CHUCK BERRY TRIBUTE CD WILL HAVE 'EM ROCKIN' IN BOSTON, ALL OVER ST. LOUIS
Of the Post-Dispatch
October 10, 2004
Tribute CDs are tricky to pull off. More of them are released every week, and the genre is cheapened as less-deserving artists are given the treatment.
Surf over to Amazon.com and type in "tribute to" in the search box for popular music. Returns total 1,928! For every tribute to a Hank Williams, there's one to a Josh Groban, who may deserve a tribute one day but has been in the music business for only about 10 minutes, relatively speaking.
Tribute CDs often are too reverential -- or too experimental. Artists paying tribute are often too obscure -- or too well known.
Sometimes, a tribute can be a fun novelty, such as Hayseed Dixie's "A Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC." But what does it do for AC/DC's legacy or for bluegrass?
Then there are tribute CDs that are nothing but marketing gimmicks, such as the "Pickin' On" series of bluegrass versions of rock, pop and country hits. There are 35 of them listed at Amazon.
Shaking up the music
These were some of the hurdles facing Kip Loui about a year ago when he began lining up artists and organizing a long-overdue hometown tribute to rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry. In fact, it would be the only tribute to Berry that was not a vault-raiding collection of previously released covers.
"Brown Eyed Handsome Man: St. Louis Salutes the Father of Rock and Roll" was released nationally Tuesday, with proceeds benefiting listener-supported radio station KDHX-FM (88.1). It boasts 19 Berry tracks by local and state-based artists, from music legends such as Fontella Bass to national acts such as Jay Farrar and the Bottle Rockets to regional favorites such as Waterloo, Magnolia Summer, the Trip Daddys and the Rockhouse Ramblers.
"The key to a good tribute CD is to take the songs and shake them up a little bit, either by doing a straight-ahead and rousing version, or by rearranging and reinterpreting them in a fresh-sounding way," says Loui, a Rockhouse Rambler and a KDHX disc jockey.
"That's what I was striving for. I didn't want (the artists) to regurgitate bar-band versions of these songs, because who needs that?"
CD tributes that are successful from start to finish are rare. One great Johnny Cash tribute exists if you cherry-pick the best of the mainstream country "Kindred Spirits," alt-country "Dressed in Black" and punk-rock "Cash From Chaos."
"Till the Night Is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus," released in 1995, brought together an awesome list of artists to honor the great rock 'n' roll songwriter. Shawn Colvin's slow, moody "Viva Las Vegas" was worth the price of the disc all by itself -- plus you got Brian Wilson, Dion, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, B.B. King and many others.
Loui is a fan of the Folkways Records release "A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly" from 1988, which boasted (again) Springsteen, Dylan and Wilson among its contributors.
"That was terrific. Folks really seemed to dig in with those timeless songs," says Loui, who also is a bandmate of the Bottle Rockets' Brian Henneman in their side project, Diesel Island.
"Unsuccessful ones? Let's just say there are very few that really impress me or make me play them more than once," he says. "Maybe that's because there's not enough time or energy put into them."
"For Anyone That's Listening: A Tribute to Uncle Tupelo," Farrar's old Belleville-based band, boasts a lineup of indie rock and alt-country artists but, "personally, I just didn't see the point," Loui says. "Not because Uncle Tupelo wasn't great or didn't write great songs, but the groups trying to pay homage either didn't get it or didn't do their homework or put enough energy into it."
CD uses Chuck's versatility
Great intentions and great talent won't carry a project if the songs aren't great, and the Chuck Berry project has great songs in abundance.
The CD is a generous mix of the obvious ("Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnnie B. Goode"), the obscure ("Why Should We End This Way" and "Ramona Say Yes") and treatments that are revelatory ("No Particular Place to Go" and "Around and Around").
Farrar, who says he was first exposed to Berry's songs on Beatles and Rolling Stones records, strips "Why Should We End This Way" down to its foundation: one guitar and kick drum.
"I chose one of Chuck's blues songs," Farrar says via e-mail. "Chuck's versatility in maneuvering through styles is sometimes overlooked. On one Chuck Berry record I have, Chuck does blues, a Caribbean-influenced song and even sings a Mexican-flavored song in Spanish."
The Gentleman Callers' version of "Ramona Say Yes" perfectly reflects the song's time, 1964, giving it a mix of garage-rock and British-invasion sounds.
Matt Picker, the Callers' drummer, says via e-mail that "Ramona" was a departure from Berry's standard song that fit the Callers well because "my band is really into that era of music."
"Plus, it was a lot of fun to play around with a song we weren't very familiar with," Picker says. "It was interesting to really study the dynamics of these songs, because when you're trying to learn them you really realize how genius they are."
Loui adds that "Ramona" sounded so different from Berry's previous work "that the people at Chess (Records) didn't know what to do with it, and they shelved it." It finally was released on Berry's "The Chess Box" in 1988.
Waterloo and Magnolia Summer also score with revisionist looks at "No Particular Place to Go" and "Around and Around," respectively.
Chris Grabau of Magnolia Summer says via e-mail: "Kip offered a few different songs to choose from. I picked "Around and Around" because it's one of my favorite Chuck songs. I know it's been covered a lot, but I thought the spirit of the song was something we could explore without aping it note for note. For example, the main guitar riff was made with a violin."
Loui says Magnolia Summer's "Around and Around" reminds him of glam-rock and T-Rex, while Waterloo's "No Particular Place to Go" "almost seems like the Jesus and Mary Chain, in terms of their arrangement."
In the end, the goal of a tribute CD is education and validation: to spread the artist's legacy.
"In terms of ours, did we succeed? Time will tell," Loui says. "If some 15-year-old in Boise, Idaho, hears this and then goes out and picks up a copy of Chuck Berry's 'The Great Twenty-Eight,' then my job was a success."
FOLLOWING THE TRACKS
Here are the tracks on "Brown Eyed Handsome Man: St. Louis Salutes the Father of Rock & Roll" (Undertow Music).
Included is the release date of each Chuck Berry original and, if it charted, the peak position on the Billboard Hot 100.
1. Fontella Bass, "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" (1956): A bluesy, gospel-tinged turn on one of Berry's many signature songs.
2. Bottle Rockets, "Come On" (1961): A twangy version of Berry's breakup lament.
3. Earl, "Beautiful Delilah" (No. 81, 1958): Owes as much to the Kinks' cover as it does to Berry's original.
4. Fairchild, "Almost Grown" (No. 13, 1959): A jazzy treatment of Berry's declaration of independence, given a woman's slant by Connie Fairchild.
5. Jay Farrar, "Why Should We End This Way." (1965): A standout, minimalist version of an obscure blues track from "Chuck Berry in London," growled by Farrar on top of fuzzy guitar and kick drum. Smell the Delta.
6. Rockhouse Ramblers, "Tulane" (1970): One of Berry's best story songs, slowed down a tad and sold by Dade Farrar's vocal.
7. Tinhorn, "Club Nitty Gritty" (1966): A funky, organ-drenched version of Berry's first Mercury Records single.
8. Skeletons, "Jaguar & Thunderbird" (1960): A faithful version of another classic story song, by Lou Whitney's Springfield, Mo.-based band.
9. Soulard Blues Band, "No Money Down" (1955): A lopin', "motorvatin'" take on Berry's bluesy case of Cadillac lust.
10. Bennie Smith & the Urban Express, "Viva Rock & Roll" (recorded 1966, released 1971): An instrumental version of Berry's "Viva Viva Rock 'n' Roll."
11. Waterloo, "No Particular Place to Go" (No. 10, 1964): A deconstructed reworking of one of Berry's biggest.
12. Gentleman Callers, "Ramona Say Yes" (1966): Recorded by Berry as American rockers were responding to the British invasion, the Callers' version captures that era with a Rolling Stones meets the Remains fervor.
13. Phonocaptors, "Little Queenie" (No. 80, 1959): A Berry gem rediscovered by the Rolling Stones, given a punk thrashing by the Phonocaptors.
14. Gumbohead, "You Never Can Tell (C'est La Vie)" (No. 14, 1964): Gumbohead adds washboard and accordion to the saxophones and piano of Berry's New Orleans wedding story.
15. Highway Matrons, "Sweet Little Sixteen" (No. 2, 1958): Fred Friction's gang gives one of Berry's best-known songs a cowpunk power blast.
16. Bob Reuter & Palookaville, "Bye Bye Johnnie" (1960): Western swing-style fiddle over a rock 'n' roll backbeat on another classic story song.
17. Orbits, "Thirty Days" (1955): Berry's follow-up single to "Maybellene" gets a rockabilly treatment with lots of pedal-steel guitar.
18. Trip Daddys, "Johnnie B. Goode" (No. 8, 1958): The master's masterpiece, done up fast, loud and proud.
19. Magnolia Summer, "Around and Around" (1958): The B-side of the "Johnnie B. Goode" single gets a terrifically edgy, itchy, fiddle-infused makeover.
"WHERE ARE THE NO. 1 SONGS?"
Berry had only one No. 1 hit on Billboard's Hot 100: the novelty, naughty-for-its-day concert favorite "My Ding-a-ling" in 1971.
Sources for chart and
release data: chuckberry.com, the All Music Guide (allmusic.com)
and Dietmar Rudolph's "Collector's Guide to the Music of
Chuck Berry" (www.crlf.de/ChuckBerry/index.html).
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