Friday, May 01, 2009

Mr Duff’s Ponderosa Stomp adventure continued…

Whew, it’s been a helluva few days. Forgive me if I don’t get it all in the right order,
or if I miss something out. I've tried to keep it brief but even so...

Last report, I forgot to mention the Ponderosa Stomp conference.

Three days of films and discussion with artists, record producers, label
owners and generally interesting stuff. This is a new addition (they did it last year too,
but this year it really was fully developed). Like the Stomp itself, there are
two rooms and two different things going on at the same time so you have to
make decisions. I’m not going to cover it in detail other than the highlight for
me being Marshall Chess, what an entertaining storyteller. Remember Marshall
was just a teenager during the Chess Records glory years. When asked
“Who gave him the best advice on women, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters or
Howlin’ Wolf” he replied, “I’ll tell you who gave the worst…Howlin’ Wolf used to
tell me, ‘Marshall, the best type a women is wino women, you know those wino
women, you can take ‘em in the back alley, have yourself a little fun and then get
back in and get on with the show...” He also mounted a lucid defence of record
company paying practices in respect of artist royalties, a side of the story rarely heard.

Question Mark, uh, interviewed by Miriam Linna was also incredible to witness.

Everybody reading this I presume knows that Question Mark is in fact from
the planet Mars – the ORANGE planet. Over the course of an hour of Q’s
stream of consciousness monologue, Miriam managed to ask him around half a
dozen brief questions and the audience a few more. This was of course unnecessary
because hes psychic and knew what questions he was going to be asked! Oh, and
look out for his autobiography and cookbook, 96 Ways with Peanut Butter
(in case you didn’t know – and I didn’t until he informed me – peanut butter
has a substance that makes you horny – it don’t matter if it’s smooth or crunchy).

OK, the music, the music…

Day 1 of the Stomp, a lengthy queue (sorry, I mean LINE) to get in to the
House of Blues means I only catch the last 15 minutes of Classie Ballou’s set.
Blistering guitar instrumentals including the classic ‘Classie Ballou’s Whip’ twice.
And Sweet Home Alabama to finish up – done like you never heard it before. Dr Ike
had asked him to only do his own material but I guess he did this one just to wind him up.
I missed all of Little Willie Littlefield first set and all of Alton Lott –
no matter, they both have another two slots over the Stomp schedule.

Dashed upstairs to the Parish Room (the House of Blues now has two rooms,
a ‘Big Room’ that holds maybe around 400 and the Parish Stage approx. 200)
and caught the end of Johnny Powers backed up by Deke Dickerson and the
Eccofonics. Didn’t hang around because I’ve seen him before and the
Hi Rhythm Section were warming up downstairs with an incredibly
grooving version of Time is Tight. If you haven’t seen them, I can’t
describe to you how tight, how immaculately intuitive and simple the
whole band grooves as a single unit. The kind of thing you can only get
if you have played every day as a band for 40 years. They followed this
up with an extended slow and spare version of Soul Serenade before
kicking it up-tempo and bringing in the horns to play an arrangement
of the same song reminiscent of the Beau Dollar and the Coins version.

After that they were joined by an unscheduled Percy Wiggins, who opened
with his version of ‘Sexual healing’, a song that has to be honest always given
me the boak, but this was sublime. The quality of the band and the voice of
a real southern soul singer making it somehow like I’d never heard the cheesy
original at all. Otis Clay followed Percy looking suave, he kept up the quality.
I nipped upstairs again to catch Carl Mann who I don’t recall seeing before
and he was good! Fit, healthy and singing with mucho gusto, actually
a lot better than the kinda poppy records he made for Sun would have you believe.

This was followed by Cowboy Jack Clement, a guy who seems to have had
something of a credibility overhaul in recent years. Never really liked his production
work didn’t care much for his singing either. I know Sam Philips put him in charge of
engineering sessions once he was too busy running the business but let’s not forget,
he handled some of the most dire stuff ever to have the Sun name on it.
He opened with a George Jones song that he probably wrote and it was as you
might expect, fairly straight country-pop. That actually makes it sound better
than it was because despite being clearly commercial country, he seemed
to believe it was the serious grit. Ho hum.

James ‘Blood’ Ulmer had come on downstairs. Another man whose work
I never quite got. Too turgid and constipated sounding for me and if he had anything
resembling a tune, I might be more interested. I know he’s basically the
Ornette Coleman of the blues but I could live without one of those.
That said, this was the best I ever saw him. Minimal between songs rap
about whatever these guys talk about and he seems to have changed his style a bit.
The three numbers I stayed for actually had a beat and his guitar seemed to be
playing the same song as the bass and drums! Maybe he’s sold out?

MUCH better however and in a similar vein was Little Joe Washington who
I’d never heard of and know NOTHING about. He was astounding! I’d spotted
this cat as he came in the door, a rough looking individual with short dreads,
a hat and a dangerous looking stoop. He played solo, him and his guitar, the most violent,
twisted blues I’ve heard in a long time. Sounds like a Fat Possum discovery but
it’s been a number of years since they introduced us to anything this good.
This was the first of two insane blues-punk discoveries this time around,
LC Ulmer the next night was at least as crazed, maybe more so.

Lil Greenwood was next up on the same stage, backed by the Bo-Keys
(who, as any fule kno’ is one of the finest R’n’B bands in the world right now
– the others being Wiley and the Checkmates and Glasgow’s own The Five Aces).
He opened with a few jazzy blues numbers, perfectly executed. Not for the hard rockin’
extremists but good in that way that just hits the spot. I had to disappear downstairs
again to catch one of the few sets that I needed to see from beginning to end.
Dale Hawkins backed by Deke and the Eccofonics AND the mighty James Burton.
This was apparently the first time since the 50’s that James and Dale have
played a full set together. I saw them a couple of years ago but James wasn’t
up there for the full set.

Again, probably the best I’ve ever seen Dale play. Hawkins is a bit of a character
and can sometimes start singing songs the band don’t appear to know, change his
mind half way though, stop the band and play something else He’ll generally talk
excitedly about pretty much anything that comes into his mind. I guess the bigger
stage, or maybe just his mood helped corral his individual approach and he rocked
through Little Pig, Tornado, My Babe/This Train, and of course the one with the
magical riff, invented by James Burton aged 14, Suzie Q. A word about James Burton.
It’s sometimes difficult for non-musicians like me to understand why someone
like James Burton is revered as being a greater guitarist than well, someone else.
The last time I saw him I could tell that he was adding that mush to the sound
until his amp malfunctioned and you couldn’t hear him anymore.
You felt the absence, but more importantly, when the amp came back on again,
you heard the roar and felt the rush from what he was doing. Even if he looked like
he was mentally re-arranging his sock drawer while he made the noise.
THAT’S why he’s better I guess.

Back to Lil Greenwood has gone a bit over funky for my liking,
and maybe she has recorded in that style but I never heard the tunes before.
Who cares, I was just killing time before The Remains.

The Remains have played Europe and the UK but I never saw them. I was i
not so much because I really dig them but because their reputation as a live act
precedes them. I only ever spin one or two tracks (the big ones, Don’t Look Back,
Why Do I Cry, the Diddy Wah Diddy cover) in the house and haven’t really felt them
as a real garage punk band despite them being lumped into that.
Well, they’re not a real garage punk band, they’re too ‘accomplished’
(whatever that actually means) for that but they are damn good and
whole lot more rockin’ live than the records would attest.
They played them all, straight, no, ‘everybody sing along now’ shit
and had the crowd dancing their socks off. I’ll give them 5 stars.

Caught 10 minutes of Little Willie Littlefield’s remarkably tough piano blues.
He seemed really on fine form for a man who started recording in the first
half of the last century. Played stuff from the two Ace Records 10”s that
came out years ago, can’t remember the titles. If he came to the UK, you would
go see him, unfortunately maybe for him in this situation, a one-man piano blues
doesn’t hold the attention when there’s so much else to see. Back to the Big Room,
Howard Tate, one of the main draws for the soul set was just coming on.
I knew little about him but he looked and sung great. The soulies were in heaven.

Dennis Coffey with the Bo-Keys next, Dennis really ripped that guitar up, way
more than on the records. He seemed to really be enjoying it too. 15 minutes of
psychedelic wah wah guitar swirl before another mucho anticipated highlights,
Ray Sharpe backed by the A-Bones. I’ve seen him a few times too and he’s ranged
frompedestrian to pretty darned great (when backed up by the ubiquitous
Deke and the Eccofonics). This time however I hoped the addition of the
A-Bones meant he was really going to pull it out of the bag. I wasn’t disappointed,
I missed the first couple of songs so I’m not sure if he did ‘Help Me’.
I hope he did. As I got in, he was busy declaiming that ‘When I recorded
this song it was just plain old rock and roll. Now, they tell me its Rock A Billy.
Well, whatever!” and he charged into Monkey’s Uncle. Ray plays his own guitar,
some vintage Gibson thing. In the past I’ve seen him treat it like it was fragile as a
baby but this time he tore it up. Perhaps to compete with Bruce Bennett’s rhythm
mauling. He played everything else you would want him to play, including an
extended Mary Jane, where Lars Espenson got to blow hard on the sax,
and which he introduced as “About a girl, not about something you grow, y’catch
my drift, heh, heh.”

And so to one of the two real reasons I bit the bullet and made the trip.
The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Oh boy, oh boy, was he everything
I dreamed he could be or what? The band came on first, Klaus Fluoride
playing a six string Fender Jaguar bass, the guitarist, whose name I didn’t catch
with a Jaguar too. A very good sign, nothing makes a racket like a Jaguar.
A hard and fast instrumental (the drummer was great too) and the Ledge danced
on stage swinging a towel, whip cracking it and pulling to between his legs like he
was riding a pony. Oh yeah, he had on a cowboy hat, boots and spurs and a denim
jacket embroidered on the back with the, um, legend,
“NASA Presents, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy” and a lasso rope.
A brief pause in the instrumental, the Ledge strides up to the mike
and “Hey you, woo hoo, arrghhh, PARALYZED! WOO HOO!”
Fast and loud and no let up from that moment on – even for bugles, good old
stardust bugles. Words fail me, this was the kind of thing I came to this planet for,
his dancing alone was worth the trip, and when he stripped to the waist?
Fuck all that hardcore shit, this is for real out there. We have to get him to
Scotland. He’ll blow half the country away with one toot of that bugle.

What’s left of night 1? Two disappointments but everything after the
Ledge was going to be just gravy, but still, we persevere.

Kenny and the Kasuals, I rather feared would be pretty bad.
I looked in as they had just begun and they were informing us with
less than astounding insight, that “Chuck Berry is quite good”. Oh really?
You don’t say? I must check him out some time. Harumph.
And then a pretty dreadful bar band intro into Carol. I left at that point.
I looked in again 15 or so minute later and they were murdering some other standard.
Then they stopped and bored us with how much they liked Cream (the band)
and played a Cream cover I didn’t know. Dull. I waited it out and then they played
some other dreadful hard rock cover I didn’t know. An acquaintance told me who it
was but I erased it from memory. When for the next song they told an unamusing
anecdote about the Animals (the band) and started the bass riff from
‘We Gotta Get Out of This place’ I took their advice and did so. Journey to Tyme?
Who knows. No doubt it was their last song. I couldn’t have stood it.

Lady Bo was last up and I was really tired at this point – maybe 16 or so hours on
the go. She took ages to get started, and in the manner of people who have been
largely passed over in the history books seemed more interested in telling us how
great she was than showing us. The first actual tune she played (and it took her a
long time to start, the 7 or 8 minutes or guitar noises beforehand sounding like
a bad space rock Grateful Dead bootleg). Was pretty good, a Bo Diddley medley
(less than great drumming), livened up with the fact she seemed to have every
effect possible running on the guitar, including this weird arpeggio thing where
every single note she played was repeated up and down the scale.
Sounded like Spiritualised, if they were actually any good.
Downhill from there though, when the bass player (her husband) started
playing with his thumb in that Level 42 style and then she
gave the drummer some, I left the House of Blues immediately, fearful of
the dreaded bass solo that was sure to follow the drums…
Report on day 2 to follow…


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