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Sweet Soul Music 

The Gibson Guitar Factory Showcase in Memphis, Tenn., looks like a museum inside -- all giant windows, exposed beams and blond wood. The temporary carts hawking two-dollar beer beside the regular bar inside the lounge, where one stage of this year's Ponderosa Stomp is located, look weirdly out of place. From the corner of the building, you can see the neon of Beale Street, which presents tourists with as authentic a version of Memphis blues as Bourbon Street does New Orleans jazz. There's fresh construction on the block between the new-looking brick of the monster 75,000 square-foot Gibson building and Beale, and all in all, it looks like this is a corner where new things are happening.

The 2006 Ponderosa Stomp is very much a new thing here. After four years in New Orleans, three in the grimy, sock-hop authenticity of the Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl, the three-day festival of roots, soul, blues and oddities of rock 'n' roll was forced north by the planning obstacles that sprang up after Hurricane Katrina. The group that puts on the event, the Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau, and their ringleader, Ira "Dr. Ike" Padnos, needed to decide on their venue in September 2005, when the Rock 'n' Bowl was still sludgy with floodwaters. The Gibson Showcase donated its 1,500-capacity space for the show, re-imagined as a benefit for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic and MusiCares, and the Stomp was headed on up the road to Memphis.

After settling into the surprisingly shiny-to-New-Orleans-eyes new space, the show did not disappoint. Sixtysomething Peggy "Lady Bo" Malone, armed with a brand-new Gibson and attired in a skintight red halter-topped pantsuit, growled, "How come you're not clapping your hands yet? Get involved!" before tearing into a medley of "Mona," "Hey Bo Diddley" and "Who Do You Love," songs on which she'd backed Bo Diddley for most of the late 1950s and '60s. William Bell closed his set with a crowd-pleasing medley of Stax Records hits, backed by Li'l Buck Sinegal's Top Cats, which spawned an impromptu go-go dance party among the New Orleans exiles down front.

Although the Stomp is identified strongly with New Orleans, its bookers aren't focused to the point of ghettoization on local music. Their bill celebrates the "unsung heroes" -- legendary sidemen like Herb Hardesty, who played tenor sax with Fats Domino for many years, or Lady Bo. Stomp lineups have also included obscure '60s garage bands dug out of the wilds of Louisiana, like the Bad Roads and the Souls of the Slain, novelty acts like B-movie guitar weirdo Arch Hall Jr. and legends like the late Link Wray alongside legendary heroes of rock 'n' soul. The Stomp sound isn't necessarily marketable or pulled from the history books, but it uniformly rocks, and it has drawn a steadily growing, devoted fan base.

So Memphis really isn't unusual water for this fish -- the sounds the Stomp searches out have roots in Memphis and the hill country as much as they do in Louisiana, and the move, while maybe not deliberate, is a logical trajectory. Memphis also has a strong scene made up of young bands that draw from their regional traditions, which added to the support as well as underscoring another aspect of the Stomp: its multigenerational appeal. Scruffy teenagers held tickets, apparently, one-to-one with the standard crop of middle-aged men in vintage spectacle or unsmiling European record geeks. Onstage, the mix was also visible -- bands like New Orleans' Michael Hurtt and His Haunted Hearts and Oxford, Miss.'s Wiley & the Checkmates -- all guys in their thirties -- swapped stages all night backing the headliners.

The Memphis move also afforded the opportunity for some extras to the weekend's events, including tours of Sun Studios and the Stax Museum led by rock critic Peter Guralnick -- the definitive biographer of Elvis Presley -- and acclaimed music historian Robert Gordon. The Gibson showcase may have felt museumlike, but living exhibits like these proved that comparison not such a bad thing. It begs the question as to why New Orleans hasn't preserved musical landmarks or seminal record labels that were once housed here for tourism. The Stomp isn't moving away permanently -- Padnos says definitively that the event will return to New Orleans next spring -- but they will be throwing a fall event there, and the Bluff City proved a gracious host. To be sure, Memphis' music heritage beyond Elvis Presley is attractive to a narrow margin of a tourist demographic. Case in point: Two young English soul fans I met told me their hearts' desire was to continue their U.S. visit in Detroit, home of Motown. But Memphis' support of their more eclectic culture has obviously borne some fruit.

click to enlarge Getting involved: Bo Diddley bandmate Peggy "Lady Bo" - Malone performed at this year's Ponderosa Stomp - temporarily relocated to Memphis, Tenn. - JEFF POUNDS
  • Jeff Pounds
  • Getting involved: Bo Diddley bandmate Peggy "Lady Bo" Malone performed at this year's Ponderosa Stomp temporarily relocated to Memphis, Tenn.
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