STOMPIN’ THROUGH HISTORY:
The Ponderosa Stomp and America’s Musical Legacy
As the second night of America’s premier annual roots music festival, The Ponderosa Stomp, kicks off at the House of Blues in New Orleans, I am excited by two things. First is the Stomp’s line-up itself. While Day One focused strongly on Cajun, Swamp Pop, and Rockabilly, Day Two places special focus on country, blues, and golden age rock and roll (with another generous helping of rockabilly). The second exciting development is the NOLA weather, cooler and much less humid that the first night (which proved to be rather taxing for this writer).
LIL’ BUCK SINEGAL
The second evening of the festival begins with Lil’ Buck Sinegal on the main stage. Sinegal is at the top of the current crop of Louisiana blues guitar slingers and his resume reads like a “who’s who” of Louisiana roots music. First coming to America’s attention as a session guitarist for the iconic Excello label, Sinegal later backed Zydeco legend Clifton Chenier and Louisiana roots music Renaissance man Lil’ Bob. Sinegal has also been a successful front man in his own right, with influential blues guitar instrumental recordings like “Cat Scream” and “Monkey in a Sack” on the La Louisiane label.
For most of the evening, Sinegal will be settling into his familiar role as an inspiring supporting musician. His band, the Top Cats, backs a variety of blues, soul, R&B, and rock legends performing at The Stomp. Before those showcases begin, however, Lil’ Buck and the Top Cats warm up the crowd with some heavy hitting music of their own.
Launching into his short set, Sinegal brings a smart, hip, calm, almost casual demeanor to his playing. His music is a blend of warm, down-home Swamp blues ambiance and crisp, sharp technical work that hints at the electric blues sound of Chicago. Whatever Windy City hints lurk in his music, however, Singegal’s masterful slide guitar work lets us know that his roots and heart lie further south in the bayou.
The first showcased artist of the evening is Wallace Johnson, a man with deep ties to Louisiana. Johnson was born in Napoleonville in 1937 and raised on the storied Martin Plantation. Originally in love with Gospel music, in 1950, Johnson witnessed a performance by blues/R&B/proto-rock artist Roy Brown. After watching Brown in action, Johnson was hooked on newer, faster sounds. Johnson enjoyed a regional hit with “Clap Your Hands” and his regional singles have earned him a persistent following. Growing into a musical force in South Louisiana, Johnson opening for traveling acts like Ike and Tina Turner as well as Bobby Blue Bland.
After lackluster efforts to take his career to the next level, Johnson left music for several years, supporting his family by driving a truck and working in a lumber yard. Fortunately, Johnson came to the attention of musician/producer Allen Toussaint, who was impressed both with Johnson’s musical abilities and his persistence. In addition to being featured on several compilation CDs, in 1996 Johnson released his first full length album, “Whoever’s Thrilling You,” which includes a number of memorable blues, R&B, and soul numbers.
Johnson takes the stage looking very dapper and serious in slacks, sport coat, nice tie, and wire-rimmed glasses. His almost formal appearance is belied by his friendly demeanor between songs and the focused power of his bluesy vocals during them. From his first notes, Johnson looks like a show band veteran, clutching the microphone tightly in the right hand, gesturing dramatically with the left – pointing and wagging his finger at the audience.
His second song is a classic electric blues, “Got to Write My Baby a Letter.” The number features excellent blues guitar accompaniment provided by Sinegal while the Top Cats lay down a powerful blues horn line with two tenor saxes and trumpet as well as a measured but flawless rhythm line.
Johnson, however, remains the show-stealer, delivering a masterfully engaging performance. Looking at the audience, seeking them out, making eye contact, he creates the impression he is interacting with each person individually. At the same time, he punctuates his music with dramatic expressions and explosive gestures.
He begins his third number by addressing the audience. “If you’ve ever had a problem with your woman,” Johnson says, “You may not know what it is, but you know something is wrong.” This leads into “Something is wrong,” one of Johnson’s classics – a slow, almost dirge-like blues number, built with a subtle edge electric funk provided by Sinegal.
Johnson has a good blues voice, deep and resonant, with a special knack for packing power into long, drawn out notes. At the same time, his voice is clear and precise – almost percussive rather than melodic – reminding one more of a veteran Chicago R&B musician than a wizened Delta blues man. Delightfully, he also puts some credible scat (sadly, an almost extinct art form) into some of his numbers.
Willie West has belting out soul, blues, and R&B vocals Louisiana style for fifty years. As a young man, West immersed himself in the music of BB King, Bobby Blue Bland, and Guitar Slim, often hanging around outside the famous Sugar Bowl Club in Thibodaux, Louisiana, hoping to see or hear his idols play. Inspired to form his own band, Willie and the Sharks, he quickly found success on the local music scene. His second record, “It’s No Use to Try,” brought regional fame, and West went on to open for blues powerhouses like Jimmy Reed and Freddy King while also playing with the likes of Deacon John, The Neville Brothers, and Bobby Love.
Willie West neither move nor sings like someone who has a half-century career behind him. He sweeps into the spotlight backed by a crescendo of guitar work from Lil’ Buck and the Top Cats. As West strides and stomps across the stage, he fires off a booming baritone voice of great intensity. The vocals of his first song mix blues with old school R&B sounds. The brassy emotion of West’s voice is matched by dramatic trumpet flourishes.
With his second number, West reveals himself a performer in the finest show band tradition: leaning over the stage, singing directly to the front row in the audience, his face contorted in passion as his sings – the audience instinctively clapping along with the beat.
West’s third song is “(Baby Don’t You Want) A Man Like Me,” a song made famous by B.B. King. The tone of the piece is set by Sinegal, who shows off some fancy licks as he plucks out a driven, funky guitar line. The Top Cat’s drummer also shines, getting off some very ambitious percussion. Great blues piano and trumpet bursts add to the instrumental energy buoying West’s dynamic vocals.
The fourth item in West’s set is “Why do you treat me that way.” It is an old school R&B number, full of melancholy laments of love gone awry. This is followed by one of West’s most popular numbers, “It’s No Use to Try.” Another anthem of unrequited love, West packs his voice full of tragedy and pathos. His final number (the name of which I did not catch) takes West’s sound closer to present day — invoking the funk and soul of Stax Records more than the rootsy strains of Delta R&B.
After Willie West, the Ponderosa Stomp audience enjoys an unexpected treat, a special appearance by Louisiana soul man Bobby Allen. Although enjoying some broader recognition for the cult classic “Soul Chicken” and the holiday tune “Please, Santa, Bring My Baby Back,” for those in know, Allen is an indispensible fixture of the Louisiana soul scene.
Another excellent showman, Allen shuffles and boogies across the stage while belting out classic blues and soul vocals delivered with a bit of boogie-woogie flair. In addition to the obligatory high-energy performance of “Soul Chicken,” he also treats the audience to a bluesy rendition of “Woman, whatcha gonna do?”
LIL’ BUCK SINEGAL
After Bobby Allen’s special appearance, Lil’ Buck Sinegal again takes center stage, entertaining the crowd while the stage crew sets up for the next act. This time, Sinegal adds vocals to his guitar playing.
Sinegal is a first rate supporting musician who has mastered the delicate balancing act of packaging world-class blues guitar lines in a way that carries along a front man without ever overpowering him or stealing his thunder. With the spotlight firmly on him, however, Sinegal pulls out all the stops. Whether it’s slow but perfectly pitched blues runs or fast-paced and ambitious playing that is full of fury and fire, Senegal takes his instrumentation to guitar virtuoso levels.
Even throughout his most energetic guitar histrionics and intricate finger work, Sinegal’s posture is relaxed, his demeanor almost casual as he watches the magic happening on his strings. Only occasionally, as he grasps the microphone, seeming to make love to it as he sings, does an emotional intensity in line with his musical intensity surface. And, after listening to his vocals, it becomes clear that, for a blues guitarist, Sinegal is packing an impressive set of pipes.
A master of Swamp Blues harmonica who has lent his talents as a session musician (which also includes guitar and vocals) to almost every roots genre imaginable, Lazy Lester is a frequent guest at the Ponderosa Stomp and invariably a crowd pleaser. In addition to his formidable talents as a musician, he is also, something of a patron saint to The Stomp. The event takes its name from a 1966 Lester release on the Excello label.
On his first number, Lester alternates strong harmonica leads with Sinegal’s guitar, delivering blues harp solos in an energetic tidal wave. His second number is one of Lester’s first hits, 1958’s “Sugar Coated Love.” In addition to harmonica, Lester supplies the song’s vocals, revealing a warm, gravely, and distinctive voice. This is followed by another mixed harp/vocal number – slow and sweet, driven forward by sonorous harmonica playing.
While famous for his swamp blues, Lester’s first musical love is country. His true musical idols are the likes of Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams, Sr. For many years, however, Lester’s country passions were held hostage to the racism then inherent in the music industry. While labels would often have Lester work with country musicians to help them learn their parts ahead of recording sessions — when it came to recording country on his own, those same labels often told him, “White people play country, black people play blues.”
On the fourth song of his set, Lester showcases his versatility on the harmonica and his passion for country, with a sound that blurs the line between blues and old-school southern country.
Lester concludes with “Down Here in Prison,” part of the classic tradition of prison songs in Delta and Swamp Blues.
As final coda on Lazy Lester, at The Ponderosa Stomp, rumors were flying that Lazy Lester had finally gotten his wish and that, in late 2010 or early 2011, he would be going into the studio to record an album of country music. Stay tuned, if that proves true, you’ll be reading a lot more about it right here.
Elvis Presley walked into Sun Records and cut his first disc in 1954. Roy Head landed his first recording contract in 1958. There are more than a few music historians and musicians who feel that, if those dates had been reversed, the world would never have heard of Elvis Presley.
Of course this scenario ignores that fact that Head was 13 years old when Elvis began recording for Sun. It is, nevertheless, difficult to understand why Head never achieved admission to that same pantheon of early rock and country gods that includes the likes of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, etc. It is difficult to say whether Head does rockabilly with a velvety soul and R&B edge or whether he does soul with pounding rockabilly energy – but, whatever it is, it is as uniquely his own as it is distinctively irresistible.
Seeing Roy Head on stage for the first time is more akin to witnessing a force of nature than watching an artist perform. That is as true in 2010 as it has ever been. Even at the age of 69, his sturdy, slightly bow-legged frame and penchant for outrageous attire make him a commanding stage presence.
Exploding onto the Ponderosa Stomp stage in skin-tight blue jeans and a black and silver patterned shirt that was a gift from the great Bo Diddley, Head begins roaring soulful rockabilly into the microphone as he launches into the trademark frenetic stage show that makes him a delight for audiences and a nightmare for photographers. Even when he’s staying in one place, Head’s body is in such constant motion that it’s impossible to get a good shot.
On stage, Head stomps and struts, gyrates, and shakes his hips in manner that might have made Elvis uncomfortable (to say nothing of Ed Sullivan). He makes sweeping gestures with his hands and plays ‘walk the dog’ with the microphone stand in the manner of a young James Brown – and that’s just the first 15 seconds of his opening number.
As Head sings, he appears to be throwing (barely) controlled screams into the microphone, his features contorted into a rictus of passion. The sound that actually comes out, however, is a powerful, smooth, velvety baritone packed with as much soul as rock and roll (really driving the Elvis comparison home), punctuated by occasional James Brown-style monosyllabic guttural exclamations and wild screams.
Head’s set is dominated by his most notable hits, such as the 1965 “Treat Her Right,” which rocketed to #2 on the US charts – blocked from the top spot only by the unfortunate coincidence of being released the same month as The Beatles “Yesterday.” A high energy soul-rock number exhorting men to treat their women right, even by standards of the sixties “Treat Her Right” is a bit on the explicit side, with such thinly transparent lyrics as “If you want a little lovin’, you gotta start real slow” and “Practice my method – just as hard as you can.”
His set also included a few covers, such as his rendition of Little Richard’s immortal golden age rock classic, “Lucille.” Head’s “Lucille” is, if anything, even faster and more bombastic that Richard’s version – no mean feat to achieve.
Head’s energy is such that, even after he withdraws from the stage, his energy seems to palpably linger behind – taking a few minutes to completely dissipate. In the same way, it takes time for his screaming yet velvety vocals to quit ringing in your ears and, when they finally fade away, it is always with a tinge of regret.
Following Roy Head, the Stomp Organizers announced that there would be a special performance by an unannounced artist –- something that inevitably grabs a music lover’s attention.
The name “Ronnie Spector” may mean comparatively little to many people. Even saying, “The lead singer of the Ronettes,” is likely to draw more blank stares than knowing nods. But sing a few bars from “Be My Baby” or “Baby, I love you,” and you will get almost universal recognition – even from those with only a passing interest in music.
Spector was in New Orleans to participate in the annual music history conference (held in conjunction with the Ponderosa Stomp). In addition to voicing some of the most instantly recognizable hits of the golden age of rock and roll, the Ronettes are noteworthy for being one the first influential all-girl groups of rock as well as one of the first high profile multiethnic groups. The Ronettes were produced by Phil Spector, to whom Ronnie was married for 6 years in the late 60s and early 70s – and Ronnie’s account of her marriage is darkly fascinating narrative, but beyond the scope of this article.
Spector’s set was brief, focusing only her best known number, “Baby, I love you,” and the song that started it all for her, “Be My Baby.” Many musicians at The Stomp can be talked about as possessing power, prowess, and skill similar to what they displayed at the peak of their careers. In Spector’s case, however, her invulnerability to the passage of time is uncanny, even eerie. Listening to her on the Ponderosa Stomp stage as she sings the hits of nearly 50 years ago, one could just as easily be listening to her original 45 rpms. And, to be honest, at 67 years old – she still looks fabulous.
Homer Henderson was much in evidence at the Ponderosa Stomp as a guitar player for Eve and the Exiles, one of The Stomp’s formidable supporting bands. Henderson, however, is also a solo artist and, on the second night of The Stomp, played a set showcasing his unique country-influenced musical vision as well as strange (and strangely compelling) skills as a storyteller.
He has been compared to a county music version of Weird Al Yankovic in his gift for parody and irreverent treatment of subjects. But that comparison ignores a certain darkness to much of Henderson’s work, largely absent from Yankovic. He is also a musician in the finest “one man band” tradition of country music, supplying vocals, playing guitar, and working a pedal drum kit all at the same time.
One of his most distinct numbers is, “Lee Harvey was a Friend of Mine,” a down tempo number that blends country music with conspiracy theory. Consider:
He used to take me fishing all the time
He used to throw the ball to me when I was just a kid.
They say he shot the president,
I don’t think he did.
While a cover, Henderson’s musical storytelling gifts breathes new life into the song, turning it into a kind of Bonnie and Clyde-esque folk ballad rehabilitating, or at least exonerating, an anti-hero.
“Bo Diddley’s a Gun Slinger” blends classic Texas country with the Delta Rock of the song’s namesake into a delightful country-rock number that pays homage to the elder rocker. The fast paced number also provides Henderson the opportunity to show off his guitar prowess in a way his more traditional, slower country numbers do not – as he beautifully executes some ambitious country-rock riffs.
He follows with a number, which I believe is called “Free.” A dramatic departure from the previous songs in his set, Henderson trades country and roots aesthetic sensibilities for an instrumental flight of fancy heavy on melodic classic rock riffs. As the song progresses, it begins pushing the boundaries of prog rock or even space rock in a way that would make Pink Floyd or Joe Satriani proud. While it might not appeal to dyed-in-the-wool roots fans, it underscores that Henderson’s approach to music is driven by a distinct personal vision and should make him a person of interest to music fans who love electric guitar in all its incarnations.
Henderson finishes his set with a rendition of a lesser known Elvis number, “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care).” While another cover, it is also well suited to Henderson’s quirky, story teller persona. However, he leaves little doubt about the song’s origins, injecting a healthy dose of the King into his vocals.
GUITAR LIGHNIN’ LEE
Guitar Lightnin’ Lee has earned his blues stripes, coming up through the musical school of hard knocks in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Along the way, he put in time on the Chicago and West Coast blues scenes, developing a style that is at once eclectic and purely blues. Over the course of his career, he’s played with some of the greats of Louisiana music like Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe, and Little Freddie King. Interestingly for a blues purist, Lee packs his own backing band with younger roots rocker, creating a high energy blues-fusion sound.
In a white cowboy hat, black boots, and black shirt with gold embroidery, Lee opens his set with, “I Told You (I Adore You).” The number is delivered with steady, perfect blues guitar and vocals awash in a soft Louisiana drawl that places the geography of both song and singer. As if guitar and vocals weren’t enough, he also manages to fit some mean harmonica playing into piece.
His second number is a song that Lee wrote during his time in Los Angeles, about, as he puts it “the LA ladies.” Katy Perry can talk about “California Gurls” all she wants — Lee’s take on the matter is one that is much more in the classic femme fatale, “she done me wrong” mold. Appropriately for the subject matter, Lee’s guitar playing packs a bit more of the polished West Coast blues sound than heard on his first number.
His third piece is “If You Don’t Love Me,” a slow blues song told from the perspective of a spurned lover. This is followed by a song heavy on the fast piano lines, giving it an uplifting, danceable “good times” feel. It’s an excellent example of Louisiana music at its finest: heavy on the swamp blues, with a healthy spicing of rock, country, and even Cajun seasoning. Afterwards, Lee returns to a purer blues mold with “You Ran Off and Left Me.”
During his time in Chicago, Lee became a protégé of the great Jimmie Reed though, even by Lee’s own account, at times it could be a love-hate relationship. Lee pays homage to his teacher by closing out the set with a Jimmie Reed number.
ROY LONEY & CYRIL JORDAN
Even by Ponderosa Stomp standards, Roy Loney and Cyril Jordan are difficult artists to nail down in a few pithy sentences. Together, they were the driving force behind the seminal San Francisco rock outfit, The Flamin’ Groovies. Tonight, backed by Brooklyn garage-rock band, the A-bones, Loney and Jordan reunited to bring The Groovies’ distinct and innovative blend of rock styles to the Ponderosa Stomp crowd.
Peaking in popularity in the late 60s and early 70s, the Groovies are musician’s musicians – always more celebrated among their fellow artists and cognoscenti than among the public at large. The band was also an anomaly in being, simultaneously, both before and ahead of their time. Their sound is strongly rooted in the golden age rock which the music industry already viewed as passé in Groovie’s heyday — while at the same time anticipating much of the future sound of power pop and even punk.
Loney and Jordan remain energetic performers. This is especially true of Loney, who screams into the microphone with a burning intensity in his eyes – occasionally segueing into howls or high pitched wails. No fancy stage antics are required to give him enormous presence.
After almost four decades of evolution in popular music, it is remarkable that The Groovies’ sound is still so singular, so unlike anything else. It’s the kind of performance that sends a music writer fumbling for words that will approximate what he hears on stage. In their approach to their music, especially vocal conventions, guitar work, and use of percussion, it is possible to hear the strong influence of surf music as well as some of the earliest foundations of what would one day become punk.
Loney and Jordan’s set is dominated by Flamin’ Groovies’ best known numbers. At one point, they are joined by Lazy Lester on guitar and harmonica, lending the Groovies’ one of Lester’s obligatory amazing harp solos.
Previously to hearing them at The Ponderosa Stomp, I had not given much attention to The Groovies’ lyrics. It was interesting to discover that the same complex, difficult to nail-down vision of their music also applies to their lyrics.
“Teenage Head,” one of The Groovies’ most successful numbers, highlights the singularity of both their sound and their lyrics. A song of teenage rebellion, “Teenage Head” blends the sound of a 1950s teen misfit song with the intensity of a troubled youth anthem of later decades. Lyrically, it is also an amalgam. Some lines invoke innocent golden age rock and roll, “I’m a monster, got a revved up teenage head. Teenage monster – California born and bred.” Others deliver surprisingly explicit turns of phrase which, again, anticipate early punk, “She’s a teenage love machine. She knows how to turn me on and get me high and get it on.” A few lines even reflect the darker, more introspective 1960s voice of a generation in rebellion, “I’m a child of atom bombs, rotten air, and Vietnams.”
Joe Clay was and is one of the superstars of Louisiana rockabilly. He still looks the part, wearing a white shirt and white blazer, the latter with a forest of small rhinestones adorning the oversized collar — all crowned with a dapper coif of silver hair.
Clay’s discography is one that explores vital themes of life in early rockabilly culture, such as, “Don’t Mess With My Ducktail.” One of his best known and most popular recordings, it is little surprise that Clay opens his set with “Ducktail.”His voice is upper-range tenor and full of twang – a voice from many decades ago when rockabilly cleaved closely to its country roots.
His second number is another early hit, “Sixteen Chicks,” a song celebrating what could best be described as “a good problem to have.” Getting into the swing of his second number, Clay really starts to come alive, moving and jumping around the stage as he shakes his hips to punctuate his slashing vocals.
In addition to his tone and pitch, the rhythm of Clay’s vocals is also distinctive. He seems to spit out each syllable individually – giving his singing a memorable, hypnotic cadence and great energy.
Like many Ponderosa Stomp performers, Clay manages to mix an energetic stage performance with a warm, low key attitude as a performer. The vast majority of Stomp artists are nearer to the end of their careers, and their lives, than to the beginning. This seems to encourage a welcome lack of pretense on the part of its artists – which, for a writer or fan jaded by the egos of many contemporary artists, may be one of this festival’s most appealing aspects.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was almost impossible to find a country music artist who wasn’t recording truckin’ songs. Bakersfield, California’s Red Simpson was doing it long before most Americans had ever heard of Smokey or The Bandit. And he kept doing it long after those terms became ironic pop culture references. His considerable discography is composed almost exclusively of trucking songs. What Homer is to Greek epic poetry, Red Simpson is to paeans about America’s truckers.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that, clad in blue jeans and a faded t-shirt, wearing a red baseball cap, and sporting a grizzled gray beard and good-natured smile, Simpson looks the way people want a truck driver to look.
His opening number is “Truck Drivin’ Man”, one of the country classics of the truckin’ genre. As he sings, Simpson strums his electric guitar, but his emphasis is clearly on the vocals. And rightly so, there is no shortage of good country guitar players in the world —but only one man who can make even the most pretentious of roots music critics fall in love with trucks.
His second song is “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves,” a truck-noir song about the dangers and illicit liaisons of life on the road. Red’s guitar playing on “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” is more twing than twang. Indeed, if one can tune-out Red’s distinctively country vocals and lyrics (though I don’t know why someone would want to), instrumentally, it would be easy to imagine this song as a surf number.
“Big Mack”, a humorous number, is a rolling, honky-tonk style song about a hard-bitten veteran trucker who finally meets his match in a truck stop diner waitress … and gets so flustered he can’t even order, (“Make my eggs a medium rare, over easy with my steak.”) I won’t ruin the surprise of how Big Mack’s impromptu courtship ends – but suffice it to say that waitress finds herself similarly tongue-tied. (“I’ve already buttered your coffee, the toast is in your cup.”)
His fourth song is “Nitro Express” a tale about a trucker who is hauling a load of nitroglycerine when his breaks go out on the downward grade of a high mountain pass. There is a surprisingly vivid, hair-raising, edge-of-your-seat quality to the song as Simpson spins his story of a driver trying to stop his truck before careering into the tiny village at the foot on the mountains.
Far from being another cookie-cutter trucking anthem, “Roll, Truck, Roll” is a somber, reflective, almost introspective song about missing the one you love while trying to earn a living on the road (“Roll truck roll, take me to my baby, I’m tired of being alone”) and the troubles at home that can result from so much time away (“Mama said little Danny’s not doing too good in school, Said he keeps talkin’ about his daddy that he hardly knows.”)
With “Runaway Truck,” Simpson kicks the tempo up a notch and adds a roaring peddle steel. As the name suggests, this is another “no air in the break lines” number. But, instead of an epic ballad about trying to save a small town, this song details the driver’s internal monologue as he tries to save his own life. Some roots fans insist that there are musicians have to be heard on vinyl to be fully appreciated. A similar principle is at work with Red Simpson. Listening to “Runaway Truck,” it is abundantly clear that if you’re not hearing him on 8-track cassette from the cab of an 18-wheeler – you’re not getting the full effect.
The seventh number is a double surprise for the audience. First, it is a new Red Simpson song. His set at the Ponderosa Stomp marked its first public performance. The second (arguably more shocking) surprise is that it has nothing to do with trucks. It is, however, a classic country song about the kind of courtship that looks better through beer goggles. Best of all, Simpson admits the song is autobiographical (you know you were hoping for it), inspired by a late night encounter at a swimming pool. The song makes it clear that Simpson’s gifts for storytelling, humor, and clever turns of phrase aren’t limited to the world of big rigs. How can true country fan resist lyrics like, “I’m going to drink some more until you’re pretty?”
The eighth song in his set is 1972’s, “Hello, I’m a Truck,” another ode to the adventures, victories, and defeats of the trucking life. But it is delivered with a twist — the song is told from the perspective of the truck rather than the driver. Much like “Roll, Truck, Roll,” this song reveals an introspective, reflective streak in Simpson’s storytelling, even against a background of energetic, pedal steel-driven rockabilly.
Simpson concludes his set with “The Highway Patrol,” a number that was later rerecorded by Junior Brown. It is the Brown version of this song that is better known and one gets the impression that may be a sore point for Simpson. Carried along by more glowing rockabilly sounds, in this final number, it is Smokey rather than The Bandit who takes center stage. But it is similar in its treatment, as Simpson provides a rich lyrical account of the joys, sorrows, glories, and dangers of life in the highway patrol.
Like elder bluesmen and old school punk rockers, Simpson is arguably doing more than preserving a genre of music — he is preserving a moment in American history. We still have truckers, of course, but the glory days when CBs and 8-tracks were king and when Burt Reynolds’ Bandit was America’s darling are long gone. Red Simpson is preserving both the music and the memory of that moment – and bless him for it.
Young Jessie is a revered fixture of America’s R&B scene with strong roots in 1950s Doo Wop music. In addition to an impressive solo career, Jessie came up playing with seminal Doo Wop group The Flairs and R&B rockers The Coasters. Jessie’s family tree also includes two interesting musical footnotes. Millions of people will be familiar with his brother, actor/musician DeWayne Jessie, from his role as Otis Day, front man for fictional R&B band Otis Day and The Knights, in the film “Animal House.” And, on his mother’s side, Jessie is descended from Blind Lemon Jefferson, legendary blues guitarist of the 1920s.
In a smart pinstriped suit and black fedora, Jessie looks like a veteran musician with long roots in both the West Coast and Chicago R&B scenes. He opens his set with “Don’t Know Why I love you,” an old rhythm and blues standard number that showcases Jessie’s deep, commanding voice — backed by an admirable and ambitious sax solo from supporting act Deke Dickenson and the Ecco-Fonics.
He follows up with the number that put Jessie on the map as a solo artist, 1954’s “I Smell a Rat.” It is a number that more plausibly belongs to early rock and roll than to R&B, with vocal and lyrical styling that invokes Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley as well as guitar work that is more Sun Records rock than Chicago R&B. With “I Smell a Rat,” Jessie also begins to truly come alive on stage – showing off some intricate and well executed footwork.
The third number of his set is his 1956 single, “Oochie Coochie.” Not to be confused with the Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters blues classic “Hoochie Coochie Man,” Jessie’s “Oochie Coochie” is another number rooted in the golden age rock and roll, with a dash of R&B flavoring. Its melody borders on boogie-woogie and, again, Jessie’s vocals are backed with great saxophone and guitar work.
“Oochie-Coochie” is followed by “Lonesome Desert,” the B-side of the original release of “I Smell a Rat.” While never one of Jessie’s more commercially successful numbers, musically it is a fascinating song. “Lonesome Desert” can be described as a Western song, a la Roy Rogers or Gene Autry, performed with the musical and lyrical conventions of early electric blues. It is hard to describe anything in music as truly novel, but hearing the lines “I’m on this lonesome desert, with nothing but cactus on both sides,” delivered in the AAB lyrical format of traditional blues comes as close as anything can. The original recording of “Lonesome Desert” also included backup vocals in a doo wop style that added a further layer of music complexity and makes it a “must listen” for the musical connoisseur.
With his fifth number, Jessie leaves his solo work behind and takes the audience back to his years with The Coasters, performing their 1957 hit “Young Blood.” Another oldies rock standard, delivered by Jessie with a slight R&B kick, “Young Blood” is a simple song, both musically and lyrically. But it is also built with catchy hooks and infectious backup vocals.
The Ponderosa Stomp version of “Young Blood” also includes a surprising Easter egg for the audience. In the original version, the saxophone playing is solid but not remarkable and deployed in a purely supporting role. In the hands of Ecco-Fonics
sax wizard, Ron Dziubla, the instrument moves front and center as he delivers sax lines that are both masterful and sublime – transforming this performance of “Young Blood” into something fundamentally different than the original.
Following “Young Blood,” Jessie returns to his solo discography with “Mary Lou.” This 1955 release on the Modern label is Jessie’s biggest hit and has been covered by musicians as diverse as rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins, classic rocker Steve Miller, and bluesy garage punk outfit The Oblivians. “Mary Lou” blends old school rock and roll with doo wop as Jessie pours out his tale of woe and warns listeners to beware of the eponymous Mary Lou.
Jessie concludes his performance with another of his solo hits, “Hit, Git, and Split,” a 1956 release, also on the Modern label. Like much of his set, “Hit, Git, and Split” hails from the golden age of rock and roll — with its energetic vocals, great rock guitar, heavy sax presence, and somewhat nonsensical lyrics (I still don’t know exactly what ‘Hit, Git, and Split’ means in this context).
There are legions of artists who are instantly recognizable by their voices: Elvis, Willie Nelson, and B.B. King, to name just three. A few words are enough to put their distinctive stamp on a song. The number of artists who are that distinctive through their instrumentation is far smaller. Foremost among them is Duane Eddy, headliner of the 2010 Ponderosa Stomp. His unique guitar style, which earned him the epithet “The King of Twang,” is as distinctive as any voice. Even if his name is not universally recognizable, his distinctive guitar playing on songs like “Rebel-Rouser” and “The Peter Gunn Theme” is.
Eddy emerges on stage, clad in a gray suit and donning a black cowboy hat, to thunderous applause from the crowd. Leading his set with his first single, “Moovin’ and Groovin,’” from the opening chords, Eddy’s distinct guitar style fills the venue. A master at work, he pulls the sonorous tones of surf guitar, the biting power of blues slide guitar, and the raw energy of steel guitar out of a single instrument. It is almost as amazing to watch Eddy play guitar as to listen to him. No matter how remarkable the sounds he charms from his instrument, he does it with an air of casualness and the confidence of a virtuoso. Looking on, one gets the impression that, for Eddy, playing guitar is as easy and natural as breathing.
However, he is not the only instrumental star on stage this evening. On many of his classic numbers, Eddy’s guitar playing fills the role traditionally taken by vocals — and it falls to the saxophone to provide lead melody. The powerful sax playing of the Ecco-Fonics’ Ron Dziubla proves to be a worthy successor to Eddy’s original colleagues.
Eddy’s second song is 1959’s “Detour,” a rockabilly tidal wave with a subtle western swing foundation.
The third number in his set is another Duane Eddy classic, “Cannonball.” This 1958 piece debuted on American Bandstand in 1958 as was originally titled “White Lightning.” Bandstand host Dick Clark, however, worried that “White Lightning” might send the wrong message to young people watching the program, so Eddy and his band conveniently renamed the song “Cannonball.” Once more, the interplay between Eddy’s guitar and Dziubla’s saxophone is magical, at times evoking the ‘call and response’ patterns of traditional blues.
Before beginning his fourth song, Eddy observes that back at the beginning of his career, it seemed that where lots of lonely, moody guys around. So, he decided to write a song just for them, titled, appropriately, “The Lonely One.” In comparison to the previous songs in his set, “The Lonely One” is very much a down tempo affair. If, however, it sacrifices some of the infectious energy of his faster songs, it also allows Eddy to bring out the soulful twing in each note he plays. Unusual for an Eddy song, “The Lonely One” also includes vocal accompaniment – no lyrics, but haunting abstract vocalizations.
The fifth piece in the set is “Shazam!” (yes, the exclamation point is part of the song title). The title is a reference to DC Comics superhero, Capitan Marvel. Aside from the title (and that many people in the 1950s viewed both comic books and rock music as slightly subversive), the song has nothing to do with the superhero. It is a solid rockabilly number with some surf undertones. For contemporary listeners, however, the song may suffer a bit due to the unfortunate coincidence of resembling the “Benny Hill Show” theme.
This is followed by “Forty Miles of Bad Road,” a song which leans more heavily on country than most of his solidly rockabilly/rock and roll anchored oeuvre. Performing “Forty Miles” Eddy also departs from his usual easygoing performance style, throwing his whole body into guitar playing with obvious relish.
1959’s “Yep” also departures from Eddy’s signature style, veering so strongly in the direction of surf music that it would be easy to imagine this tune coming from The Ventures or Dick Dale. It is another song featuring vocals, though like “Shazam!,” they are limited in scope – simply the title of the song repeated over and over.
I missed the name of the eighth song, which is unfortunate because it is a delightful, blues-tinged number. Eddy’s guitar pulls impressive double duty, supplying both credible blues-rock guitar lines and taking the place of a bluesman’s rich vocals. Again, he departs from his casual playing style, striking each note with great focus and deliberate panache. The number is backed by great piano blues accompaniment and more smoking sax playing.
Eddy follows with two more songs in his classic twangy, rockabilly style before exploding into the “Peter Gunn Theme,” arguably his second best known song. Eddy’s strong guitar playing unlocks the full potential of the swanky jazz number that served as the theme to the popular 1958 – 1961 private detective show .(Children of the 1980s are, perhaps, more likely to recognize “Peter Gunn” as the background music for the classic arcade game Spy Hunter.)
The original version of “Peter Gunn” was performed by the Henri Mancini Orchestra. But this is a number that Eddy has truly made his own and he shines throughout the entire song. The slow, irresistible alternating bass chords during the bridge notes of the song, however, are especially memorable and represent the pinnacle of Eddy’s guitar twing.
Eddy released his version in 1960 and then, in 1986, recorded another version with avant-garde rock group Art of Noise – which earned both Eddy and Art of Noise a Grammy for best rock instrumental.
If you are Duane Eddy, there is only one way to take things to the next level after “Peter Gunn.” The Ponderosa Stomp crowd goes ballistic as Eddy launches into “Rebel-Rouser.” There are times when even a music journalist needs to put away his pen and just enjoy the music – and seeing Duane Eddy perform his signature song live is definitely one of those.
If there is a better known and more influential guitar instrumental from the Golden Age of rock and roll, I don’t know it. Released in 1958, “Rebel-Rouser” peaked at #4 on the charts, a remarkable feat for an instrumental number, making it Eddy’s biggest commercial success.
Still a standard on oldies stations everywhere (and featured prominently on the “Forrest Gump” sound track), “Rebel-Rouser” is a decidedly up-tempo song, but still slightly slower than many of Eddy’s songs. The more measured tempo allows him to highlight every note, played lovingly and perfectly – and making the number the archetypical example of Eddy’s unique guitar style. In addition to Eddy’s epic guitar playing, the original “Rebel-Rouser” was accentuated by powerful saxophone strains and, again, Ron Dziubla is up to the challenge of repeating history.
As an interesting side note, Eddy’s supporting band on the original release of “Rebel Rouser,” providing the songs distinctive clapping, shouting, and rebel yells, was The Sharps, who later become The Rivingtons (of “Papa-Om-Mow-Mow” and “The Bird’s the Word” fame).
There are certain songs, that when performed live by their original artist, cease to be simply music and become an awe inspiring, almost spiritual experience. Duane Eddy plucking out “Rebel-Rouser” is certainly among them. The Ponderosa Stomp crowd is, not surprisingly, one that has very high standards for its music and is not always easily impressed. As “Rebel-Rouser” twanged on, however, the crowd was hypnotized, listening in rapt attention, aware that they were vicariously touching a pivotal moment in the history of American popular music.
The Ponderosa Stomp is all about celebrating the heroes, famous and obscure, of the glory days of American roots music. Music, of course, does not occur in a vacuum. All these musicians owe their success, in large part, to the other musicians and bands with whom they played. For many Ponderosa Stomp artists, the peak of their careers was half a century ago. Unfortunately, many of their original collaborating musicians are unavailable, no longer performing, or no longer with us. The Ponderosa Stomp does an amazing job of finding younger groups with the matching sounds and skills necessary to fill the gap and play behind these legendary artists.
I never heard a bad supporting band at The Stomp. Some of them, however, were truly remarkable and deserve at least a little time in the spotlight in their own right. The Lost Bayou Ramblers, out of Lafayette, Louisiana, are an amazingly versatile and talented Cajun/roots band. In particular, Louis Michot is one of the strongest young fiddle players I have heard in many years. Eve and the Exiles do a top-notch job of bringing the eclectic Austin sound to hard-edged guitar rock. Eve Monsees is easily one of the most promising guitarists of her generation and fellow guitarist Homer Henderson, as described above, is well worth watching in his own right. Deke Dickerson and Ecco-Fonics did a formidable job of backing musicians as diverse as Red Simpson, Young Jessie, and Duane Eddy. And the Ecco-Fonics’ Ron Dziubla is simply one of the most gifted saxophone players, living or dead, that I have ever heard. My friends, these are bands and artists to keep your eyes on. If they continue on their current trajectory, in 40 or 50 years – these are the names that are going to be headlining the Ponderosa Stomp.