NEW ORLEANS - From its grassroots origins in a co-founder’s backyard birthday party, the Ponderosa Stomp has grown into one of Louisiana’s great music festivals. Of course, that makes it one of the world’s great music festivals.
The 10th annual Ponderosa Stomp, staged last weekend at Howlin’ Wolf, and its accompanying music history conference, are dedicated, as the festival’s organizers describe it, to the unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll.
This year’s unsung heroes included New Orleans recording studio owner Cosimo Matassa, Bo Diddley band member Lady Bo, the mighty Bo-Keys (featuring musicians who backed the Memphis soul stars of the Stax and Hi labels), Excello Records swamp-blues musicians Lazy Lester, Carol Fran, James Johnson and Rudy Richard, pioneer rhythm-and-blues star Big Jay McNeely, B-movie actor and guitarist Arch Hall Jr. and dozens more.
The 85-year-old Matassa attended Friday night’s tribute to him, featuring artists who recorded hits at his French Quarter studio. Producer-songwriter-pianist Allen Toussaint led his four-piece band in songs he’s identified with (“Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” “Java,” “Yes We Can”) and then backed the always charming Clarence “Frogman” Henry (“I Don’t Know Why But I Do,” “Ain’t Got No Home”) and Robert Parker (“Barefootin’,” “Let’s Go Baby Where The Action Is”).
“Cosimo Matassa,” Toussaint said with obvious affection early in his set. “He put us on the map.”
Saturday night, 84-year-old singer, saxophonist and showman Big Jay McNeely, backed by roots-music masters Deke Dickerson and the Eccofonics, performed his classic cheating song, “There Is Something On Your Mind,” and got the joint jumping with “Insect Ball.” His wild jump-blues number, “3-D,” inspired Dickerson to marvel, “it’s 60 years after he made that record and he’s still up here wailing!”
Saturday in The Den - Howlin’ Wolf’s additional, coffee house-like space - singer, guitarist and harmonica player Lester and Baton Rouge guitarist Richard appeared as a duo. Following Richard’s recent illnesses, it was his first performance in months.
Richard and Lester in such an intimate setting was a rare, magical occasion. Lester sang Lonesome Sundown’s mournful “My Home Is A Prison” and, with arpeggio accompaniment from Richard, an especially country-sounding rendition of Slim Harpo’s south Louisiana theme song, “Rainin’ In My Heart.”
Saturday’s Stax Records and Memphis soul tribute proved an event-topping climax. The Bo-Keys, including drummer Howard Grimes (Al Green, Rufus and Carla Thomas recordings), organist Archie “Hubby” Turner (Green, Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright), trumpeter Ben Cauley (The Bar-Kays, Otis Redding) and guitarist Skip Pitts (“Theme From Shaft”) backed Eddie Floyd (“Knock On Wood”), William Bell (“You Don’t Miss Your Water,” “Tryin’ To Love Two”) and Sir Mack Rice (composer of “Mustang Sally”). For one mesmerizing, spirit-raising night, at least, Memphis soul ruled in the land of the carnival queens.