Lazy Lester - Pondarosa Stomp (Excello 2277)
So, like, how was it?
In a word, incredible. You have to give these Mystic Knights credit... there really is no one else out there who quite does what it is they do. This year's addition of the first annual 'music conference' just made things that much cooler, and afforded us the opportunity to get 'up close and personal' with the people behind this great music that we all love. Where else could you see Peter Guralnick interview Harold Battiste (twice)?
...or John Broven and Jim O'Neal talking with Joe Bihari? Or Rick Coleman and Cosimo Matassa? How about Matt Weingarden and the Mighty Hannibal? Not to mention folks like Tammi Lynn, Mary Weiss, Johnnie Allen, Syl Johnson, Travis Wammack, Sonny Burgess, or our man Lazy Lester... truly an impressive roster of talented people that were kind enough to share their remarkable stories with all of us. For a guy like me, who does what I do, it was a priceless opportunity to learn about the music from the people who helped create it. I took a lot of notes (yes, I am a pocket-protected record geek, I guess).
My favorite panel, though, was the New Orleans Drum Summit, which was moderated by WWOZ's David Kunian, and featured Zigaboo Modeliste, Bob French and Smokey Johnson. A 'drummer's town', these three men offered a glimpse into the good-natured rivalry that still exists down there today. It was so very cool listening to Smokey Johnson (who is now confined to a wheelchair) talk about his days as the King of New Orleans drummers. Shannon Powell (who, in my opinion, is the best stick man out there doin' it today) held a tribute to Smokey at Preservation Hall a few nights later, and it just brought the house down, man.
I would gladly have made the trip just for the conference, but there was, of course, the ol' Stomp itself. Back up to two days (in addition to the 'Revue' the Knights put together for the Blues Tent during the first weekend of Jazz Fest), it's something that has to be seen to be believed. Led by the man who gave the event its name (as evidenced by today's rocking selection), the ambassador of Louisiana Swamp Blues himself Lazy Lester, the Stomp has expanded to include over fifty acts on three different stages. There is simply no way to experience it all, but here's a few of the highlights I managed to see (along with some pictures taken with my crappy digital camera):
Ultimately, it's all about great rhythm sections backing up great performers. Lil' Buck Sinegal (who positively kicked butt at Jazz Fest as well) and Stanley 'Buckwheat' Dural anchor the Topcats, who once again brought their bayou drenched beat to sets by Lester and B Side favorite Barbara Lynn. I can't say enough about how awesome Barbara continues to be. Her stripped down set out on the patio with Buck and Lester was worth the price of admission alone. She's got a good thing goin'!
Wardell Quezergue and his Rhythm & Blues Revue were back again this year, with Tony Owens once again just slaying the crowd on Confessin' A Feeling, and Jean Knight swaggering through the obligatory version of Mr. Big Stuff. AFO compadres Tammi Lynn and Mac Rebennack made the scene as well, with Mac playing Wardell's arrangements of his early pre-Dr. John material like Storm Warning and Bad Neighborhood, songs that haven't seen the light of day for almost fifty years! With Stomp stalwart Herbert Hardesty on the sax and Zigaboo back there on the drums, it was a rocking celebration of all things New Orleans.
Next out of the box were the ultra-tight Bo-Keys featuring 'Shaft' guitarist Skip Pitts and original Bar-Kay Ben Cauley. After a smoking set of their own, they brought a touch of Memphis to Betty Harris tunes like Cry To Me and There's A Break In The Road (if you can picture that). She was just stunning, and sounds every bit as good as she ever did. Fellow Memphian William Bell brought the Keys to the next level, and his heartfelt rendition of I Forgot To Be Your Lover just took me out, man. Things got a little blurry for me after that the first night... all I can tell you is I didn't make the 2:05 AM Travis Wammack performance.
The next night brought more Memphis Soul with the full Hi Rhythm section, including the Reverend Charles Hodges back on the organ and Willie Mitchell's stepson Archie Turner on the piano. Their own featured vocalist, the sublime Percy Wiggins, led the band through an unbelievable array of Hi hits, hitting some of Reverend Al's spots better than he himself has done in years. When our man Syl Johnson came out and joined them for songs like Any Way The Wind Blows and Take Me To The River, the crowd went wild.
One of the most anticipated moments of this year's Stomp, however, was the return of James 'Sugarboy' Crawford to the stage. The man who first committed the street language of the Mardi-Gras Indians to vinyl with Jockomo in 1954, Sugarboy was an immensely popular R&B star until he was savagely beaten by a racist cop in northern Louisiana in 1963. He was paralyzed for over a year, and it took him years to fully recover. When he did, he dedicated himself to the Lord, and vowed to sing only in Church. Accompanied by his super-talented grandson, Davell (who may just be the best piano player I have ever seen), his wonderfully sonorous voice brought Church to the House of Blues, as he sang a selection of traditional spirituals that was a joy to behold.
Backed by The Haunted Hearts, Georgia's own The Mighty Hannibal showed everybody just how mighty he remains. Although now blind, he's still got it goin' on! Never a stranger to social commentary, his fabled Hymn No. 5 is, sadly, as relevant today as it was when the Viet Cong played it on the radio to de-moralize the troops back in the sixties. A staunch Obama supporter, he led the crowd through his latest composition, which celebrates his candidacy as the logical culmination of the Civil Rights Movement. Yes We Can!
Our pal John Ciba and his partner Derek Evers brought the red hot Wiley and the Checkmates to town to serve as the rhythm section for their own traveling circus of soul, aka the Rabbit Factory Revue. After Wiley got done ripping it up (which I unfortunately missed as he was on at the same time as Hannibal), legendary Georgia Soul man Hermon Hitson took the stage and blew everybody away. Although I had heard Hermon's records, I had no idea he was such a guitar player! Very cool, indeed.
Ralph 'Soul' Jackson, who wasn't too happy with his slot last year as the opening act of an abbreviated Stomp, redeemed himself this time around with an absolutely killer set that worked the crowd into a frenzy. The addition of Alex Chilton on rhythm guitar helped lift things just a little bit higher, as songs like Set Me Free and Sunshine Of Your Love just rocked the house. Ralph's incredible pony tail wig is definitely one of the coolest artifacts of soul, man!
Next up was elder statesman of Gospel and Soul Roscoe Robinson, who showed no signs of slowing down. Robinson's voice never ceases to amaze me, and hearing him sing hits like That's Enough and How Much Pressure (Do You Think I Can Stand) is truly a rare gift. As if that wasn't enough, The Checkmates pressed on, backing Eddie Bo and Irving Bannister in a set that didn't start till after midnight... do the Popeye, children! After a tip of the hat to ? and the Mysterians on the way out, I was done. Unreal.
The next day was my fifteenth anniversary, and the bride and I took in the second weekend of Jazz Fest, which is a whole other story in and of itself. Despite the mud, a good time was had by all. Betty Lavette set the Blues Tent on fire, while Aaron Neville's homecoming Gospel Soul performance burst the neighboring Gospel Tent at its seams. Older brother Art sang solo gems like Zing-Zing and Cha-Dooky-Doo for the first time in years on the main stage, while our old friends the Williams (aka the first family of Zydeco) opened and closed the day's festivities on Saturday... and that only scratches the surface.
Although there are still a mountain of problems in this town, New Orleans remains one of the greatest places on earth to hear real music, especially this time of year. When we walked into the Mother-In-Law Lounge on Friday night and found Little Freddie King and Al 'Carnival Time' Johnson playing unannounced, for free, we knew that this is still one special place.
God Bless New Orleans.