DID THEY CUT THE MUSTARD IN 2017? #6 : THE PONDEROSA ACES

SUNDAY 23 APRIL : THE PONDEROSA ACES

GULLIVER’S, MANCHESTER

I had mostly stayed off the drink at Butcher Boy and Teen Canteen as I had an early start the next morning, down to Manchester for the third and final gig of the action-packed weekend.

It was only the fact that Jonny the Friendly Lawyer, is bass player with The Ponderosa Aces (where he goes by the name of Jonny Bottoms) that made me decide to venture south on the National Express bus for the first time in at least 30 years (the trains were off as a result of engineering works and this was the easiest way to go).

To be perfectly honest, I went down regarding the gig as secondary for it was all about hooking up with JTFL. I’ve already mentioned in a previous post how much fun the hook up proved to me and how it was the prefect appetizer for the then upcoming Bloggers’ Weekend. I also did a short posting on Facebook in which I described the meeting as providing a really satisfying feeling thanks to Jonny being a highly talented and very funny man and also said The Ponderosa Aces were a mighty fine outlaw country music combo. This post is about the gig itself rather than anything else.

The venue was Gulliver’s a cracking old boozer on Oldham Street, nor far from Piccadilly and just a little bit further up the street beyond the legendary Dry Bar where a drug-addled Shaun Ryder once went amok with a pistol in a fit of rage with high-heid yins at Factory Records. I was in the company of a long-time friend Ian who lives in nearby Rochdale and who was putting me up overnight afterwards. The thing is, I’d never let onto Ian in all the 20+ years I’ve known him that I had a music blog until explaining why I was coming to watch a country band in a city more than 200 miles from home and having to take a day off work afterwards to fit it in. Jonny was quite bemused that I kept word of the blog so low-key…..

But I digress (again)!!

The venue at Gulliver’s is upstairs from the bar. It has a capacity of 150 inside a grand high-ceilinged room with a proper, raised stage that made for great sight lines and even better acoustics. There was an enthusiastic and highly knowledgable crowd inside which was no doubt a joy to the Ponderosa Aces given they are fairly well-known in their home state of California and are gaining a reputation slightly further field in Texas, but for the most they are an unknown quantity in the UK; after this particular tour I would suggest they won’t be a secret for much longer.

Fans had travelled from many parts of the north-west and further afield, including three people from Belfast with tonight’s gig being the closest to their home city, with everyone having a great time as the band proved to be a ridiculously talented four-piece (they are normally five-strong but the pedal steel player didn’t come on the UK tour).

I can’t claim to be an expert on country music. I don’t own much beyond Johnny Cash although growing up in Glasgow and being present at family gatherings has long exposed me to all sorts of renditions of songs recorded originally by Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Kenny Rogers, Tammy Wynette, Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard among others. Many of my own favourite indie-era stars have incorporated country styles into a number of their best known tunes while of course the likes of Elvis Costello has gone much further. So it wasn’t as if I was being exposed to something that was completely alien.

But nothing prepared me for just how great a band the Aces proved to be. Jonny has written on here before about how he was blown away by the welcome he got from singer Mike Maddux, guitarist Hoss Griggs, drummer Arthur Rodriguez and Steve Meitzer on pedal steel when he showed up firstly to audition and then to rehearse, but more so by the fact the guys were, in Jonny’s words, ‘monster musicians’.

Believe me, that doesn’t come close to doing them justice.

It was a fantastic set that chugged along at a fairly frantic pace for the most part. To these ears, it was if Prefab Sprout had turned up and decided to do an entire set around variations on their song Faron Young. I was especially blown away by Hoss’s perfectly effortless guitar playing which was such that Roddy Frame alongside him would have looked like a beginner…and I’m not exaggerating. I’ve long said that you can judge how well a set has gone down by the number of folk at the merchandise stall afterwards and it looked to me that most went home after picking up a copy of their most recent LP Honky Tonkin My Life Away that was released last year and/or a t-shirt.

It’s also worth mentioning that I was lucky enough to enjoy a pre-gig chat with the band and they’re up there with the likes of the two Davids (Kid Canaveral and The Wedding Present) as being the nicest musicians out there performing.

The band played a few new songs that they will be recording in due course for an LP either later this year or into next; these will be the first on which Jonny appears* as the previous LP had the now departed bass player in the studio with them. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy in due course. But for now, here again are two great songs from the current canon:-

mp3 : The Ponderosa Aces – Make Things Right
mp3 : The Ponderosa Aces – Judgement Day

The band have given an interview back in the States describing the entire tour with great and often funny insights into what went on.  Click here for a read and more images.  (It floored me somewhat as I was described in the article as a ‘Scottish music writer’.  That’s another life-long ambition realised!!!!)

*I should mention that this will not be the first time Jonny’s skills will have been captured on vinyl as I found out when we hooked up. But that’s a story, and a review, for another time.

JC

JTFL – LIVING THE DREAM

The handsome devil playing bass guitar on the right hand side of the above picture is no stranger to these parts, although this will be the first confirmed sighting. As you may have gathered from the title of today’s posting it is an image of Jonny the Friendly Lawyer (JTFL) who has been a long-time friend of this and many other quality blogs offering his thoughts, wisdom and opinions all the way from the West Coast of the USA. But he could soon be coming close by your own ‘hood and thus offering the chance to meet in person while listening to live music. I’ll lrt the great man himself tell you all about it:-

THE PONDEROSA ACES

A GUEST ADMISSION BY JONNY THE FRIENDLY LAWYER

My name is Johnny Bottoms and I am an Outlaw Country musician. I play bass for The Ponderosa Aces. I wasn’t always this way. In fact, only a few months ago I was just like anyone else. Here’s what happened…

Goldie The Friendly Psychologist (GTFP) and I have been empty nesting since last summer. Why not get a band together? I jammed with a few friends, singing and playing guitar, trying to sort some basic tunes by The Jam, Blondie, Pretenders, Bowie. But it just wasn’t happening and I got frustrated. I thought, Screw this — I play bass, I never pretended I was any good at guitar. So I went on the local musicians network and typed in “bassist.” The first ad that came up said “Bassist Needed for Established Country Band. Gigs Lined Up.” It could have been a reggae band, a power pop band, a death metal band — whatever. The operative word was established. They were up and running and already playing out.

I should say here that up to this point I didn’t know anything about country music. I didn’t listen to it often, didn’t have much in the library beyond Elvis Costello‘s country album (if that even counts). I sure as hell didn’t know how to play country music. So I called up the lead guitarist named, naturally, Hoss. Our conversation went like this:

Hoss: So, you’re a country music guy?
Me: Sure.
– Who’s your favorite country artist?
– Don’t know if I could name just one (which was true, since I didn’t know any).
– Well, you got some favorite country songs?
– Er, do you guys need a bass player or not?
– Oh, yeah, we do! You have played bass in a band before, right?
– Of course.
– When was that?
– 1988. In New York.
– Oh. Well, can you come to a rehearsal this Thursday?
– Yes.

That was a Monday. I downloaded the band’s album on iTunes and gave a listen. I was knocked out. The songs on Honky Tonkin’ My Life Away are all originals and they’re EXCELLENT. I practiced the bass parts until I felt like I might not completely disgrace myself. On the Thursday Hoss called to apologize that he couldn’t make the rehearsal and that I would just be meeting the drummer and singer. Okay. I drove down to Long Beach with the album on repeat, trying to ingrain my parts. The drummer, Art, was a good-natured and friendly guy. I was a bit leery of Mike, the singer. It wasn’t just that they guy is pure outlaw, with a formidable foot long beard. It was that Mike wrote all the songs on the album and I hoped I could do them justice. He handed me a book with the chord charts and off we went. It must have gone okay because when we finished I handed Mike the book back and he said “That’s yours — you keep that. We got a gig a week from tomorrow, can you sit in?” Sure I could.

I had a pair of cowboy boots I bought in 1983 somewhere in the closet. I found an embroidered western shirt that looked the part on eBay. I showed up for the gig and met Hoss and Steve, the pedal steel player. Fortunately for me, Steve plays sitting down with a handy music stand to keep the charts on. I stationed myself next to him and did the best I could, peeking over at the charts as discreetly as possible. After the show, the rest of the band were waiting for me in the parking lot. Christ, I wasn’t that bad, was I? Or maybe this was the part where they said, “Hey, thanks for filling in, but our real bassist will be back from his hernia operation next week.” But that didn’t happen. Instead, I got a round of handshakes and a question:

– Are you free to travel in February and April?
– Travel where?
– Texas in February and England in April.
– Sure I am.

I had been a country musician for 8 days. I hadn’t played bass in a band in 28 years. I was going to tour Texas and England. (I am not making any of this up, by the way).

Turns out the band’s criteria for a bassist depended on five critical questions, in roughly this order: (1) Are you a complete fucking maniac that no one can get along with? (2) Can you show up on time for gigs and rehearsals? (3) Are you going to bitch about money? (4) Is your wife going to be pissed off about you spending a lot of time doing band stuff? and (5) do you own a bass guitar and know where it is?

Honestly, that’s what they were thinking, having gone through a string of bassists that were overly ornery, complained about the cash, showed up erratically and not always sober, and whose wives didn’t approve of the band. I slotted in perfectly: I can get along with most anyone, I’m punctual, I’m not bothered about money, GTFP is glad to get me out of the house, and I know exactly where my bass is! My skills weren’t the prime concern for a simple reason: the band are all MONSTER players. The aptly named Aces are such superb musicians that everything they do sounds so professional I couldn’t screw it up if I tried. And we can’t have a rehearsal without Mike introducing at least two new classic outlaw tunes. (We’ll be recording a new album later this year.)

So, now I’m Johnny Bottoms. I play all over the coast a few times a month. The guys are typical southern Californians: laid back, quick to laugh, fun to be around. The Ponderosa Aces are nominated for awards as Best Pure Country Band by the Academy of Western Artists and Best Outlaw Band by Ameripolitan, a roots country foundation based in Austin. We’re going to the Ameripolitan awards show and will play five gigs while we’re in Texas. I’m over the moon about that, never having been to Texas once. We’re sponsored by a Whiskey company (Coldcock) and I got a new stage tuner from another sponsor, GoGo Tuners.

One of the nicest surprises about joining the Aces is the discovery that loads of people I wouldn’t have guessed LOVE country music. I knew my wife was a Patsy Cline devotee, but had no idea our own daughter was a huge Dolly Parton fan. My buddy Ronnie can do a perfect Bob Wills “Aaa-haah!” Driving down the coast a week ago my buddy Kevin — pure Malibu royalty that is such an OG surf punk that he actually drummed for The Surf Punks — amazed me by jumping in on the chorus of ‘Dang Me’, an obscure Roger Miller tune from 1964. I almost drove onto the beach! Nearly everyone I know has a favorite song by Willie, Tammy, Waylon, Merle, Loretta, EmmyLou, or Hank — and my own country library is growing all the time.

In my last NYC post with Echorich I wrote that my modest music career ended after I took the bar exam in July 1988. No longer true: now I’m playing regularly and WE ARE COMING TO TOUR ENGLAND! I wrote JC to tell him all about it in the hope that some of the formidable Vinyl Villain community will come out to see us and, of course, our man was happy to help out a friend. This is the tour schedule:

Sat. 22 APRIL – THE STABLES, Milton Keynes
Sun. 23 APRIL – GULLIVERS, Manchester
Mon. 24 APRIL – JUMPIN’ JACK’S, Newcastle
Tue. 25 APRIL – THE MUSICIAN, Leicester
Thu. 27 APRIL – THE BORDERLINE, London
Fri. 28 APRIL – FAT LIL’S, Witney
Sat. 29 APRIL – BILLY BOB’S SALOON, EuroDisney, Paris
Sun. 30 APRIL – THE HAUNT, Brighton
Mon. 1 MAY – THE PRIORY, Dover

And here are some songs from the album, Honky Tonkin’ My Life Away:

mp3 : The Ponderosa Aces – Judgment Day
mp3 : The Ponderosa Aces – Make Things Right
mp3 : The Ponderosa Aces – Roadside Shrine
mp3 : The Ponderosa Aces – Hit The Door

So, a surprising but happy story. I hope you’ll be able to come out and see The Ponderosa Aces in just a couple months’ time. This blog’s readers are an amazing crowd I like to think of as old friends, and it would be great to finally meet some of y’all in person.

Johnny Bottoms, the country bassist