Sunday, May 14, 2006

Memphis and the Ponderosa Stomp

Last week I was down in Memphis to see the Ponderosa Stomp music festival. The festival's purpose is to pay tribute to unsung American R&B, soul, country and roots musicians. On paper it sounded like a dream, but I'm sad to report that the reality was pretty sad. On the whole, the event had a very unpolished feel and a lot of the acts couldn't deliver. The acts themselves were usually OK, but the backing they received was so sub-par. Most of the singers had to shrug off the terrible backing, take the set on their shoulders and trudge through the material. Some high(low)lights were the backing band missing all of the breakdown parts on Archie Bell's Tighten Up, a lame one chord medley of Stax songs by William Bell (did you know that Hard to Handle, Knock on Wood, and Mustang Sally can all be the same song?), and the endless rounds of solos over a 3 chord vamp (guitar, sax, keyboard, 2nd guitar, repeat).

I could go on and on about how the backing bands got so many things wrong about the songs. We had 5 string basses used and slapping and popping on Stax songs. Guitars with no headstocks. And don't get me started about all of the digital pianos used. Not a real piano to be found. It's kind of upsetting to hear a gritty southern soul song with a Doogie Howser keyboard setting.

Now, some may say I'm being a music snob and too nit-picky. "It's the song that matters and times change so don't focus on the band so much." But, I think the details are important. After listening to 3 days of music with no attention to detail, you realize how much all of the songs sound the same. When music loses the fine details and a backing band plows through a song, you start getting fatigued from the sameness of hearing the same C-F-G progression over and over. That's where you see the genius of great backing bands like Booker T and the MGs where each member added nice little touches to make each song unique. When those touches are stripped away, you get bored really quick basically hearing the same song over and over. (eg, William Bell taking a generic soul groove and singing 4 different Stax songs over it)

"Little things" such as a drum beat can make or break a performance. During the day I visited the Stax museum and you hear quotes from people talking about how Al Jackson Jr.(drummer) was the heart and soul of the Stax sound. Then to hear a backing band plow through his drum parts and not play the correct drum grooves on Stax material made me want to get my money back. We're in the town of Stax, and the backing band drummer can't even learn the four on the floor groove for Knock on Wood.

It wasn't all bad. The soul side of things is in pretty bad shape, but on the rockabilly side of things, the acts were good. Sonny Burgess put on a great show. I give some credit to Deke Dickerson for providing a strong and tasteful backing to all of the acts he played with. Here's someone who learned the material and played it correctly. Scotty Moore's English band was also amazing. They had the Sun sound down perfectly. It sounded great without sounding like a parody. Also, Johnny Cash's guitar player and drummer also put on an amazing performance. But if you go to see a soul act and the bass player has a 5 string bass or the guitar has no headstock, I suggest leaving immediately.

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