The Ponderosa Stomp: America’s Roots Festival: Part I

Concert Reviews, Features — By on November 5, 2015 1:33 am

Every music festival is unique. That being said, the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans is in a class by itself. Run in its entirety by the non-profit Ponderosa Stomp Foundation, and ensuring a quality-over-quantity approach by occurring only every-other year, the Stomp is equal parts music festival and historical society.


It is dedicated to promoting and preserving the formative sounds of roots music genres, including rockabilly, blues, country, R&B, soul, funk, garage rock, Cajun, zydeco and many others. Over the course of two days, the festival’s line-up is filled with surviving original artists from these genres (and their immediate protégés) as well as overlooked but influential trend-setters … some of whom the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation has tracked down in the obscurity of their post-musical lives and persuaded to return to the stage.

While the Stomp’s venue has rotated around New Orleans over the festival’s history, the 2015 event is held at its traditional home, the Rock n’ Bowl – a celebrated Mid-City venue which, yes, during the daytime also functions as a bowling alley.


Miriam and Nobody’s Babies

Miriam Linna launched her musical career as the original drummer for punk/garage luminaries, The Cramps. She followed this with tours of duty in the rockabilly combo Zantees and another garage outfit, A-Bones. While an excellent drummer and solid vocalist, Linna made even greater contributions to music as co-founder of roots-oriented Norton Records and co-editor of rock-and-roll ‘zine Kicks.  In 2014, however, she re-embraced the other side of the microphone: actively returning to recording, touring and performing.

In her current incarnation, Linna reaches deep into her Cramps and A-Bones bags, dishing up tight performances of garage rock and roots music with a 60s-esque pop vibe.  Her regular backing band, Nobody’s Babies, adds guitar, electric base, keyboard and percussion to the mix as well as a tambourine/maraca player.

Miriam Linna & Nobody's Babies

Miriam Linna & Nobody’s Babies

Linna’s voice is well-suited to her current blend of styles and especially excels at higher ranges. Most of her offerings at the Stomp are medium to medium-fast tempo, with a positive, upbeat vibe. It should be noted, however, this sound is occasionally belied by a song’s lyrics, as with the delightfully cynical “Why do I Love You” and “Nobody’s Baby Now” or the bittersweet “There Goes My Baby.”  Every so often, a high-energy flourish on vocals or instrumentation testifies to the band’s Cramps pedigree and a couple of songs have a faint hint of New Wave, as if Missing Persons was covering The Crystals.

Several instrumental breaks showcase the skills of Linna’s backing band. It is clear that Nobody’s Babies also deserve their share of credit for successfully bringing the ensemble’s old-school sound to life.   The lead guitar’s energy is wonderful, delivering just the right notes to deliver period authenticity. Too many bands believe, mistakenly, that simply including instrumentation such as maracas or tambourines will yield a ‘60s sound. These instruments still must be used properly, and Nobody’s Babies definitely delivers.

The band has a new record out. While it is hoped nothing will interfere with Linna’s continued work at Norton Records, it is wonderful to have her back on the stage.


R.L. Boyce

The evening’s second performer, Mississippi blues guitarist R.L. Boyce, is welcomed to the stage by his friend, and fellow axe icon, Guitar Lightnin’ Lee. Warming up the crowd, Lee, backed by soul band The Bo-Keys, powers down on his cherry red guitar for some old school rock and roll in the vein of Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley as Boyce, a very different type of master guitarist, takes the stage.

Most roots fans are familiar with the three major blues styles of the Delta, Chicago and Texas. Beyond that, however, exist a constellation of smaller regional blues styles, none of which is more celebrated than that of the north Mississippi Hill Country.  Thin-soiled, sparsely-populated and, of course, hilly, north Mississippi’s borderlands with Tennessee gave rise to a stark, minimal interpretation of the blues which emphasizes solo or very small group performances. As with Texas blues farther to the West, guitar is king in the Mississippi hills and lyrics are more freeform than the liturgical AAB cadence of the Delta.

R.L. Boyce, Legend of Mississippi Hill Country Blues

R.L. Boyce, Legend of Mississippi Hill Country Blues

Taking the stage, Boyce demonstrates why he is widely considered the art form’s greatest living practitioner, the embodiment of the region’s stripped-down stylings. His vocals are called and shouted more than sung, harkening back to archaic musical styles such as field hollers and call and response. Boyce’s voice oozes the slow, drawn-out vowels of the region’s distinctive accent. His careful, measured guitar work is masterfully understated, marking time and framing his vocals rather than yielding melody. There is, perhaps, the faintest hint of John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters in his music. Boyce’s performance style is matched by his casual appearance: slacks, deck shoes, light jacket with the collar turned partly up and an A’s cap.

He treats the audience to a mix of his personal compositions and blues standards. Occasionally, he mixes the two. He lays original lyrics over a rhythm almost identical to Big Joe Williams’ “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and concludes his set with a version of the “Black Betty” cycle, traditional folklore that has become widespread in southern roots music.

Boyce’s performance is enhanced by a relaxed stage presence. He clearly enjoys himself and seems genuinely pleased that such a large audience has come out to hear him play. At the same time, his intimate performance style makes a 500 person crowd feel like five people.



Much of the Ponderosa Stomp’s first evening is given over to a celebration of Swamp Pop, an often overlooked roots genre that roared out of the bayous of southwest Louisiana (and an adjacent patch of southeast Texas) in the 1950s. Swamp Pop fuses indigenous Cajun and Creole elements with R&B, country and rock.  For the evening’s revue, the Stomp has rounded up a collection of significant artists from the genre’s ’50s and early ’60s heyday.

The Mama, Mama, Mamas

Supporting the Swamp Pop Revue musicians is The Mama, Mama, Mamas. Taking its name from a 1958 recording that is one of the genre’s best known hits, the band is a supergroup full of artists who are superstars of Louisiana Music in their own right. Bringing tenor sax, drums, bass and a chromatic accordion to the stage, and joined by roots electric guitarist Michael Hurtt, the group has all the artillery it needs to back any almost any Louisiana outfit.

Earlier this year, The Mama, Mama, Mamas lost one of its original members: legendary blues, swamp and zydeco drummer Clarence “Jockey” Etienne, who passed away in August. The band makes its first number, Guitar Gable’s “Congo Mambo,” (a recording on which Etienne played drums) a tribute to Etienne. It is a worthy tribute, with strong work from the tenor sax, lead guitar and, of course, drums.

The band’s short set segues between Fats Domino-esque R&B and a brand of swamp-pop that often bends towards swamp rock.  Several memorable instrumental sections feature the musicians spontaneously playing off one another in a classic jazz style.

Rod Bernard

The first Swamp Pop star of the evening is Rod Bernard, who in 1959, at the age of 18, took the Southern rock and roll scene by storm with the hit, “This Should Go on Forever.” The song earned the ultimate rock and roll honor of being banned from many radio stations for being too racy and salacious. While never repeating the success, or controversy, of “This Should Go on Forever,” he remained a staple of Swamp Pop throughout the ‘60s. In later years, Bernard grew reclusive, seldom performing publicly.

Rod Bernard

Rod Bernard

But, at the Stomp, “recluse” is not exactly the first word that comes to mind about Bernard. He is relaxed, poised and confident as he takes the stage. The crowd is uncertain how to react when Bernard begins by announcing “I’m celebrating 20 years of sobriety here tonight.” Then he adds, “Oh, not all at once. Over 75 years.”

Bernard opens with “Recorded in England,” a solid rocker. He follows with his signature song “This Should Go on Forever.” While it might not get banned from the airwaves of 2015, it is definitely a spicy little number. Musically, it’s classic swamp pop with a just a little Fats Domino kick.

For his third song, Bernard serves up a rockified version of the traditional Cajun tune “Allons Danser Colinda.” His version was originally released in 1962 on the Hall-Way label. Recorded in Beaumont, Texas, the studio band backing Bernard included two young brothers named Johnny and Edgar Winter. Performing “Colinda” at the Stomp, Bernard’s vocals excel on the beautiful, bilingual lyrics while the backing band delivers some sax-driven rock and roll a la The Coasters. The sax and accordion deftly switch lead lines during long instrumentals. It is, arguably, the strongest number in Bernard’s set, even more so that the better known “This Should Go On Forever.”

Gene Terry

Gene Terry, w/ The Mama, Mama, Mamas and Michael Hurtt

Gene Terry, w/ The Mama, Mama, Mamas and Michael Hurtt

The evening’s second Swamp Pop virtuoso, Gene Terry, was born in the Cajun “capital” of Lafayette, Louisiana and raised amidst the musically fertile soil of Port Arthur, Texas. The son and grandson of Cajun musicians, Terry formed his first band, The Kool Kats, in 1955. Initially strongly influenced by Cajun music, Terry and the Kool Kats soon came under the sway of rock and roll − moving their swamp pop in a harder, faster direction and changing their name to The Downbeats. They established themselves regionally in 1957 with “This Woman I Love.” A year later they hit with a frenetic, unhinged version of “Cindy Lou.”  In 1960, after a career lasting barely half a decade, Terry formally retired from music – but has since performed periodically.

Terry’s short set is dominated by his best known numbers, “This Woman I Love” and “Cindy Lou.” His Swamp Pop is even more rock-oriented than Bernard’s, though the accordion continues to tether the ensemble’s sound to the bayous of southwest Louisiana. The energy on “Cindy Lou,” in particular, holds its own against anything brought by successive decades of rock.

Tommy McLain

Tommy McLain

Tommy McLain

The third master of the Swamp Pop Revue is native Louisianan Tommy McLain. Before discovering Swamp Pop, McLain got his start in straight country, both as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. McLain released a string of Swamp Pop sides in the 1960s, most notably “Sweet Dreams,” a Swamp Pop anthem celebrated as a lyrical paean to southern Louisiana.

Sporting a fuchsia porkpie hat and massive white beard, McClain’s appearance is distinctive: one part hipster, one part Old Testament prophet. Compared with Bernard and Terry, McLain’s Swamp Pop is a little less rock and roll and a little more R&B and blue-eyed soul. His performance is buoyed by the perfect amount of grit and gravel in his voice and backed by great instrumentation from The Mama, Mama, Mamas.

Following the conclusion of McLain’s set, he is joined on stage by Bernard and Terry as the three Swamp Pop legends join together for a performance of “Mathilda,” a slow Swamp ballad originally recorded and popularized in 1959 by Cookie and the Cupcakes.   Making a guest appearance on electric organ is San Antonio music legend Augie Meyers, of The Sir Douglas Quintet and The Texas Tornadoes.  The energy and talent of the virtuosos blends together on the highly atmospheric “Mathilda” as a perfect crown for the Swamp Pop revue.


The Bo-Keys

For the Stomp’s next segment, The Mama, Mama, Mamas are replaced as house band by The Bo-Keys, contemporary practitioners of Memphis Soul. As with The Mama, Mama, Mamas, The Bo-Keys are something of a supergroup, drawing their members from across the wide roots music tradition of Memphis, Tennessee. Their current line-up includes producer-bassist Scott Bomar, singer Percy Wiggins and guitarist Joe Restivo (filling some very big shoes in the group after the 2012 death of legendary funk guitarist Skip Pits). Organist “Hubby” Turner and drummer Howard Grimes share a history with the Hi Rhythm Section, Al Green and Stax Records. The Bo-Keys’ top-notch horn section is filled out by Kirk Smothers, Scott Thompson, Art Edmaiston and Marc Franklin.

Betty Harris

After her disappearance from the public eye in 1969, Betty Harris was often referred to as “The Lost Soul Queen of New Orleans.” Ironically, Harris was never from New Orleans. Nor was she particularly lost – after all, she knew where she was the entire time. Nevertheless, for nearly half a century, Harris’ whereabouts were one of the great mysteries of roots music. With each passing decade, as the mystery grew, so did the critical acclaim and fan accolades for Harris and her work.

In 1939, Harris was born in Orlando, Florida, into a deeply religious family in which the divide between sacred and secular music was very much alive.  Her determination to peruse the latter led to Harris leaving home at the age of 17. At a time when much of soul music was headed in a mellower direction, Harris challenged that trend with her high-energy, sultry, sexy take on the genre. In the mid-to-late ‘60s, Harris also emerged as a trailblazer of the nascent funk scene. Harris quickly came to the attention of the great Allan Toussaint, who took her under his wing. Between Toussaint and her earlier recording sessions, Harris cut nearly three dozen sides in the Crescent City, the origin of her not quite accurate moniker. But, after the death of good friends Otis Redding, Bert Burns, and Babe Chivian, Harris reevaluated her career in music, returning to her native Orlando to raise a family.

When Harris’s daughter left for college and discovered the internet, she discovered something else: her mother was famous. Realizing that generations of soul and funk fans were clamoring for her return, around the year 2000, Harris dipped a toe back into the music businesses and has gradually been increasing her involvement.

Her Stomp set is dominated by classics such as her hit 1963 cover of Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me,” 1968’s witty, sassy “Mean Man” and “Break in the Road,” Harris’ final A-side before retiring from the music business. Her voice is remarkable, one of the most memorable of the entire festival. It is soft and smooth, yet impassioned − culminating in crashing waves of raw emotion. The music is catchy, energetic soul with nods to R&B. There is also a strong funk component on many songs, stronger than Motown, stronger, often, even than Memphis.  In keeping with Harris’ time and place in music, backing vocalists lend a full, powerful, feel to the music.


Willie Hightower

There’s Soul, and then there’s Deep Soul. Though too often overlooked by contemporary fans, Willie Hightower is a master practitioner of the latter.

The Alabama native began performing in church as a young child, but soon made the jump to singing R&B in clubs around Gadsen, Alabama. Hightower came to the attention of Bobby Robison, a brilliant and eccentric record producer based in Harlem. Much of Hightower’s too-short discography made its appearance on Robinson’s two main labels: Enjoy and Fury. But he made the national scene in 1969, with “It’s a Miracle,” released on Capitol Records.

Hightower radiates energy. He begins working the crowd as soon as he takes the microphone, inviting them to put their hands together for first number, “Nobody Else But You,” an archetypical southern soul number.  His voice is magnificent, at once reminiscent of both Wilson Picket and Sam Cooke.

The highpoints of his set display an enormous range of soul and related styles. “Time has Brought About a Change” is a smooth, slow R&B unfolding through Hightower’s velvety tenor. “It’s a Miracle” still feels fresh and vivid 50 years later. “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” a Joe South cover, combines intense southern soul with a positive, uplifting message about not judging and getting along with other folks.

He concludes his set with a souled-up version of Pete Seeger’s “If I had a Hammer.” But Hightower makes the tune his own, changing a few lyrics, inviting the audience into the performance with a bit of call and response and delivering it all with an energy level Seeger never dreamed of, it becomes a fundamentally different beast from the familiar classic of progressive folk.


Brenda Holloway

On a label which heavily drew from Detroit and the South for its talent, Brenda Holloway is an anomaly. As her moniker, “Motown’s West Coast Lady of Soul” testifies, Holloway was is a product of California, born in Atascadero and raised in Watts. Spotted by Motown’s West Coast head, Hal Davis, she was brought to the attention of label management and quickly signed.

Her set is dominated by warm, rolling soul and R&B numbers. Great soul and funk from the Bo-Keys’ strings and horns build out the set with a rich, deep sound. Memorable moments from her set include “Every Little Bit Hurts,” her debut recording with Motown that took R&B and soul charts by storm, an excellent rendition of “When I’m Gone” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” first recorded by Holloway in 1967, before being popularized by a Blood, Sweat & Tears cover in 1969.


Mable John

The next artist is also a Motown veteran. From Bastrop, Louisiana (and sister of rock, R&B and doo-wop singer Little Willie John), Mable John was the first female singer signed to Motown and was managed by Barry Gordy even before he founded his legendary label. Surprisingly, John’s powerful, full-throated soul, R&B and blues never got much traction at Motown. Leaving the Motor City behind, she tried her luck further south. John found success both as part of Memphis-based Stax Record’s stable of artists and as the leader of the Raelettes, the backing vocalists for Ray Charles – and a musical powerhouse in their own right.

She leads her set with “I’m Able Mable,” an energetic R&B signature song (a la “I’m Bo Diddley”). The bulk of her set mixes her solo work and Raelette/Ray Charles hits, such as “Bad Water.” John is a delight to watch on stage. Although she is 84, like many Stomp artists, her voice, moves and stage presence render that number meaningless. John, who earned a Doctorate of Divinity degree and is now active primarily in religious music, caps her set at the Stomp with an emotionally powerful soul-arrangement of the traditional spiritual, “This is the Day the Lord has Made.”


P.F. Sloan

The following act marks a change of pace from the artists preceding him: better known as a songwriter than a performer and associated with the West Coast rock scene rather than Motown R&B or Southern soul. A musical prodigy, P.F. Sloan cut his first single at the age of 14 and landed a regular songwriting gig at the age of 16. Sloan’s songwriting credits include Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man,” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” and the guitar lines for The Mamas & The Papas “California Dreamin’.” He wrote and, as a member of The Grass Roots, performed the ’60s anthem “Live for Today” as well as several other charting numbers for the band.

P.F. Sloan

P.F. Sloan

Much of Sloan’s set is dominated by his best known songwriting work. It is always fascinating to hear songwriters perform songs they wrote but which were made famous by other artists. Often, the song clearly sounded differently in the songwriter’s head than in the commercially released version that ultimately resulted.  In Sloan’s case, it appears the original conceptions of his songs were often much softer, even tending in the direction of folk rock, than the final product.

Make no mistake, however, Sloan can really cook when he gets going. This is testified to by songs such as “Anywhere the Girls Are,” and “Pushing Too Hard,” serving up blistering guitar work that is among the strongest of the entire festival – no mean feat. The latter number also has some interesting avant garde/experimental elements, somewhere between Arlo Guthrie and Frank Zappa. Other highlights of his set include “That’s Cool/That’s Trash,” a 1964 number featuring excellent multi-part vocal harmonies and “Kick That Little Foot, Sally Ann,” the first song he wrote for The Grass Roots, which has a fun 60s-pop sound.


Freddie “Boom Boom” Cannon

Hailing from the Boston area, the next artist is another departure from the often Southern-heavy roster of Stomp roots artists. Freddie Cannon holds the record for most appearances on American Bandstand and earned the tag “Boom Boom” for his uncompromising devotion to hard-driving rock and roll. Cannon was the voice behind such classics as the racy and rambunctious “Tallahassee Lassie,” a rock cover of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” (Cannon’s version is often credited as the first rock song to feature a full horn section) and the slightly mellower “Palisades Park,” with its justly celebrated organ lines.

Cannon leads off by joking with the crowd, threatening to lock the doors so they have to listen to him and then asking, “How many people came here tonight not knowing who the hell I was?” Following-up his question with “That’s okay, I don’t know who the hell you are either.”

Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon introduces "Palisades Park."

Freddie “Boom Boom” Cannon introduces “Palisades Park.”

Cannon dives into his set with a full-throttle rendition of “Tallahassee Lassie,” having lost none of his musical vitality in the 55 years since it was first recorded. The song’s lyrics (“Well, she comes from Tallahassee. She got a hi-fi chassis. Maybe looks a little sassy. But to me, she’s real classy”) embody the energy, exuberance and highly sexualized yet oddly innocent spirt of old school rock and roll.

It is difficult to talk about the “highlights” of a set that is essentially nothing but. Cannon’s performance of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” sounds like a musical love letter to the rock of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard.  He dedicates “Palisades Park” to all his fellow East Coasters in the audience. A cover of “Shake, Rattle & Roll” clearly cleaves more closely to the Big Joe Turner original than the better known Bill Haley cover. Another cover, “Blue Monday” successfully mates Cannon’s R&R energy with the rich R&B sound of Fats Domino’s original.

Cannon is a true old-school rock and roller. At the conclusion of his set, he tells the crowd “There are few rockers left, and you’re looking at one of them.” Not an excessively modest statement, perhaps, but a 100% accurate one.


Jim Oertling

A gem of early rockabilly, Oertling’s life and music have kept one foot in Louisiana and the other in Texas. He begins by introducing his guitar to the audience, telling them its “three wives old and I don’t know how many girlfriends.” Then, on a more serious note, Oertling, who has sizable followings in both Europe and Japan, takes a moment to thank his international fans in the audience, recognizing how far they traveled to be here.

Jim Oertling and Deke Dickerson

Jim Oertling and Deke Dickerson

Supporting Oertling on stage are the pan-roots rockers Deke Dickerson & The Ecco-Fonics, putting another two guitars, standing bass and drums and Oertling’s disposal. The set opens with the rockabilly classic “Louisiana Gambler.” The band begins with a steady-rolling honkytonk intro before Oertling joins in, delivering rough, shouting rockabilly with a magnificent cigar and whiskey voice.

His next song is “Back Forty” (sometimes cited as “Back Forty Blues”), written by Oertling for a farmer friend who always complained about his back forty (the rear section of a farm, often the most difficult and least productive part). The result is a song which is as much outlaw country as rockabilly. Indeed, it is easy to imagine it being delivered by the likes of Joe Ely or Jerry Jeff Walker. Midway through the song, the rhythm and string work gets a bit funky, creating a 1970s Jerry Reed feel which is well complimented by Oertling’s wild, shouting vocal style.

In a similar vein to “Back Forty” is “Country Don’t Live Here Any More.” If anything, this song is even more outlaw country, occasionally even knocking on the door of alt-country. Its lyrics paint a classic lament of the encroachment of commercialism and the suburban lifestyle on the county, consider:

The Dance Hall and the Feed & Seed
Are covered by a Walmart Store
And I don’t see no cowboy hats.
Country doesn’t live here anymore.

Other memorable moments from Oertling’s showcase include “In My Own Kind of Way,” which is more traditional country than rockabilly. “A Wild Rose,” with its southwestern guitar sounds and bilingual lyrics, testifies to Oertling’s time in the San Antonio area.

He concludes his set with “Old Mossback,” perhaps Oertling’s best known song. The rockabilly “Old Man and the Sea,” this song tells the tale of a southern sportsman’s struggles against a fearsome bass, the eponymous Old Mossback.


Joe Clay

Cutting his first record in 1956, at the age of 15, Joe Clay was one the true pioneers of rockabilly. His sadly limited discography not only celebrated but also helped define America’s early rockabilly scene, with energetic anthems such as “(Don’t Mess With My) Ducktail” and “16 Chicks.” Clay was an essential figure on the Louisiana and regional rockabilly scene, even playing guitar for several Elvis Presley recordings. In spite of his stellar music and sterling rockabilly pedigree, other than an appearance on Ed Sullivan (which, notably, predated Presley’s by several months), Clay never hit nationally. Clay’s manager was reluctant to allow his protégée to tour outside of Louisiana, often cited as a key reason the artist never broke-out.

Joe Clay not standing still for the camera.

Joe Clay not standing still for the camera.

When the rockabilly revival began to explode in the early 1980s, one of the most common questions on fans’ lips was “Where’s Joe Clay?” In 1984, Clay was discovered working as a school bus driver in his hometown of Gretna, Louisiana. He was quickly recruited into the ranks of the leading lights of the rockabilly rival and, over the past three decades, has built a sizable international fan base and become a fixture at concerts and festivals.

Taking the stage, Clay grabs the microphone and tells the audience “Folks, we’ve got to keep it down. It’s 2:30 in the morning,” his voice dripping with impish sarcasm. The band roars into “Ducktail,” with Clay energetically delivering his twangy, rockabilly croon. During the instrumental bridges, Clay clowns a bit for the audience – “helping” Dickerson play his guitar and then similarly “assisting” the bassist.

He follows with “16 Chicks.” As Clay starts getting into some fancy footwork, it’s clear that “Ducktail” was just a warm-up. During the first instrumental, Clay jumps behind the drum set and plays for a bit. This time, there’s no clowning. His solid, staccato drumming is a living window into the rhythms of half a century ago.

As the set unfolds, Clay even gets off stage, not precisely a “hop” but pretty spry nonetheless. He struts through the crowd, singing and playing, before returning to the stage to complete his set. It covers about half of Clay’s small original discography, but every note and word is sold gold vintage rockabilly.


J.M Van Eaton

The evening’s final artist may not be a household name – but his sound is ubiquitous and influence widespread. As house drummer for Memphis’s Sun Records and Jerry Lewis’s original drummer, J.M. Van Eaton has done as much as anyone to set the sound of roots percussion.

Rather than a massive contemporary drum kit, Van Eaton opts for a very period appropriate setup, doing everything with a mini-bass drum, two cymbals and three toms. Joining the ensemble of supporting musicians for Van Eaton is New Orleans pianist Armand St. Martin, who deserves to be recognized for the incredibly tall order he has been called upon to fill. Playing keys for Jerry Lee Lewis’s drummer means, in effect, St. Martin has to live up to the standards of The Killer himself.

Legendary drummer J.M. Van Eaton

Legendary drummer J.M. Van Eaton

Van Eaton leads with a triptych of Lewis hits: “High School Confidential,” “Down the Line” and “Lonely Weekend.” His percussion has lost none of the edge that made him such a perfect compliment to Lewis’s furious vocals and piano playing. It is not fancy, but it is intense, spirited and, at the same time, intricate – every beat falls exactly where it needs to and does exactly what it needs to.

The trio of Lewis songs is followed by “Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll,” “Beat-Nik” and “Uranium Rock,” three numbers which Van Eaton performed with The Little Green Men, house band for Sun Records and, under frontman Billy Lee Riley, also an accomplished rock and rockabilly performance and recording act. In “Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll,” Van Eaton takes a stint on vocals. It’s clear who he takes after in the voice department. The apple didn’t far fall from the tree with his wild Jerry Lee Lewis style singing. “Beat-Nik,” a song Van Eaton co-wrote with Riley, has some nice twangy surf on instrumentals and a syncopated rhythm reminiscent of Peggy Lee’s “Fever”. Van Eaton really kills it on the drum, his percussion, if anything, superior to what is offered on the recorded version. As a side note, Van Eaton’s set at the Ponderosa Stomp marks the only time “Beat-Nik” has been performed live. “Uranium Rock” also features great rockabilly drumming.

Next in the set is “The Ubangi Stomp.” Originally recorded by Mississippi-born Sun Records rockabilly artist Warren Smith in 1956, Lewis later adopted it as a road number. It’s great rockabilly, even if the lyrics are nonsensical and the title is, perhaps, not quite PC to contemporary sensibilities. St. Martin gets in some great keyboard work on this number. And, simply put, the fact that one is not constantly aware that it’s not Jerry Lee Lewis on piano with Van Eaton is an enormous testament to St. Martin’s skill.

After “Ubangi Stomp,” Van Eaton returns to his Lewis repertoire with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Along with “Great Balls of Fire,” this is arguably one of Lewis’s most definitive songs – which makes the anecdote Van Eaton shares before performing it all the more striking. “Shakin’” started life as a song that Lewis and his band played around with during rehearsal but very rarely performed live. Then, the band found themselves booked for a four hour performance at a show in Ferriday, Louisiana. They pulled out all kind of songs to get four hours of material and, eventually, dusted off “Shakin’.” The crowd loved it. So much so that, 15 minutes later, they demanded a reprise. A quarter hour later, they wanted to hear it again. As Van Eaton recalls, “We must have played it 4 or 5 times in that one show.”

After the Ferriday show, “Shakin'” became a regular feature, and reliable killer, of the band’s live performances. Even then, it was never seriously considered for recording. Until, that is, one day in the studio when band found themselves having a very frustrating and uninspiring session. They decided to do a run through of “Shakin’” just to get their energy flowing again. Fortunately, the studio engineer decided to drop the needle while they were playing. The now legendary recording resulted from a single take.

Van Eaton concludes his set, and the first night of the Stomp, with that other great Lewis classic, “Balls of Fire.” The most frenetic hit of the ultra-energetic Lewis, and a technically demanding one at that, it is a bold choice for a final number. But from Van Eaton’s drumming, to St. Martin’s piano and the rest of the musicians – they nail it. The venue seems to resound with their collective rock and roll fury long after the final note has fallen.


Stay tuned for Day Two of the Ponderosa Stomp 2015, including blues guitarist Raymond George, rock legend Roy Head, and the West Side Soul Revue.

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