Pondarosa Stomp Music Festival
907 S. Peters St., 522-9653; wwwthehowlinwolf.com
Tickets $40-$50 per night
Music Conference & Clandestine Celluloid Film Series
Renaissance Arts Hotel, 700 Tchoupitoulas St., 613-2330
Tenth anniversaries don't always come easy. It's no coincidence that 10 years of marriage are commemorated as the "tin" or "aluminum" anniversary, symbolizing how flexible and durable anything must be to last a decade. While it's hard to imagine the free-spirited Ponderosa Stomp as anything but a swinging single, the annual New Orleans roots-music festival celebrates 10 unlikely years of perseverance this weekend at Howlin' Wolf. In addition to two nights of music, there is a conference with musician interviews and panel discussions and the Clandestine Celluloid Film Series (see p. 49).
Over its first 10 years, the Stomp has grown over time while remaining true to its original ideals, says founder Ira "Dr. Ike" Padnos.
"The mission of the Stomp has always been to celebrate the legacy, preserve the history, and revitalize the careers of American music and musicians," Padnos says. "Basically it's a festival of unsung heroes, unrecognized influential bands, one-hit wonders and sidemen. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect it to last this long. When we first started out, I was happy doing a show every once in a while at the Circle Bar."
The years have brought a number of venue changes for the Stomp, plus a one-year "Stomp in Exile" Memphis edition after Hurricane Katrina. The Stomp also organizes regular programs at the SXSW Conference in Austin and at Lincoln Center in New York City, giving it a national presence. Last year Padnos and company moved the annual festival to September. Previously the Stomp had filled the gap between the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival's two weekends.
"We decided it would be better to have our own weekend and not compete with anything else," Padnos says. "In the long run, it will develop into more of a destination event."
The festival added the Ponderosa Stomp Music Conference in 2008. "During the day you learn where the music came from, and at night you see it in action," Padnos says. "It works really well." Padnos is particularly proud of this year's panel called "Advocating for New Orleans' Musical Treasures."
"The panel will address the big problem of New Orleans preserving its musical landmarks and promoting them for music tourism, which hasn't been done here like it has in Austin and Nashville," Padnos says. "Obviously jazz has played an important role here, but it never sold as many records as rhythm and blues. New Orleans has not really embraced its rock 'n' roll history head-on. There should be tours, and the city should be playing this up. Hopefully this will be the start of some serious discussion."
This year's Stomp features a tribute to New Orleans' R&B studio kingpin Cosimo Matassa, featuring Allen Toussaint and Dave Bartholomew; an Excello Records tribute starring Classie Ballou, Carol Fran and Lazy Lester; and a full-fledged Stax Records-Memphis soul revue. Padnos rejects the idea that the Stomp is crafted mainly for record collectors.
"You can take anybody to the Stomp," he says. "I tell people this: Just come. You'll know the songs. People are always amazed that they do."
Proof of this will likely be found in Saturday night's Bo-Keys Tribute to Stax Records and Memphis Soul. It features singers William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Sir Mack Rice and Otis Clay. Bell, in particular, is hailed as one of the true architects of the Stax sound, as both a singer and a songwriter responsible for such indelible classics as "Born Under a Bad Sign" and "You Don't Miss Your Water." For Bell, it's all about the melting pot of local sounds he and his collaborators stirred up in the 1960s and early '70s.
"There is actually a Stax sound," Bell says. "It's hard to pinpoint, but it's a combination of gospel, blues, country-and-western — and then some jazz thrown in. These are all influences we had as youngsters coming up in Memphis." Bell points to the '60s Stax house band — otherwise known as Booker T. & the MGs — as final proof. "You had Steve [Cropper] and Duck [Dunn], who came out of what you might call a rockabilly band, and Al Jackson, his dad had a jazz-blues Count-Basie-type band. Booker came right out of church. And the singers — we were all schooled in the church."
Bell also can attest to the authenticity of Stomp regulars the Bo-Keys, a band that features a variety of Memphis musical heroes including trumpet player Ben Cauley, who survived the plane crash that took Stax's biggest star, Otis Redding, in 1967. This year the Bo-Keys will provide the foundation for the Stomp's Stax tribute.
"They have captured more of that sound than any other instrumental group since the '60s," Bell says. "It's an organic thing."
The multi-racial make-up of the Bo-Keys signifies another key factor that led to the magic created at Stax. It also points to larger, non-musical trails blazed by the label during the pre-Civil Rights era, and to yet another legacy worth celebrating this weekend. Some historians argue Stax was the first fully integrated company in America, from the time it was founded in 1961.
"Stax was situated right in the heart of the ghetto in Memphis," Bell says. "But inside that building we didn't think of color. We only thought about what each person brought to the table in terms of musical ability. The execs, the office help, the musicians, the backup singers — everything was integrated. When you think back on it, it's amazing."
But, according to Bell, reality set in as soon as Stax employees stepped outside. "The police would sit across the street in the parking lot of the Big Star grocery, wait for us to come out after a session and drive across the street just to harass us. It was 'Up against the wall' and 'What are you doing here at night?' Just because there were blacks and whites coming out of the building, shaking hands and saying good night. We fought against this, and we were instrumental in changing a lot of attitudes in and around Memphis, and actually throughout the South."
Times certainly have changed, but the 72-year-old Bell — who now has his own Atlanta-based label, Wilbe Records, along with a stable of promising young artists— remains devoted to the romantic ballad. And Bell likely will acquire some new fans on Saturday night, just as he always has. "Kids are usually amazed we are producing these sounds live," he says. "We're not sampling, it's not a computer. To them it's a new sound, even though it's been around for 50 years. But for people like me, it's just doing what I do."