SUNDAY 23 APRIL : THE PONDEROSA ACES
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:-
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.