Live Review: The Ponderosa Stomp

A satisfying roots gumbo is served up in The Big Easy.

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Across two long nights – performances start at 6.30pm and finish close to 4am – The Ponderosa Stomp gathers many of the unsung heroes of American music. There are blues and soul singers, swamp pop and Tex-Mex combos, rockabilly veterans and garage rockers, all ably backed by superb bands lead by Los Angeles’ Deke Dickerson (rockabilly), Memphis’ The Bo-Keys (soul) and Lafayette’s Lil Buck Sinegal (blues).

Friday night’s Stomp sees a dozen different performers take the stage, while Saturday’s features 14. The Stomp is run with precision so changeovers are fast and no time is wasted, which means you get a lot of music for your buck. And what fabulous music it is…

As it would take an essay to detail all the artists who performed, the focus is on the few who truly stand out. Billy Boy Arnold is, aged 80, one of the last of the Chicago blues singers still working – and he remains a truly great performer. At the Stomp conference (held during the day and featuring music historians hosting Q&A sessions with artists) Arnold speaks of taking harmonica lessons from the original Sonny Boy Williamson in Chicago and playing on the street with Ellas McDaniel (Bo Diddley) in his early teens. He also recalls recording sessions at Chess Records and Vee-Jay. In concert Arnold sings and blows harmonica with the verve and agility of a man half his age.

Barbara Lynn, of Beaumont, Texas, is perhaps best known for The Rolling Stones’ recording her Oh! Baby (We Got A Good Thing Goin’) in 1965. Lynn is a superb singer and songwriter and rips on guitar, tearing up BB King and Ray Charles numbers during her set. Irma Thomas was also covered by The Rolling Stones – a point she makes on stage before performing Time Is On My Side – and should be far better known, her recording career having provided a rich catalogue of sultry R&B numbers. On Saturday night she tears into Break-A-Way, moans Times Have Changed and sings the deep soul blues on I Wish Someone Would Care, her often bemused voice offering the final word on the aching heart.

Augie Meyers, longtime musical partner of Doug Sahm, gets a great sound out of a Vox organ and sings the Sir Douglas Quintet’s ode to California hippiedom, Mendocino, with real vigour before strapping on an accordion and playing several Tex-Mex stompers. With his long, grey hair and Stetson hat, Meyers resembles Willie Nelson’s taller, tougher brother and in his raw, roadhouse sound he conjures up a Texas groove that is rarely heard these days.

While Meyers has a famous pedigree – the likes of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan have hired him to play on their sessions – the following band, West Side Soul Revue, are a new experience to these ears. These veteran Mexican-American singers and musicians from San Antonio’s West Side – several of the band’s members were once in Sunny And The Sunliners, a Chicano band who sang blues and R&B and scored a big hit in 1963 with their impassioned cover of Little Willie John’s Talk To Me – prove masters of their craft and, with Rudy Tee Gonzales handling most of the lead vocals, they perform an exceptional set of soul ballads, sung both in English and Spanish.

The Ponderosa Stomp is one festival that never disappoints

Mention of the late Little Willie John serves to remind that his big sister, Mable John, is at the Stomp and, at 84, shows that her powers have not diminished. Backed by The Bo-Keys (featuring several veteran members of The Hi Rhythm Section), Mable John performs songs from both her tenure with Motown (she was their first female artist) and Stax. An impassioned reading of Your Good Thing Is About To End – the brooding soul ballad recently revived by Robert Cray to good effect – is the highlight of a very able Mable.

A more famous Motown veteran also at the Stomp is Brenda Holloway. She looks far younger than her 69 years but performs with a diva’s petulance, insisting The Bo-Keys play faster while she sings in a very flat voice. A shame, as her Motown singles, Every Little Bit Hurts and You Make Me So Very Happy, have both become standards, with the likes of Spencer Davis Group and Blood, Sweat & Tears scoring with them.

Lafayette’s majestic swamp pop supergroup Lil’ Band O’ Gold are here but not under the LBOG moniker: the band’s former lead vocalist Warren Storm has split from the group (he performs with his own band on Saturday night) while keyboardist and main songwriter David Egan is absent due to a battle with cancer. As The Swamp Pop Revue, LBOG are lead by guitarist CC Adcock, performing a great set of tunes that mix New Orleans R&B with Cajun flavours, and feature veteran vocalists Rod Bernard, Gene Terry and Tommy McLain, all taking turns on vocals. Those languid bayou ballads prove to be a veritable treat.

Witnessing Willie Hightower in action is an utter delight. The Alabama soul singer enjoyed some attention when London label Honest Jon’s issued a CD of his Muscle Shoals recordings a decade ago yet he rarely performs. Ably backed by The Bo-Keys, he demonstrates that he has lost none of his impact and whips the crowd into a fervour as he tears through Walk A Mile In My Shoes and If I Had A Hammer. RL Boyce, the Mississippi hill country blues musician, is only 60 years old so something of a junior among Stomp performers, yet his raw, elemental blues stands up well. Boyce learnt from the likes of Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside and proudly continues their tradition.

So much music, so little time! It’s a long journey to attend the Stomp but this is one festival that never disappoints. The next Ponderosa Stomp will be held in New Orleans, early October 2017: mark this date on your calendar.