Ira "Dr. Ike" Padnos curates his Ponderosa Stomp music festival the way most people cue up their stereos. For the 2009 edition, he dug up '60s psychobilly trailblazer and David Bowie treasure the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, aka 61-year-old Californian Norman Carl Odam. What prompted the excavation? "I've been wanting to hear (his 1968 single) 'Paralyzed' again," Padnos says casually, as if calling in a request to a radio station DJ.
Welcome to the good doctor's musical dollhouse, where latent rock 'n' roll cravings often lead to career revivals. Now in its eighth year (and fourth venue), the Ponderosa has evolved into more than just the anesthesiologist-by-day's moonlighting plaything; it's a time warp, a cultural preserve and a seemingly nonstop, 36-hour concert all rolled into one. Soul singer Howard Tate, rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson and a reunion of the Flamin' Groovies' Cyril Jordan and Roy Loney headline this year's twin bill, which has been known to bleed together into one long jukebox-sprung-to-life bender.
"Nowadays, it's not going until 6 in the morning; it's kind of ending at 3:30, 4 (a.m.)," Padnos says. "More people are actually making it. We probably had 500, 600 people pogoing to Question Mark (and the Mysterians) at the end of his set last year."
The Mid-City Rock 'N' Bowl might have ceded to the House of Blues out of necessity, but the spirit of those raucous, early years lives on. Even its creator expresses surprise at the exponential growth rate of the festival, which was launched in 2002 as a curio for record collectors with "10 to 15" hand-plucked obscurities per night. It now garners dozens of rare performers and glowing reviews in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone.
"The first couple of years nearly bankrupted me," Padnos says. "I had to redo the mortgage to stay afloat. We acted like a nonprofit but we weren't completely set up. It's like we did everything backwards: Most people plan and (then) do; we just went. The idea was just to get these people out and playing — all the components weren't there. Fortunately it's taken on a life of its own."
Those latter-day components include the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation, an overseeing 501(c)3 established in 2005, and the second annual Music Conference (Monday through Wednesday at the Cabildo), an assemblage of panel discussions, films and the odd impromptu performance augmenting the staged event. John Broven, an author and music historian who will make his second appearance as a moderator, recalls organizing a gig in 2008 for swamp-pop patriarch Johnnie Allan — right there at the discussion table. "Just his guitar and his voice, and you could just see the soulfulness," Broven marvels.
He hopes for more of the same this year from a Louisiana Hayride panel featuring Bob Sullivan, the Shreveport radio show's engineer; rockers Dale Hawkins and Margaret Lewis Warwick; and NPR's Nick Spitzer. "What I like about it is, it's breaking down barriers," says Broven, whose recent book Record Makers and Breakers chronicles the exploits of "backroom boys" like Marshall Chess and Modern Records' Joe Bihari, themselves co-presenters at the conference. "You tend to have blues fans here, rhythm and blues here, hillbilly country over there and so on. The Stomp is bringing all this roots music together, and I think they need to be brought together to present a common front."
The Cabildo also houses another collaboration with the Louisiana State Museum: "Unsung Heroes: The Secret History of Louisiana Rock & Roll," a yearlong exhibit opening Tuesday with historic items ranging from Fats Domino's piano and Lazy Lester's harmonica to selections from Padnos' personal collection of posters, LPs and instruments. Padnos says the idea stemmed from the Ponderosa's post-Katrina stopover in Memphis in 2006: "Memphis still has a lot of the music infrastructure — Sun (Records), and they rebuilt the Stax museum. We could actually have the artists go give tours. Well, the Dew Drop Inn, Cosimo (Matassa)'s studio, they're not exactly museums like they should be. So we said, 'Since we can't do that, let's see if we can build [one].' ... With limited space it shows the various scenes in Shreveport, New Orleans, Crowley, Lafayette, Baton Rouge — seeing how everything was continually influencing everything, back and forth."
To lifelong enthusiasts like Broven, whose personal highlights include hearing Lake Charles native Phil Phillips belt out "Sea of Love" in 2005 ("He absolutely brought the house down!"), Padnos' efforts are nothing less than a national public service.
"Terry Stewart, CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said to me last Friday, 'This is America. This is the American story,'" Broven says. "It's all part of what made America great, isn't it? These guys starting something from nothing, and creating not only an industry, but also it's a cultural and social change that they implemented. ... And in a sense, that then leads on to the Ponderosa, doesn't it? The Ponderosa is one of the last links of the golden age of rock 'n' roll."
The 2009 Ponderosa Stomp
6:30 p.m. Tue.-Wed., April 28-29
House of Blues, 225 Decatur St., 310-4999; www.ponderosastomp.com
The 2009 Ponderosa Stomp Music Conference
11 a.m. Mon.-Wed., April 27-29
The Cabildo, 701 Chartres St., 568-6968