The Ponderosa Stomp Festival Is a Garage and R & B Wonderland
What began 13 years ago at anesthesiologist's wedding reception has turned into a festival that brings together dozens of old rock, blues, and R & B groups only record collectors have heard of.
Ira "Dr. Ike" Padnos. All photos by Joe Rosen
The wedding reception of New Orleans anesthesiologist Ira “Dr. Ike” Padnos in 2000 was so amazing—featuring acts ranging from Magic Slim and the Teardrops to R.L. Burnside—that his friends persuaded him to put on another show like it. And another. And another. Now in its eleventh official year, the Ponderosa Stomp festival remains devoted to celebrating and revitalizing the careers of long-lost rock, soul, R & B, rockabilly, country, blues, and garage musicians. Dr. Ike and his small staff (known as The Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau, an homage to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “Feast of the Mau Mau”) bring recognition to forgotten artists still roaming the Earth through both the festival and their multifaceted nonprofit organization, the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation.
Those of us who are not vinyl obsessives often recognize very few names on the Stomp’s bill. For every Legendary Stardust Cowboy or Roky Erickson (household names, right?) the Stomp features dozens of ultra-obscure one-hit wonders and unknown architects of rock ’n’ roll, many of them nearing the ends of their lives.
This year’s festival—which runs from October 3 to October 5 at New Orleans’s Rock ’n’ Bowl—is made up exclusively of acts that have not previously played the Stomp. “Some people, like Barbara Lynn, are so great they end up playing almost yearly—to the point where [the lineup] could possibly be perceived as getting stale,” Dr. Ike explained. Because the Stomp focuses mainly on unsung heroes of the distant past, shaking things has not been easy. “Due to old age, sickness and death, there are less and less people out there now,” he said. “People like James Alexander [singer for Lil Buck and the Topcats] have like one line about them on the whole internet. Some of these artists are so obscure that even the record collector types are like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
The Stomp’s growing reputation means that by now talent has become slightly easier to hunt down—these days, left-for-dead artists sometimes call up the good doctor on their own. In 2005, Padnos received what he thought at first might be a prank call, from Roky Erickson’s drummer Fred Krc, who helped put in motion the mentally troubled Erickson’s triumphant return to the stage, including Stomp shows in 2007 and 2008. “Ninety percent of the time there is no booking agent for these people,” Dr. Ike said, recalling the time he drove out to Jennings, Louisiana, in search of swamp-pop singer Phil Phillips who literally lived down by the railroad tracks. “This year we stumbled upon two people we didn’t know were alive,” Dr. Ike added, citing Ebb Records artist Eddie Daniels, who cut rockabilly songs like “Playin’ Hide Go Seek,” and a famous cover of Professor Longhair’s “Going to the Mardi Gras.” Padnos cold-called Daniels. “I asked him if he was the guy who cut [“Playin’ Hide Go Seek”] and when he started singing it to me I offered him the gig right then.” Daniels immediately accepted.
Dr. Ike's love of garage rock is apparent in this year’s Stomp lineup, which boasts sets by the Gaunga Dyns, Ty Wagner, and Johnny Echols of Love, who will play with a re-formed version of the Standells. Another of this year’s main attractions will be the reunited Sloths, “famous” for their lone 1966 single ”Makin' Love” b/w “You Mean Everything to Me.” Several years back, Sloths lead guitarist Jeff Briskin, who originally quit the group at the age of 18 to enter law school, reportedly hired a private detective to find his erstwhile bandmates. Now in their early 60s, the remaining three Sloths, augmented by three newcomers, will not only play their “hit” at the Stomp but also many of the dozen new songs they’ve come up with in the two years since they reunited.
“We’ve even recorded a self-released new single that will be out for the Stomp called ‘Wanna New Life,’ with the B-Side ‘Lust,’” said rhythm guitarist Michael Rummans, who helped found the Sloths in high school. “Sometimes someone will get ahold of like, Question Mark and the Mysterians or someone, and throw something together, and it’s kind of sad, really. But me and [new Sloths singer] Tom McLoughlin are 100-percent committed and dead serious about trying to reach as broad an audience as we can, because the path has now been opened up for this kind of raw, raunchy rock ’n’ roll—the White Stripes and the Black Keys, you can read about these bands in Rolling Stone magazine now! So we are pedal to the metal.”
This year’s Stomp will feature a nice selection of soul singers as well, including Spencer Wiggins from Memphis, Tennessee, and Sonny Green, originally of Monroe, Lousiana, best known for his song “Jody’s On the Run.” “Back in the Vietnam War era, when your man was in the army ‘Jody’ was the backdoor man,” Dr. Ike explained. “While you’re gone, Jody’s gonna come round and take care of your girl. But in ‘Jody’s On the Run,’ Jody’s getting caught.”
Dr. Ike is also proud of this year’s early girl-group era revue, featuring the first-ever white Motown recording artist Chris Clark (a.k.a. “the white negress”), Baby Washington (who recorded “That’s How Heartaches Are Made”) and Maxine Brown (“Ask Me,” “Oh No Not My Baby” and “It's Gonna Be Alright”).
For solo acts and also reunited bands lacking all their original members, Dr. Ike has put together several Ponderosa Stomp backing groups comprised mostly of Southern musicians. Past Stomp bands have featured members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and the Oblivions, organist Mr. Quintron, and Yo La Tengo, among other luminaries. “[Late New Orleans transplant] Alex Chilton played many years as an unannounced member of the backing group,” Dr. Ike told me. “He didn’t want anyone to know he was there.” This year’s backing bands are powered by stars such as Clifton Chenier’s guitarist from Lafayette, Lil Buck Senegal, and his band the Top Cats. “We use them for a lot of the soul and funk stuff,” says Ike. “Then we have another band led by Scott Bomar of the Bo-Keys who did the music for Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan. We’ve also got Irving Bannister, the last of the legendary New Orleans R & B band the Sha-Weez, and drummer Mike Buck from the Fabulous Thunderbirds.”
Barbara Lynn performing at the Stomp.
The Stomp's peripheral events include the foundation’s annual Music History Conference (produced in cooperation with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) featuring DJs, distributors, and writers all telling the stories behind iconic pieces of music. This year’s talks will feature the Sonics (who will play New Orleans for the first time ever), under-credited New Orleans singers Charles Brimmer and Richard Caiton, and uncouth country-soul artist Swamp Dogg.
Because the festival attracts many record collectors, the Stomp continues its traditional vinyl swap, its Hip Drop DJ night (featuring Brice Nice), and a screening of Muscle Shoals, about the legendary, provocative FAME recording studio in Alabama that brought white and black musicians together to birth hits such as Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man.&rdquo
Though unlike other doctors he is off the clock once he leaves the hospital, Dr. Ike says that his profession nonetheless bleeds into his passion project in many different ways. “Musicians are like surgeons,” he told me. “You have to manage their egos and the personalities and make sure you get everything right. You herd the musician like you herd the surgeon. When you do an anesthetic you have to get the patient in the room, get the patient set up, put them to sleep, and get the surgeon there. At the Stomp, you get the musician to the room, set up, and get them on stage. And if something goes wrong, your crisis management has to be good. I have to remain calm at work, and if something goes wrong I have to quickly figure out what to do with the situation before it spins out of control.” And of course the musicians always tell him their medical problems, from impotence to diabetes. “One year one of them had forgotten their insulin, so I had to call the pharmacy and get insulin immediately,” he recalled. “This is what you have to do when you run a show like this with older folks.”
Ike stresses, however, that these old-timers are mostly tough characters who have come through a lot. “I booked Homesick James when he was I think 90,” he said. “I went to check on him in his hotel and there was this massive bottle of wine, and him and his friend had drunk the whole bottle and they were just hanging out. I just thought, If I can be 90 years old and drink a bottle of wine like this guy, I’ll be fine.”
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.
- New Orleans
- garage rock
- The Sonics
- R & B
- Ponderosa Stomp Festival
- old musicians
- Eddie Daniels
- the Sloths
- record collectors
- Ira Padnos