Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ponderosa Stomp - day 1

The Ponderosa Stomp just gets better and better. This year's seventh celebration of rock and roll, soul and New Orleans R & B at the House of Blues more than lived up to the excellent standard of stomps of past years. The highlight was, of all people, Dr John, appearing as Mac Rebennack and running through a great R and B set, including Storm Warning (playing guitar, rather hidden behind the piano) and blistering versions of Carry On and Lights Out. The fact that he was backed by the Wardell Querzerque Revue, including the great Herb Hardesty on sax, clearly helped, but this was New Orleans at its best. The revue also featured little known soul man Tony Owens, whose day job is driving a horse and carriage around town for tourists, Jean Knight and Tami Lynn, all of whom put in polished, if short, sets.
The evening kicked off with a short set by the madman Roy Head, followed by some superb soul and swamp pop from Barbara Lynn (pictured) and blues by Lazy Lester, whose early 45 gave the Ponderosa Stomp its name. Meanwhile on the other stage there was some thumping rock and roll from Barrance Whitfield and rockabilly from Joe Clay, Dale Hawkins, who was on great form, Sonny Burgess and Hayden Thompson. But I stuck mostly to the main stage, where after a slight lull with Earl Stanley and Skip Easterling (rather uninspired white New Orleans R and B) things hotted up again with the Bo-Keys and a great version of Shaft, followed by some wonderful soul from Betty Harris - sounding even better than she did the other night when I saw her in a little club - and an absolutely stand out performance from William Bell, who still has a great voice and showed what a great performer he is.
I was interested to see Mary Weiss, former lead singer of the Shangi-Las, who did a mix of new songs and Shangri-La classics, of which Leader of the Pack stood out, with enthusiastic support from the audience. Finally I watched the Collins Kids, who are anything but kids these days but can still rock and roll.
To think that this was just day one and we have another action packed evening ahead of us tonight. This is some festival!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Drowned at Jazzfest

The heavens opened over Jazzfest on Saturday causing several inches of ground water in many places and shortening the day by half an hour. It was a good day to be in the Blues Tent and that's where I stayed for most of the time. I arrived in time for sax legend Big Jay McNeely who didn't disappoint, honking his way around the front row of the crowd as well as on stage. I ventured out for a quick look at Eddie Bo but retreated to the tent as the rain grew ever heavier to watch the James Cotton Band. Harmonica blues can get a little tedious but Cotton is a master of the art. The day ended with the Ponderosa Stomp Revue, as Dr Ike introduced some of the stars of this year's and past shows, including the excellent Dennis Binder, Tammi Lynn, the manic Roy Head, who lay on his back, flipped his mike and played with his crotch through an enthusiastic set, and finally Archie Bell, who was restricted to just his Tighten Up classic as the fest shut down. On the way out I got soaked to the skin and was happy to get on a shuttle bus - any shuttle bus!
In the evening we went to see Irma Thomas at the Generations Hall. Irma was in great voice but played to a very thin crowd. Apparently there had been very little publicity for the show. After a drive around the city with the Aussie DJs in search of more live music we ended at the Mother In Law Lounge, which remains a shrine to the memory of Ernie K-Doe.
Sunday was another dodgy looking day weather-wise and sure enough the heavens opened again, catching me out in the open and soaking me once more. In the Blues Tent there was an act from Mali - Marmora Diabete I think he was called - who was followed by Roy Young, a soul man who was born in Jamaica, lived in England and now lives in Israel. After a shaky start he came good with a great song called Going Shoppin' (possibly named for my girlfriend!) and a soulful version of Everybody Hurts. He was backed by a Memphis band anfd Willie Mitchell's son was at the side of the stage. At last the rain relented and we went along to see the wonderful Al Green on the Congo Square stage. He was in great form, bounding around the stage looking dapper in a dark suit and silver waistcoat, throwing red roses to the audience and running through many of his Hi hits.
The evening was a bit of a disappointment. We went to the House of Blues to see Etta James and the place was packed, with some of the best areas cordoned off for Dan Ackroyd and his cronies. A new, slim-line Etta proved she was still in fine form, but her choice of material was dissappointing - she did a Kiki Dee cover for God's sake! - and there was a lot of inaudible patter between songs. Despite support from Dr John on one number there was a feeling that she was going through the motions to some extent.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Lafayette to New Orleans

The International Festival in Lafayette is a laid back affair and we were there for the first evening. Things kicked off with Sonny Landreth, an excellent guitarist who is just a bit too heavy rock for my taste. Meeting up with the Stompin' crowd yet again we then experienced a real treat - the Blind Boys of Alabama. I've seen them before, but not for many years, and their act is basically unchanged: high class gospel and histrionics, as each of the (now only) three blind singers gets off their chairs as they are overcome with emotion and have to be put back in them before they fall off the stage. Their version of Amazing Grace (crossed with House of the Rising Sun) was a classic.
On to New Orleans for the first weekend of Jazzfest and to the French Market Inn, which couldn't be more central. In the evening we took the ferry to Algiers to see Betty Harris who was playing the Old Point Bar, an old fashioned place that I hadn't visited before. Another great show, with Cry To Me the highlight for me. We met up with some Aussie DJs from Melbourne who had somehow arranged for Betty to visit down under and went on with them to the Hi Ho Lounge, another place I hadn't visited before, on St Claude. Little Freddie King and Guitar Lightnin' played some high class blues and Dennis Binder had been on earlier. By this time it was late and we had all consumed some booze so it was back to the hotel at 4. And today, if we can get our acts together is the first Saturday of Jazzfest. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Louisiana joyride

After leaving Clarksdale we headed off to Arkansas and spent the day travelling en route to Shreveport. We stopped off in Helena, home of the King Biscuit Blues Festival, and had a good brunch at Granny Dee's restaurant in downtown, before buying some records amd nik naks. Later we stopped in Brinkley, a one horse town that was the birthplace of Louis Jordan, who has a small display in the local museum. They will be marking the 100th anniversary of his birth next month. It was near here that they rediscovered the Great Ivory Woodpecker three years ago - 60 years after it was believed to be extinct. Travelling on through Hope, birthplace of Bill Clinton, we eventually arrived at Bossier City where we stayed the night. I was stopped for speeding on the way and let off with a warning by the Arkansas police.
Next dat was uneventful, apart from a trip out in the evening with the other Stompers to the Noble Savage, q pretty good bar/restaurant where I ate bison and listened to a blues band, which featured Bunter for part of the time. Across the road was a statue of one of Shreveport's most famous sons - Leadbelly - whose early blues recordings while in prison were a major influence on the likes of Lonnie Donegan.
This morning we set off for Louisiana and had lunch at Natchatoches (pronouned Nakatish) the oldest town in the state, and then went on to Lafayette, where we ate sushi downtown. I was stopped for speeding again - and let off again, this time by the Lousiana cops. The festival starts tomorrow but the town is clearly gearing up for it already.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The birth of the blues

Graceland is not for the faint hearted, or the connoisseur. It's a rather tacky tribute to Elvis, but a must do visit if you have never been to Memphis before, as is the case with my lovely girlfriend. Since I last went there in 1989 they have extended the exhibits and introduced a few innovations such as individual audio commentaries, but the tone remains the same. The King could do no wrong. He lives on in our hearts and will never really die.
After Graceland we tried to see the Stax Museum, but it was closed, and the Civil Rights Museum, which appears to be rarely open. Indeed most of Memphis seems to be closed. It still looks run down and depressed. In the evening we went out to the suburbs to Wild Bill's' Blues Club. The Soul Survivors is the regular band and I had heard that it's a genuine black club well off the beaten track. And so it is and the band was excellent. Definitely worth a visit if you're visiting Memphis.
After Memphis we drove to Clarksdale, Mississippi, for the Juke Joint Blues Festival. We're staying at the Hopson Plantation - an original plantation complex which is now a shrine to the blues, with regular live music and shacks to stay in, although we stayed in the newly opened Cotton Gin. The blues festival in town was good, although most of the acts were little known, but in the evening jet lag closed in and we missed the evening acts, apart from the band playing in the Cotton Gin which we could hear from our room.
Today we headed off with some of the other Stompers to Tutwiler, where W C Handy first heard a slide guitar being played and the blues was born. There is a mural there by the railroad track depicting the scene, but like everywhere else in the Delta the place was near derelict. Nearby we found the grave of Sonny Boy Williamson and paid our respects. From there we went to Oxford, where one of the group, Alan, had arranged for us to visit the home of Dick Waterman, one of the pioneers of blues recording and management. We spent a fascinating couple of hours looking at his photographs of Son House, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Bonnie Raitt (who he managed for 20 years), the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and many more taken over the last 45 years. Dick is a great storyteller and seems a happy man, newly married as he is to Cindy at the age of 73. A fascinating man with so much to tell, and boy did he tell it. More on his fascinating memoirs in a later blog.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Walking in Memphis

Well here I am in Memphis at last. After a long flight to Atlanta and then on to Memphis my girlfriend and were pretty knackered when we got here. But we were also hungry so we headed off to Isaac Hayes's restaurant, which I remembered from my last trip, but it's gone bust. We wandered down Beale Street and ended up eating at the Hardrock Cafe, where the food was mediocre, the drinks - certainly the cocktails were disgusting - but the ambience was good, with an interesting Elvis shrine area and a selection of guitars donated by the great and the good, including Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash among others. Moving up the street we caught the James Govan band at the Rum Boogie Cafe (pictured) - one of the best music places on Beale which houses the original Stax sign. His version of I've Got Dreams to Remember brought a lump to my throat. Afterwards we went to check out the Hughes Uptown bar which was supposed to be a good live music venue, but it looked dead so we didn't go in and went back to the hotel to catch up on some sleep.
This morning I grabbed some breakfast at the Arcade cafe - Memphis's oldest - and then went looking for River Records. I eventuallyfound it and it's a record collectors' dream. 300,000 records, according to the owner who's run it since 1951, many of them genuine rock and roll, soul and blues collectables. I parted with some of my hard earned dollars on some rare stuff, but I could easily have spent thousands . The weather is cool and damp but that's fine as we're off to Graceland this afternoon. I've been there before but my girldfriend hasn't and we really ought to see it while we're here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Laissez les bon temps roulez

Tomorrow I'm off to the US for what has become virtually an annual trip. Kicking off in Memphis I will be going to Clarksdale, Mississippi, for the Juke Joint Blues Festival, then on to Shreveport, Lafayette, a week in New Orleans for Jazzfest and the Ponderosa Stomp and then back to Memphis for the Beale Street festival. Getting away from the unseasonably cold weather - and from work - for two and a half weeks is reason enough to feel excited. But the music available makes this more than just a holiday.
Of course many of the original acts who I went to see in New Orleans back in 1989 when I went to Jazzfest for the first time have since died or stopped performing. I remember seeing Ernie K-Doe, Jessie Hill, Albert King, Junior Walker, Bobby Marchan, Earl King and many more who are no longer with us. But some have survived and continue to excite. I'm looking forward to seeing Irma Thomas and Al Green again, hopefully Bobby Bland, plus many relatively obscure or hard to see acts at the Ponderosa Stomp, including Ronnie Spector and Question Mark and the Mysterians among dozens of others.
There's something great about just driving around the deep south, stopping off at roadside bars and flea markets, searching for obscure records and meeting up with friendly, interesting people. It just doesn't happen in the UK. Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee have played such a key role in 2oth century music - from Sun Records, to the birth of the blues, Stax, Hi, the legends of New Orleans R and B, Cajun, zydeco, swamp pop and southern soul. - even jazz itself. There is simply nowhere else in the world that can compare with this region for its musical heritage.
I remember a few years ago feeling that I had seen just about everyone I ever wanted to see. Yet still there are musicians that I have yet to experience, not to mention others who I just want to see at least one more time.
This is the season for the South, and for its music. Look out for reports on what I see on The Vinyl Word. Laissez les bon temps roulez!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

O V Wright's unmarked grave

Overton Vertis Wright was without a doubt one of the greatest of all soul singers. How sad then that his premature demise isn't even marked with a gravestone. I learned this from the excellent Backroads of American Music website

and when I go to Memphis I feel I really should pay homage to the great O V Wright. Like James Carr, another great Memphian, his was a tormented life, hooked on drugs as he was, but his music surpassed almost anything that has come out of the southern soul firmament. Here are a few of his original LPs on the Backbeat and Hi labels.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Ready for action

It's just two weeks until my girlfriend and I go off to the States and things are looking good. In fact there's so much going on that we will need a rest when I get back by the look of it.
I've been checking out the New Orleans music scene while we're there and keep unearthing more and more goodies. Quite apart from the juicy line ups at the Ponderosa Stomp and Jazzfest there are some great gigs going on in the clubs during the first weekend of the Jazzfest.
For example, soul singer Betty Harris is on at a place called the Old Point Bar in Algiers on April 25 and 26 . I saw Betty at Porretta last year and she is well worth seeing.
The wonderful Irma Thomas is playing five nights at the Generations Hall in the Warehouse District ( April 26 and 27 and May 1, 3 and 4), as well as at the festival itself on the 27th.
The House of Blues has some great gigs There's Dr John on April 25, the Juke Joint Jamboree with Bobby 'Blue' Bland and the James Cotton Band on April 26 and Etta James on April 27, not to mention the Ponderosa Stomp on April 29 and 30.
Tipitinas has the Blind Boys of Alabama and Allen Toussaint on April 26m and there are a couple of good gigs at the Mid City Rock and Bowl - Snooks Eaglin on April 28 and an all star Zydeco night on May 1
I've also been checking out gigs in Memphis, as we'll be there for two nights when we first arrive and another two nights just before we go back to the UK. On April 17 there's the Roy Hughes Band at Hughes Uptown, which is supposed to be an interesting black blues club, and the following night the Soul Survivors play a regular gig at Wild Bills, another interesting black club. James Govan's Band is the house band at the Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale Street and of course the Beale Street Festival (1st weekend in May) has an interesting line up . Sadly we will miss Jerry Lee Lewis as we will be on the plane home.
We're spending a couple of days at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale (April 19 and 20) where there is a long list of blues acts performing, including Big Jack Johnson and Johnny Rawls , and we'll also be heading out to Shreveport where we 're promised some fun at the Holiday in Dixie festival Then it's on Lafayette for the first day or so of the Festival Louisiane where the Blind Boys of Alabama and Sonny Landreth among others are appearing
Altogether an action packed couple of weeks. And they say there's no decent music around these days!