Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pondersoa Stomp Day One: Memphis Soul Conference, Remember Me?, Chef Convention, Not So Struggling Artist and My House of Blue Heaven

New Orleans, La.

I now know why funerals are so big down here: the hangovers will make you wish you were dead. It was a busy day on Basin Street. That street is in New Orleans Esmond.

I got into New Orleans around 6:30 p.m. Monday night and after checking into my hotel, the French Market, on the corner of Decatur and St. Louis(?). The incredibly accommodating and friendly staff of Andre and Megan got me unloaded and checked in but I passed on the valet parking and rode around to the parking lot on the back side of the block myself. The attendant, Johnny Camp, one of my favorite people this whole trip, had me park right next to his booth so he could keep a close eye on my ticket to ride back home. The walk back around the block took over two hours and did me in for the night.

New Orleans is like that. You set off to do something totally mundane like park you bike and you wind up meeting new friends, getting drunk and completely losing track of time. Every city should be more like New Orleans in this respect.

I soon discovered that my travel agent, Angelo, (sorry Mary, my MN travel agent who won't book pleasure trips)had made the mistake of putting me in a hotel two doors down from the Crescent City Brewery. Not a wise choice to put this connoisseur of suds in such close proximity to his nemesis. They have three fresh brewed flavors, Red Stallion, Black Forest and Pilsner. Being a lover of malt and hops and wanting the highest % of alcohol, I of course opt for the Black Forest. As the downstairs bar seating was completely full, I ventured upstairs and sat at the bar and promptly started a conversation with an airline worker turned Postman named Mark. I do not mean to label Mark or imply that he is all about his work, like us attorneys, because he definitely is not. Here was a man who has life figured out to the point of raising it to an art form. Upon further reflection, he should give seminars on how to live like you are alive and not just existing. Mark attends the Jazz Heritage Festival every year, spends his August in Seattle/Vancouver and used to live on a 2 acre mountain spread near San Jose.

Before I know it we are swapping music stories and turns out that Mark is a huge fan of my friend Jimmy Thackery. I tell him about Mark no longer drumming for Jimmy and he seemed as dismayed as I was but I cautioned that one should not jump to conclusions as to the reasons for the change, besides its none of my business, "if I do", (sorry I turn everything into lyrical phrases from jazz standards down here). Mark mentions he goes to the Santa Cruz Blues festival most years and I ask if he saw the legendary performance Thackery put on with Bonnie Raitt. Mark's mouth went agape and eyes glazed over and he stammered: "I was there! It was one of the best performance I ever seen" or something to that effect. Hell I was getting a little tipsy and beat from my ride.

We thankfully compared notes on the evenings live music fare and it was a good thing. Turns out I was two days late for the Funky Meters show at the HOB. Mark tells me he is going to the Snooks Eaglin tribute Tab Benoit was throwing at the Mid City Lanes (former site of some previous years of the Ponderosa Stomp). I tell him I will meet him there but I have to take a shower and compose myself before venturing out. Sorry to say, but after my shower I sat down in my towel on the bed and that's how I woke up the next morning.

My first full day in the Crescent City began at 7 a.m. when I left the hotel in search of computer terminal access so I could post. Two hours and several miles of shoe tread later I finally found a business center on the third floor of the Sheraton. I highly recommend this over the access at the public library next to City Hall, which Although free, does not open until 10 a.m. and you have to step over the less fortunate who make their beds outside the front door. Besides at the Sheraton there is a Starbucks on the first floor for grande caramel macchitos and the only stench of urine is my own.

After memorializing the previous day's events it's off to Mothers for a locals New Orleans breakfast. I highly recommend this establishment for breakfast (served all day) or lunch but some fellow travelers had dinner there and turned the noses up at it. However, my experience there was delightful, if you understand their version of hospitality and sense of humor, which seems to be giving a tongue in cheek hard time to tourists (for the benefit of and to the delight of the locals). For example when I enter I ask the greeter/instructor/general manager if they have a bathroom to which he wryly replied: "Yes, but I am not going to tell you where it is". I said not batting an eye: "Okay, but things are gonna get messy then." Whereupon he conceded they were in the back and then shouted "and wash your hands when you're done" as I walked past the long line of customers waiting to order.

After taking care of business (or TCB as Elvis would say) I joined the rear of the line which was next to the kitchen door and the tables where the staff took their breaks at. I asked an older African American woman what's good for breakfast and she recommended the crawfish etouiffe omlete, which comes with grits and biscuits. After ordering I did not know the routine so I sauntered back to the staff tables and sat down at an empty one. The fact that I, as a tourist, was sitting down at a table all the other tourists turned their noses up as they went into the nicer appointed back room endeared the somewhat crusty older waitress to me and she took care of me like I was her son, constantly making me feel like I was not eating alone and chiding the kitchen "why doesn't my boy have his biscuits yet, don't make come in there and kick some butt" which is a paraphrase of the local venacular. She really appreciated the fact that I did not linger and opened up one of her three table tops for a larger party and bigger tip. Karma is everything and is not only for guys named Earl.

In the early afternoon I attended the Ponderosa Stomp Music History Conference session on Memphis Soul with three of the greats, Teenie Hodges, guitarist and leader of the vaunted Hi Rhythym Section, the greatest accompanists in the history of American Music, the legendary soul singer and former Hi artist and a personal favorite of mine, Otis Clay and O.V. Wright collaborator and co-writer, Roosevelt Jamison. The conference was held at the Louisana History Museum also known as the Arsenal, right on Jackson Square, where Bush made his one stop and short speech during his flyover during Katrina. As usual, the group of traditional New Orleans brass musicians where playing outside and I was startled when what appeared to be a statute said hello to me as I walked buy (street performed painted head to toe in golden bronze paint--hadn't this guy ever seen the James Bond movie Goldfinger?)

It was so cool to be in a room of approximately 100 other die hard music lovers, reporters and industry people who care as much and know more about my passion than I do. There were people who came from as far away as Amsterdam and a Japanese doctor, Dochi(sp), and his wife whom I met and although they spoke little English, were some of the most ardent and entusiastic fans you could ever meet. If only the public in this country would turn off American Idol and commercial radio and pull their collective heads out of their a$$es and pay attention to what the rest of the world recognizes as one of this country's greatest and unique contributions to mankind: soul, jazz and rhythym and blues.

I got goose bumps listening to the panel discuss their craft and reminess about making some of the greatest music ever set to wax. Teenie Hodges told the story of writing "Take Me to the River" with Ann Peebles during a stay in Boston when the evenings plan got cancelled due to an unexpected snow storm, so that went back to their hotel and Teenie started talking about his musical roots in gospel and his religious experiences including being baptized in a pond which Ann turned into the "river". Teenie Hodges is a genuine genius but a sensitive and incredibly intelligent man as are all of the panelists. Otis Clay told the funniest story about he and his band backing O.V. Wright and how O.V., one of the greatest, most charasmatic performers and onme of the finest sould singers that ever lived could steal your own back-up band and the show from you right under your very nose. All the panelists laughed and shared stories of O.V. "dictionary" knowledge of music charts and changes which is how he could make any audience line up to "witness" that they feel the blues by lining up to shake his hand during a song to the point where, as Otis described, " would have thought they were handing out blenders".

The two most poignant and deepest moments of this day's conference came from Roosevelt Jamison and a reuluctant Howard Grimes, the great memphis soul musician and drummer for the Hi Rhythym section, who was coaxed by the discussion's moderator, the legendary music writer Robert Gordon, out of the audience to tell how he got his start at the age of 12 and attributed his success and love of music and innate sense of rhythm or feel for the music to his mother who played evertying from big band like the Dorseys and Glenn Miller to BB King for him. Having lost my mother just last year it made me realize that my love for music was as a result of my mother playing the likes of the Mills Brothers and Inkspots which I unknowingly soaked up through osmosis.

Roosevelt Jamison made one of the most profound statements about the music industry specifically and the creation of art in general, and I paraphrase "soul music, our music in the 1960's were about expressing our love for our mates, in music and thru lyrics. It was romantic music. It was expressing the great gift God gave to us as humans, which is love. We were so into expressing the great love and beauty that we did not pay enough, if any, attention to the business side of things". Amen.

Day One of the Stomp to be continued here...

I got to run for now to catch today's (Wednesday's) early afternoon conference that is of extreme personal significance to me. Peter Guralnick the world famous music biographer of American Music Icons from England is leading a discussion on Muscle Shoals, my favorite American studio and home to my favorite artist of all time, the late great Eddie Hinton, with panelists and former studio artists/musicians Dan Penn and Rick Hall.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Road to the Stomp Day 3: Biscuits & Gravy, Graceland and on to the Big Easy

New Orleans, La.

Well I made it in one piece to New Orleans but I left a little of my heart in Memphis. Like what Minneapolis is to Chicago, Memphis is to New Orleans: a little city with big aspirations, but unique unto itself. Despite all its recent troubles and bad press about its soaring crime rate, the people of Memphis have a dignity and graciousness that is incredibly endearing.

The day started early as usual. My motto on vacation is "Men plow deep while sluggards sleep". (I stole that one from a beat farmer friend of mine from the Red River Valley.) I scrawled a handwritten "Do Not Disturb" sign for my door handle and headed out at 7 a.m. to scout Elvis Presley Boulevard for a breakfast joint before being first in line for when Graceland opens at 9 a.m. I headed out Bellevue which turns into Elvis Presley Boulevard and did a drive-by of Graceland before making a U-turn and heading into the parking lot across the street to chat up the security guard, who seemed amused at my enthusiasm and naivete when I asked if there would be a line already formed when they opened at 9. I then headed out to a nearby Krispy Kreme and some caffeine and sugar rush. I asked the young black woman behind the counter for a recommendation for a biscuit and gravy breakfast and the only place she could come up with was I HOP. I told her I avoid that place like the plague and after consuming my coffee and donut I left.

As I was getting on my bike I chatted up the maintenance man who was sweeping the parking lot. A very dignified and friendly African American man in his late fifties or early sixties. When I asked him where I could get a real southern breakfast, his eyes lit up and he gave me directions to Brooks Ave and the Kettle where I had one of the best all you can eat southern breakfast buffets complete with pork chops, bacon, scrambled eggs, biscuits and gray and fresh fruit. Janice, my waitress got a kick out of the sun burnt Minnesotan on a motorcycle who was not afraid to try the local establishment over the chain restaurants. When I asked if it was okay to pull out my camera and take some pictures of the buffet she said sure and then asked if she could add my ugly mug to her camera phone collection which included the tourists from England who shared my sense of adventure and weren't afraid nor aware of any color line either.

After my belly bursting meal it was on to Graceland. As it was still only 8:30 a.m. I pulled up in the service lane right in front of Graceland and asked a couple of female tourists from Holland if they would take my picture in front of the gates, which they were more than happy to do. As we were doing this, a couple of heavy set sixty year old white women came sauntering down the long driveway from the mansion, dressed in garish black Elvis t-shirts. I asked if they were on a VIP tour and they said no, the memorial garden was open to the public be ween 7 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. as a free alternative for the faithful. Boy I wished I knew this ahead of time as I was about to drop a small fortune at one of the tightest ships in the tourists business. It was truly amazing how well run this operation is.

I soon discovered the demographics of the early morning Graceland visitors. I was by far the youngest and nearly half the visitors where from Europe, predominantly England. I had a good time chatting with some of the English tourists, like offering to take their picture next to the framed picture and letter from George Bush in the entryway to the "Trophy Room". When I asked the young black guard if they were going to replace the picture of Bush with "something more recent" she went into a rehearsed explanation how it was up there because the President had hosted the Prime Minister of Japan on a visit to Graceland.

I could not help from being struck by how small Graceland actually was as well as the fact that it isn't nearly as garish as one was led to believe. Furthermore, I commented out loud at how incredibly sad it was to which several of the English tourists nodded in agreement. On the positive side, it was very cool that the overwhelming majority of the staff were African American and I never missed an opportunity to remind them that if Elvis was alive today he would be at the Stax Museum.

After spending a small fortune on nick nacks I could fit in my saddle bags I left Graceland and headed out of Memphis with New Orleans and King Creole on my mind.

Compared with the previous two days of riding, day three was rather uneventful except for a bad stretch of road around Jackson, Mississippi and some brief showers in southern Mississippi. About 3 p.m. I stopped at an unmarked exit at a former Stuckey's for gas and what else, some chicken. The place struck me as somewhat strange as it was run by a Hindu woman and staffed by black guys. The toothless local white guy tried to chat me up about motorcycles but his heavy southern accent and lack of teeth made him almost indiscernible. Perhaps he felt a kindred spirit to me in light of my recent oral surgery. Nevertheless, the place had no other business and was giving me the willies so I got the hell out of there before I got mickey finned.

The most memorable and white knuckled part of the ride was the last 40 miles before New Orleans. Right as my fuel light started to blink the one gallon warning I started on the longest elevated bridge over Lake Pontchartrain and the spillway. Being above water there were hardly any exits and certainly no gas stations. Luckily I pulled off the first exit I came to with a gas station riding on fumes. After missing my exit to the French Quarter I wound up leaving New Orleans going over the Mississippi River bridge before doubling back and finding my hotel, the French Market in the heart of the French Quarter.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Day 2: Chuck Who? I'm Not Following You Blowin' In the Wind & the Sins of Memphisto

Memphis, TN

Well at least it was dry today and a good day for kite flying. The torrential downpours gave way to hurricane winds as I was blown across the state of Misery (i.e. miserlou). Jeez these people drive fast down here.

I left Canton @ 7:14 AM as reported earlier with my mind set on taking pictures of the woman's room at Chuck Berry's Farm where he was busted for allegedly having hidden cameras. I pulled off at the Wentzville exit and stopped at the local QT gas station to asked the locals where Make a Buck's farm was.

The first person I encountered was a very cool brother about my age who was sitting in his car with the windows down as I pulled up. He commented on my nice bike (all covered in bug guts) so I figured I had the opening so why not: "Do you know where Chuck Berry's farm is?" I questioned. "Ya know, I've lived here 5 years and still don't know, if you find out please tell me" the man replied. "Sure" I told him and went inside the convenience store. Inside I asked the someteen something kid behind the counter who looked at me like I was an alien and said "I dunno mister, but we have maps over there". I went over to the rack and went thru all the St. Charles and St. Louis counties maps but no reference to Mr. Hail Hail Rock N Roll. A couple of older white folks walked by so I popped the question, at least they knew who I was talking about and confirmed it was "somewhere in Wentzville" but they didn't know, "we're from Troy" they told me, as if that meant something to me.

It was obvious I was getting nowhere so I headed back outside to my bike and the black guy in the car was still there: "Well, what'd you find out?", he asks. "Hell, those white people never heard of him", I tell him. "Figures" he replies, so we start chatting.

I tell him about my one personal encounter with the originator of "Mabellyne" back stage at the Minnesota State Fair in about 1988 and the tantrum he threw at my friend in the back up band. The man laughs a knowing laugh and then waits so as not to appear like he is trying to one up me and then goes on to tell me a similar story about Chuck, shortly after 911. Apparently Chuck wanted to drive his Cadillac up onto the grounds of some park and the powers that be would have none of it and boy did he throw a temper tantrum. He then adds, "My cousin works for the people in charge of the rights for Miles Davis' estate. He tells a great story about those two going at it one time". "My Gawd", I stammer, "talk about the clash of the titan egos". "You said it", he laughs, and they adds "You drive safely" after I announced my trip plans before heading out.

My next stop was a gas station and convenience store that I only mention for my friend Andy. The name of the place was "Fast Lane" and the sweet attendant told me she had three drive offs because she forgets to ask people if they had gas when they come up to the counter.

About an hour later I needed a break from the gale force winds and pull into a rest stop. A nice couple about my age were eating sandwiches outside their immaculate, champagne colored Preus as I pull into the stall next to them. The guy says: "It must be tough trying to keep it on the road today". "Yeah" I answered, "but it's better than the rain in Iowa yesterday". "Iowa" the couple says in unison, "where are you from?" "Minnesota" I answer. "White Bear!" they exclaim. We get to talking and there a couple of psychologists, John Olechek(sp) and his wife(?). Turns out there heading to New Orleans too. There going to do a Habitat for Humanity project, God bless them. When I asked if they were driving thru to New Orleans today, they said no they were stopping in Memphis. "Me too" I tell them. After filling them in on the Ponderosa Stomp and asking if they knew my psychiatrist, they did, I tell them "if we see each other again, I'm not following you" to which the psychologists both respond, "don't worry we're not paranoid". "That's good" I giggle, and then deadpan "I am" as they drive off.

I reach Memphis around 3 PM. It's 84 degrees and due to the lack of space in my saddle bags, I am wearing a winter coat, jean jacket, turtle neck, t-shirt, snow mobile gauntlets and a stocking cap under my helmet. To say I am hot is in understatement. To make matters worse I have taken the wrong turn into the wrong part of town, and in Memphis that is saying alot. I see a cop car in a gas station so I pull in and as I pull up to the pump I ask a person hiding back into the store where the Stax Studio museum is. He tells me "Just a couple a blocks" and proceeds to tell me in a half decipherable southern accent to go to the corner of McElmore and College. After purchasing some gas I set off trying to replicate is instructions then get lost only to come upon Willie Mitchell Ave. I follow that until I see a car wash fund raiser and pull in and ask the somewhat amazed crowd of African-Americans (who is this Eskimo sweaty honky) but when they hear I want the Stax Studio, they gladly give me directions I can understand.

I pull up and park under the Marquee whereupon an off-duty Memphis police officer comes out, too polite to tell me to move my bike just yet as I am sizing up a photo of my bike outside the studio. Then one of the curators comes out and he agrees to take a picture of me and my bike under the hallowed, replica marquee of the former movie theater come studio.

I go in for a very worthwhile tour, talk shop with the staff and they turn me on to where to stay and the best gig in town tonite, a trio called City Champs at the Hitone on Poplar. Talk about a great hole in the wall and my God, this band were monsters. Joe Revisto on guitar, George Sluppick in the pork pie hat on drums and what appeared to be the leader, Al Gamble on the mighty organ. Don't let the looks of these cats fool you, they are incredible musicians, easily the best in any town in the country perhaps except, Austin, Memphis, New Orleans and New York, where they would still be ranked among the best. The final two songs of the night were an awe inspiring version of Ray Charles' "I'm Busted" and a tour de force "Poppa" that had the whole house on fire.

Well I've got to run cuz it's about 8:30 PM and I'm headed for Beal Street. That's in Memphis Esmond!

Picking up where I left off, I headed back to my motel on the edge of hospital district and stopped in to see Edward the clerk, who made my stay in Memphis so enjoyable providing me with directions, calling ahead to the club and giving me a recommendation to the best restaurant on Beal Street, the Blues City Cafe. Following Edward's directions in was a short hop down Linden Street to Fourth Avenue, where the arena is that the Grizzlies play at. Funny thing, I never saw one Grizzly the whole time I was in Memphis.

I get down to Beal Street and its a no driving zone where people are free to promenade, drinks in hand. A very cool thing about Memphis is the number of young African Americans riding motorcycles, and I mean hundreds of bikes. So cool to be part of the brotherhood or so I think, cuz when I ask a couple of brothers if it is okay to park here, they say "sure". Thankfully I was not towed as when I got back to my parking spot I noticed I was parked in a bus stop.

I walk three or four blocks of Beal Street where all the action seems to be happening. I check out who's playing at the Rum Boogie, where Jimmy Thackery often plays and then try to enter the Black Diamond, former home of Keith Sykes singer-songwriter series. Despite numerous locals denying it was still in business, it was good to see the Black Diamond was still there, under one owner, Bob, but unfortunately closed to the public for a private event this night.

Having built up a powerful hunger, I head over to the Blues City Cafe and upon Edward's recommendation, I try to order spaghetti and ribs. The waiter looked at me like I was crazy, (he was right of course, but that's besides the point, shut-up, you said it).

Never mind me, I am just practicing my paranoid schizophrenic act as I have found it keeps the pan handlers away, and Memphis has a million of them. I must have handed out thirty dollars in two days to seven different panhandlers only turning down one person because he approached me while I was writing this post. The strangest thing was they all said the same thing, and this will sound terrible but I swear to God its the honest truth, they all said: "I need to buy chicken". The Hutzpah award goes to the 300 pound African American woman who approached me as I was unloading my bike while checking into my motel room. She was holding a tupperware tub of peeled oranges and was emphatic about having to have $7.99 for her chicken. Not $2.00. Not$5.00. Not $8.00, mind you but $7.99. I gave her $3.00 and just hoped she wouldn't sit on me.

Getting back to my meal Sunday night, I had the 1/2 rack, dry, spice rubbed rib dinner and it was excellent. The meat fell off the bone, the sauce on the side was just right and the toast was to die for. I had the nicest conversation about the history of Beal Street with my waiter who had been there 17 years, I just wished I would have gotten his name. He caught me up to date on all the local music gossip. I was heartbroken to hear of the Parkinson-like illness of Andrew Love, the saxophone playing half of the Memphis Horns, who along with his partner, trumpeter Wayne Jackson, have played on over 300 #1 records but most notably babysat my young children backstage at a gig they shared with Roomful of Blues before a Gopher/Memphis State football game outside the Metrodome. Pat Forcia will always have a warm place in my heart for booking that gig.

I said my goodbyes to the staff at the Blues City Cafe and then it was back to the motel to get some rest for tomorrow was going to be a busy day.

The Road to the Stomp: Day One

Biblical. That's the only way to describe day one of my road trip. I left Minneapolis about noon with the tempature hovering in the low forties. I stopped in Rochester for the obligatory meal at John Hardy's Bar B Que and later at Best Buy for a 2 GB memory card for Marlena's camera, thanks girl!

Finally I got out of the midwest home of Big Blue under darkening skies. All hell broke loose near Waterloo. Now I know how Napoleon felt. It rained so hard that I had grey out conditions near Cedar Rapids, where I pulled over to give an update to my darling daughter, Genevieve.

Luckily the rain stopped as I resumed my trip in the early evening hoping to make it to the home of Make A Buck Chuck, Chuck Berry, Wentzville, Mo. Unfortunately, God had other plans and decided to throw pestilence at me. I am still not sure if it was a May Fly hatch or if Northern Missouri is always this bug infested, but when the clouds started to look ominous again, I wussed out in Canton, Mo where I stayed at the Comfort INN where everything was comfortable but the price. Not even the make your own waffels or the free entertainment in the form of the construction crew drinking in lawn chairs in the parking lot could make it worth the price.

Anyway, I'm out of here in two minutes (7:14 AM) so Hold On I'm Coming...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Neither Sleet Nor Swine Flu Can Stop the Stomp

Now for something completely different. The Great Roll Call is taking a vacation from all the gloom and doom financial news and for what has been, by all rational accounts, a great start for the Obama Administration, and is going to "break away" or is that "steal away" or any other musical reference you may want to choose, to the greatest live music event of the year, the 8th Annual Ponderosa Stomp.

In a few minutes I will be hopping on the cycle for a road trip from one end of the Mississippi River to the other for what will be a blitzkrieg of blues, brews and beyond. Despite a balmy temperature of 41 degrees and a forecast including sleet and even with Mexico City residents dropping like flies, I'm out of here. Hold on, I'm Coming....