Last weekend, The Ponderosa Stomp brought some of the unsung heroes of rock 'n' roll to the Rock 'n' Bowl, where some heroes would have been better off not singing.
[Updated] “For all you youngsters out there who haven’t done their homework, I did it first.”
Irma Thomas shared this tidbit after playing “Time is on My Side” at the Rock ’n’ Bowl Saturday night as part of the Ponderosa Stomp, and if there’s an audience knew, it was that one. Since 2002, the Ponderosa Stomp has filled its lineups with the answers to trivia questions. Who wrote “You Made Me So Very Happy”? That would be Brenda Holloway, who played Friday night. Holloway is best known for the 1964 Motown hit “Every Little Bit Hurts,” and she illustrated the challenge the Stomp sometimes faces. It’s cool to see history, but sometimes history misses more notes than she should.
This was a bigger issue on Friday night when P.F. Sloan far more than Holloway chose notes from his personal musical scale. Sloan wrote “Eve of Destruction” (made a hit by Barry McGuire), “Live for Today” (The Grass Roots), and “Secret Agent Man” (Johnny Rivers) among many others, and he sang them and a handful of other great songs—each off key. Some friends weren’t bothered by it, but I found it distracting.
Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon followed Sloan Friday night, and he had some pitch issues too, but not nearly as many and in specific songs that I assume were in keys hard for a guy born in 1940 to reach. Still, he sang with the enthusiasm that defined his vocals in “Palisades “Park” (1962), “Tallahassee Lassie” (1959) and “Action” (1965). It helped that Los Straightjackets and Deke Dickerson backed him up, so the band’s drive sustained the moments when inspiration flagged.
Cannon’s set was a reminder that in many of the Stomp stars’ heydays, they didn’t do full-length shows, and if they went beyond their hits, they went to someone else’s proven crowd-pleasers. Cannon finished with Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” and “Roll Over Beethoven”—two songs so standard that it’s hard to get excited about them, but between the band and the obvious belief Cannon had in the power of the songs, the moment was more fun than you’d expect from such commonplace covers.
Such choices were a bit of a surprise because the face and fez of the Stomp, Ira Padnos, helps to shape the setlists to suit the tastes of the record collector-heavy crowd. A Stomp intern heard me wonder aloud if Irma Thomas would go with Padnos’ requests and cheerfully explained that all the sets were curated. A couple artists were clearly bemused by his requests. Henry Lee remembered “Cheech and Chonging up” Crazy Elephant’s “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’” for a B-side that Padnos asked for.
Gonzales’ set was one of the weekend’s highlights, and the material was only part of the fun. Age is easier on bands than singers, so the stars of the San Antonio R&B scene hit some killer grooves starting with the instrumental “Soul Power.” Since all their hits were regional, the show didn’t feel like a trip down memory lane despite Gonzales’ stories to introduce the songs. The band played and sang everything as if they’d recorded the material last month.
Friday night’s set with blues singer Mable John was powerful for the same reason. Backed by The Bo-Keys from Memphis, she didn’t roll back the clock as much as perform like she’s on the charts now with something riding on the show. John covered a lot of emotional ground during her set, and impressively stretched out the ballad “Same Place Same Time” to nearly 10 minutes by milking the song, the emotion, and then the showmanship the way that soul singers once did.
Irma Thomas’ set suggested the limits to the Stomp’s approach, though. Pairing legacy artists with respectful bands that love and specialize in a genre makes it possible for artists who no longer have standing bands to perform, and adjusting set lengths to the artists’ material ups the odds that they won’t be padded. But as good as Lil’ Buck Sinegal and The Top Cats are, Thomas appeared uneasy without her own band, The Professionals. For years, fans have wanted to hear her voice and charisma backed by a band that can do them justice on material that shows how impressive she can be. Too often her band performs indifferently, and live she’ll often overlooked her own deep catalog in favor of hits by others that seem facile by comparison. The latter might be a generational trait as Thomas and many of her contemporaries see deep cuts, moderate hits and B-sides very differently from collectors. Their finds and treasures are frequently the artists’ throwaways and commercial failures, and when singing is your job, that’s a fair if flawed barometer.
The Top Cats gave Thomas all that she could ask for musically, but she didn’t appear to connect to them. The set only added two or three songs to her usual set including the opening “Hitting on Nothing,” but those additions along with the unfamiliar band seemed to make her uneasy. Fortunately, that didn’t translate to her vocals. Fans who have seen her before have seen Thomas be more committed in concert, but you’d have to know how powerful she can be to know anything was amiss. Her discomfort was most evident in uncharacteristically awkward song patter between songs.
As notable as the show itself this year was the size of the crowd. This year’s lineup didn’t include any legends who reached beyond the collector audience—no Ronnie Spectors or Roky Ericksons—but the Rock ’n’ Bowl was packed both nights, far more crowded than when the biannual Stomp last played the Rock ’n’ Bowl in 2013. The crowds have aged, and you were more likely to have a walker roll over your foot than have someone throw up on it, but the audiences weren’t uniformly old. When Thomas spoke to the “youngsters,” I craned my neck to see where she found them. I doubt I saw many in their 20s on either night, but I definitely saw people in their 30s in addition to many who were old enough to see some of these artists the first time around. And why not? Many of the artists on the bill represented memories for some and discoveries as new any indie artist for others.
Updated October 6, 11:58 a.m.
In the original text, I had the speaker and song title for the Westside Soul Revue b-side wrong. The current text is correct.