolds, it is a joy to watch how easily he slides into some of his old fancy dance moves.
There is more Robert Parker and more great artists waiting in the wings to pay tribute to Cosimo Matassa. Unfortunately, as with any good multi-stage festival, painful decisions must often be made. As I make my way to den stage, I prepare to shift musical gears.
Jay Chevalier is one of the lost gems of American rockabilly. While hardly an unknown, his half-century plus of blisteringly good rockabilly music and clever, original songs should be more than sufficient to rank him alongside the best-known names of the genre. His native Louisiana, it should be said, has done much to give Chevalier the recognition he deserves. In 2006, the state legislature declared Chevalier, “Official Troubadour of the State of Louisiana,” recognition of the extent to which his songs both praise and chronicle the uniqueness of his state.
Born in 1936 in a rural section of Central Louisiana, Chevalier grew up immersed in the diverse musical sounds of that region. He formed his first band at the age of 18, shortly after enlisting in the Marine Corps. While still in the Marines, Chevalier’s band performed on country singer Jimmy Dean’s TV show. One of Chevalier’s first stops after completing his tour of duty was the recording studio, producing “Rock ‘n Roll Angel,” a top-notch bit of early rockabilly. Chevalier quickly gained state-wide prominence with a series of songs treating Pelican State topics, including “The Ballad of Earl K. Long,” about the eponymous colorful Louisiana politician, and “Billy Cannon,” which detailed the exploits of the award-winning Louisiana State University quarterback from the late ’50s.
This evening, Chevalier is supported by Michael Hurtt and His Haunted Hearts. Frequently contributing their talents to supporting the musicians at the Ponderosa Stomp, this is a band well qualified to sit in with Chevalier—having formed in 2003 with the mission of preserving and promoting New Orleans’ rockabilly and hillbilly musical legacy. Also joining the ensemble is pianist Armand St. Martin, one of New Orleans’ most accomplished roots piano players and a musician who shares Chevalier’s passion for celebrating Louisiana through song.
The full ensemble, Chevalier’s vocals, two amplified acoustic guitars, electric guitar, pedal steel, standing bass and piano, all played by energetic and exemplary musicians, is more than enough sound to fill the venue to the bursting point.
Having had the pleasure of seeing Chevalier perform on many occasions, his Ponderosa Stomp set is a distinctive one — a set list and style learning more strongly on western swing than Chevalier’s trademark rockabilly and hillbilly. Chevalier’s vocals throw on some dramatic flourishes more akin to the sounds that come from west of the Sabine River and even his accent comes across as more Big Thicket than Bayou. But Chevalier’s strong, rich roots voice seems every bit as home in western swing as it does with rockabilly and hillbilly.
The supporting instrumentation is fabulous and matches Chevalier’s shift in style. The guitars pepper melodies with strong, deft twang. St. Martin buoys the ensemble’s sound with fabulous pan-roots keyboard work. One of the instrumental standouts is Mitch Palmer, the Haunted Hearts’ pedal steel player. A studious-looking and well-dressed young man, who by no means fits the stereotype of steel players, his ambitious sounds are worthy of the Texas Playboys’ Leon McAuliffe.
But Chevalier doesn’t leave fans expecting his traditional repertoire completely hanging. He tosses some rockabilly and Louisiana-anchored songs into his set as well, including a rendition of Jimmy C. Newman’s “Big Mamou,” referencing the community at the heart of Louisiana Cajun Country. Chevalier’s Ponderosa Stomp version is delightful—equal parts Cajun, rockabilly and swamp rock. Instrumentally, it is one of the strongest numbers in a memorable set. The song features strong steel accents from Palmer and splendid piano crescendos from St. Martin, who is never happier than when playing music celebrating his home state.
One enjoyable addition to the set is a number in which Michael Hurtt assumes lead vocals while Chevalier focuses on his guitar work. Hurtt displays his twangy, well-textured “made for Honky Tonk” vocals while Chevalier’s fingers take the opportunity to remind the audience he’s not just known for his vocals.
While I admit I missed hearing Chevalier standards like “Billy Cannon,” it was also fascinating to see and hear this other side of him, showing us a range and depth that gives me additional appreciation for someone I already viewed as very good artist.
THE CREOLE ZYDECO FARMERS
Every so often, you bump into a band name that’s really more of a label or descriptor. “Creole Zydeco Farmers” tells you almost everything you need to know about this band. While a little younger than many Ponderosa Stomp acts, this four-piece combo from the area around Lafayette, Louisiana, specializes in epic strains of Creole and Zydeco music. And, yes, they really are farmers.
I said the name tells you almost everything you need to know. What did I leave out? The music is awesome. In recent years, there have been many attempts to contemporize Creole and Zydeco sounds, but none have done it better than the Creole Zydeco Farmers. The secret of their success is moderation. Yes, their performance style reflects modern conventions and the rhythm makes some obvious nods to rock and R&B. And, yes, their lyrics segue back and forth between English and the traditional Creole French. But, at the end of the day, the Creole Zydeco Farmers’ focus is on the accordion and washboard-driven “good times” sound at the heart of their genres. Even serious numbers such as their rendition of Little Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Makin’ Love” have an upbeat and utterly danceable delivery.
In keeping with the Stomp’s general aesthetic, the Creole Zydeco Farmers’ performance this evening is more traditional than their typical offering. Accordion and washboard are even more in the limelight, the bass guitar more sedate, hanging back and allowing the washboard to drive percussion. Even their set list draws heavily on their more traditional numbers, including a strongly Creole version of “Jambalaya,” originally sung by Hank Williams Sr., but having become a pan-Louisiana roots anthem.
At its heart, Zydeco is party music. When rendered by masters such as the Creole Zydeco Farmers, the audience is quickly caught up and swept away by the vibe. By the end of the first song, the audience is shouting and dancing along with the band. Midway through the set, taking the crowd’s enthusiasm up a notch, their washboard player jumps off stage and begins dancing with audience members (even this music journalist had a hard time staying still).
After enjoying Jay Chevalier and The Creole Zydeco Farmers, I rush back to the main stage where the Cosimo Matassa tribute is still unfolding with a blitzkrieg of performances, some as short as five minutes others as long as fifteen, by a diverse roster of other artists affiliated with Matassa’s studio.
Al “Carnival Time” Johnson has been a fixture of the New Orleans R&B scene since his teenage years in the city’s Ninth Ward. While Johnson has a solid recording career and is top-notch showman, one song in particular has earned him a permanent place in his city’s rich musical legacy. Johnson’s 1960 release “Carnival Time” has become part of New Orleans’ obligatory Marti Gras soundtrack.
Starting out on trumpet, a gift from his father, Johnson quickly gravitated to piano. Johnson cut his first record at the age of 16 for local label Aladdin Records. Switching to the Ron label, Johnson recorded several solid New Orleans R&B songs at Matassa’s studio, reaching his pinnacle with “Carnival Time.”
Drafted in the army, Johnson returned to New Orleans in 1964 only to find he had lost royalty rights to many of his songs, including “Carnival Time.” After more than three decades of legal battles, “Carnival Time” Johnson finally had his rights to “Carnival Time” restored in 1999. Reflecting the spirit of his city, through good times and bad, Johnson has continued to perform … and party. In recent years, he has enjoyed something of a renaissance, putting out three albums over the past decade.
Johnson takes the Howlin’ Wolf stage in an elegant black suit and white page-boy cap. Joining his performance as dancers and backup vocalists are two special guests: Tee-Eva, “The Praline Queen of New Orleans,” local personality and (ask any Big Easy resident) maker of the finest pralines on the planet, as well as one of New Orleans’ “baby doll dancers.”
Johnson’s opens with (what else?) “Carnival Time.” It is a bombastic, joyous tune that straddles the line between Dixieland and R&B. It’s easy to understand why “Carnival Time” has become synonymous with Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In addition to the obvious thematic relevance, the song’s rapid pace, lively horn flourishes and Johnson’s uplifting vocals, with a distinct and unusual cadence, practically beg troubles to melt away.
Caught up in the happy vibe of “Carnival Time” it is easy to miss something about the song. Musically, it is a very intricate and challenging piece—with lots of tempo changes and parts that demand the very best from each of the instrumentalists. But, for most people in the venue, this is, at best, an afterthought. As he belts it out, everyone, Johnson, his dancers, the band … and the whole audience, is swaying to the music.
Throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Louisiana was home to a lively garage rock scene that still, sadly, has not gotten its due. Case in point are Earl Stanley and The Stereos. By the time he founded the stereos in the early ’60s, Stanley had already cut his chops founding or playing with a variety of gritty, garagey New Orleans combos such as The Loafers, Nighthawks, The Skylines and Spades. Focusing on strings and generally leaving vocals to other band members, in all his various incarnations Stanley delivered raw, glorious American garage rock.
In keeping with tradition, Stanley offers an instrumental set of elaborate picking and furious runs on his electric guitar. His string work is wonderful to watch, as full of primal vitality and beautiful grit as it was 50 years ago. Listening to his guitar work, it is easy to hear how garage rock guitar, once considered an eccentric “niche” sound, has been broadly absorbed into today’s rock music. To listen to Stanley’s work, at the work of other great garage rock guitarists, is to experience the foundation for everything from punk to alternative to prog rock.
For half a century, G.G. Shinn has occupied an unusual and delightful musical nexus point at the intersection of swamp pop and blue-eyed soul. Known for his beautiful, swoon-inducing vocals and mean trumpet work, Shinn was a mainstay of swamp pop combo The Fabulous Boogie Boys. In the ’60s, Shinn founded his own band, The Roller Coasters, and began to solidify a reputation not only as a great musician but as an entertainer par excellence. He later became a popular entertainer at venues in Las Vegas and Reno before moving on to Los Angeles to further his recording career. Now back at home in Louisiana, Shinn continues to perform regularly, entertaining everywhere he goes.
As part of his role as showman and entertainer, Shinn developed a reputation as something of a dandy, known for his extravagant yet highly fashionable attire. His appearance at the Ponderosa Stomp does not disappoint—as he dons a purple jacket (that appears to made of crushed velvet), tight black pants, white collared shirt and white silk handkerchief immaculately folded into his jacket pocket.
Shinn treats the audience to a three song set covering the range of his career, revealing a voice that is both dulcet and dynamite. Fusing soul, swamp pop and rock in a mixture that is one part Roy Head and one part Tony Curtis with just a dash of Bill Haley
Tony Owens exemplifies the positive impact the Ponderosa Stomp can have for artists. When Owens took the stage at the 6th annual Stomp in 2007, it was the first time he had performed in many years. Back at the festival in 2011, the intervening four years have seen something of a revival of interest in Owens’ work.
Owens is a product of both sides of the sacred/secular divide in roots music. His mother sung in the church choir while his father played local clubs and juke joints. As such, Owens grew up strongly rooted in both blues and gospel. He drew upon elements of both in developing his passionate, full-voiced singing style ideal for the “tears and heartbreak” school of southern soul music.
Although Owens cut less than two dozen sides, many of them in sessions at Matassa’s studios, in a recording career spanning a quarter century, his discography includes several superb numbers, including the soul/funk “Do What You Wanna Do” as well as the emotionally raw and intense soul ballads “Confessin’ a Feelin’” and “I Got Soul.” Owens was also a highly respected and much sought-after performer in and around New Orleans.
Unfortunately, in the arguably over-populated and viciously competitive soul scene of the ’60s and ’70s, for an artist to get regional, much less national, recognition took a rare combination of talent, connections and luck. Frustrated with losing the limelight to artists no more talented than he, Owens gradually withdrew from performing before the Ponderosa Stomp coaxed the lost soul master back onto stage.
Returning to the Ponderosa Stomp stage in 2011, Owens exudes vitality as a performer— broad shouldered, strong jawed and radiating intensity even before singing his first note. Continuing the delightfully audacious attire of many artists in the Cosimo Matassa tribute, Owens dons and white checked suit accented by a silver handkerchief and silver buttons on his shirt and jacket.
Grabbing the microphone, Owens’ vocals and stage presence give no evidence of his lengthy sabbatical from the stage. His short set pulls his willing, almost pliant, audience through a selection of his strongest songs, delivering high-volume, high-energy soul music full of pining high-notes and full-throated growls.
The late ’60s and early ’70s were a transitional era in American music, as traditional southern soul began to give way to the new funk sound spreading out of America’s urban areas. At that time, straddling and mastering both genres were David Batiste and the Gladiators (sometimes cited as David Batiste and the Soul Gladiators). Under the leadership of band director and front man, David Batiste, the Gladiators, who consisted largely of Batiste’s brothers, emerged as not only top-notch musicians but as one of New Orleans’ most sought after show bands.
Recorded at Matassa’s studios, the Gladiator’s breakthrough hit was “Funky Soul,” a beautifully composed and arranged two-part exploration of the essence of the funk/soul sound.
While Batiste and his brothers have continued to be active musically, they have become increasingly focused on giving back to the community. Most notably, the family which, even in New Orleans, stands out for its musical talent has established the Batiste Cultural Arts Academy, providing the city’s young people with a solid grounding in music and performance.
Once again, the Matassa Tribute forces this music journalist into the unfamiliar territory of fashionista as Batiste dons one of the most striking outfits of the evening—crimson jacket, patterned vest and tie with a gold tie pin and coal black pants.
Batiste opens with a selection of Gladiator’s songs. A flamboyant stage personality with great crowd interaction, even over the course of short set, he works the audience into to a frenzy. In addition to his action-packed vocal work, Batiste pays a white keytar, giving the set the heavy keyboard/electric organ sound that drives so much of classic funk. Among his excellent supporting musicians is a special guest, drummer Ryan Batiste, David’s son and a highly regarded musician in his own right.
Closing his set, Batiste treats the audience to both parts of “Funky Soul.” Part One is entirely instrumental, while Part Two throws into the mix some spoken-word banter with the audience. Impressively, Batiste and his band manage to pack a Bar-Kays quality funk sound into a much smaller group as they belt out the pure, unadulterated strains of old school funk building into a glorious string, keys and drums crescendo.
With his close-cropped hair, chunky glasses, boy-next-door charm, fondness for lovelorn ballads and rock-crooner vocals, Jivin’ Gene was the Buddy Holly of swamp pop. While swamp pop is a genre almost universally associated with Louisiana, Gene Bourgeois was born in Port Arthur, Texas (Which many people, it should be said, would argue is culturally and musically part of Louisiana, whatever maps may say). A musical prodigy, Bourgeois taught himself to play guitar and by 17 was playing locally with a band known as The Saints. Unlike many roots artists, who seem to have penchant for leaving their early collaborators once they get a taste of success, this was this band with whom Gene was associated with for the majority of his career, ultimately evolving into Jivin’ Gene and the Jokers.
The band scored hits with two early recordings, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” and “Going Out With the Tide.” As audiences responded to Gene’s impassioned crooning and the Joker’s languid swamp pop backbeats, the combo began touring and receiving airplay in an increasingly wide area. The band also gained several mentors and impresarios, including Disc Jockey Alan Freed. Unfortunately, when Freed’s career was ended by the Payola Scandal in the early ’60s, several younger acts with which he was associated, including the Jokers, found their prospects tarnished. With opportunities drying up, Jivin’ Gene left music for almost two decades.
“Rediscovered” in the 80s, a renewed interest in roots genres coaxed Gene back into actively performing, becoming a standard bearer and spokesperson for the swamp pop revival, returning to stage and the recording studio.
By the standards of many of the evening’s artists, Jivin’ Gene’s attire is positive sedate, a simple black suit and stripped shirt accented with a black trilby hat. But his music is anything but sedate. At the microphone, Gene’s voice no longer has that light, sweet “teen idol” quality that can be heard on his earliest records. But in its place is something at least as wonderful—the grit and fire of a veteran performer and master musician. This subtle shift has the effect of spinning his music from pure swamp pop towards the direction of swamp rock. This makes for a performance that is at once familiar and unexpected.
It is also a poignant illustration of what is important about the Ponderosa Stomp, and the roots revival more generally — it is a time machine and a celebration of America’s musical roots, but it is not a museum. To expect (even to crave, as I suspect some roots fans do) that these musicians would cease to evolve is not only unrealistic, it also does them a tremendous disservice as artists. Jivin’ Gene’s set is a perfect example of why we should not hope for such stasis. The contemporary Jivin’ Gene gives the Ponderosa Stomp audience a set with a character and depth that his 20 year-old analogue could barely imagine.
With the end of Jivin’ Gene’s set, and my mind filled with these thoughts, it seems a perfect opportunity to wrap-up my coverage for Day One. There is still one more set, a main stage performance by the Creole Zydeco Farmers. But, having already covered them in the more intimate setting of the den stage, I am content to break-off a little early. Day Two of the Ponderosa Stomp will be, if anything, even more ambitious, demanding and impressive than Day One and I will need every minute of rest I can get.