In New Orleans, "wedding band" isn't a derogatory term. Thanks to the city's widespread musical talent, it's not unusual to hear superb performers like Deacon John or Walter "Wolfman" Washington help a couple say "I Do" with an amazing soundtrack.
Even by New Orleans' high standards, imagine this as the roster for your nuptials: bluesmen Magic Slim & the Teardrops, R.L. Burnside, Hubert Sumlin and Othar Turner; rockabilly/rock 'n' roll legends Sonny Burgess, Paul Burlison, James Burton and Billy Lee Riley, and Louisiana swamp-pop supergroup Lil' Band o' Gold, not to mention a host of other special guests.
That amazing lineup did come together in 2000 for the marriage of Dr. Ike, the grand poobah (who prefers to remain anonymous) of the Mystic Knights of the Maumau. Dr. Ike's nuptials were a turning point for the Knights, which is composed of a few music aficionados whose mission is to present some of the unsung pioneers and heroes of '50s and '60s roots music.
"Some people heard about my wedding and asked if I would bring some of those performers to New Orleans to play for them," says Dr. Ike. "I only wanted to do it if we could find the right venue -- a place where everybody would feel comfortable. We wanted to retain the house party feel."
The Knights began booking selected shows at the Circle Bar, the intimate space on Lee Circle akin to a living room, complete with sofas and chairs. As word began to spread about the quality of musicianship at Maumau shows, and the rare opportunity to see veteran players reunited for the first time in decades -- often in interesting configurations -- the crowds began to grow. During Jazz Fest 2001, the Knights pulled off one of its biggest coups to date, presenting the superb but largely forgotten '60s soul singer Howard Tate at the Circle Bar.
"Someone handed me an article that said he was alive in Philadelphia, and I emailed the guy who wrote the article and asked for his phone number," remembers Dr. Ike. "So I called Howard and told him we'd like to get him to New Orleans, and this was two weeks before Jazz Fest. He said he wanted to come, so I talked to Derek Huston of the Iguanas, who worked out the horn arrangements in 10 days. The band rehearsed the afternoon of the show, and it helps when you have (guitarist) Lil' Buck Sinegal and the great rhythm section of Alonzo Johnson and Nat Jolivette.
"The other thing about that night is, as great as Howard Tate was, what went down at the jam session after was out of control: Jody Williams playing with Classie Ballou, Freddie Roulette on lap steel, and Herb Hardesty playing sax," Dr. Ike continues. "It was pretty mind-blowing."
Such magical moments planted the seed for this week's first annual Ponderosa Stomp, a three-night mini-festival that promises an incredibly diverse lineup each night. Tuesday focuses on deep Chicago and Louisiana blues; Wednesday is filled with rockabilly, rock 'n' roll, and swamp pop; and Thursday is dedicated to New Orleans rhythm and blues. The sheer scale of the event -- more than a dozen artists are scheduled each night from 6 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., with a rotating cast of house bands -- has necessitated a move to a larger venue, the Fine Arts Center. "It's a great building with great acoustics, and it doesn't have a large stage, so the fans can still be interacting right there with the musicians," says Dr. Ike. "That's the chemistry we want to present and preserve."
The Ponderosa Stomp is an ambitious and grueling undertaking for Dr. Ike and the Knights, who work day jobs when they're not moonlighting as promoters. It's not without financial risk either, but those concerns are outweighed by their desire to recognize an influential group of artists who haven't always been given their proper due.
"I went through my record collection and wanted to see who was alive, and be able to present the whole gamut of what I love," says Dr. Ike. "What I really like to do is get some of these guys to let people know they exist. Often fans will know records and names, but they don't make the association. And you start telling people the history of these musicians, and they go, 'Wow, that's who that is?' I think on some level, it helps inspire the musicians. It gets them some recognition, and help rekindle something in them, too.
"Hopefully when they get to see their peers from the same time period, they have the opportunity to create something special again."
For the full lineup of the Ponderosa Stomp, check www.knightsmaumau.com.