By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch


September 20, 2004

"Imagine a world without Chuck Berry," longtime St. Louis musician Kip Loui asked a Pageant audience celebrating the work of one of its own Saturday night. "It would be like a world without cheeseburgers, a world without baseball -- a world without rock 'n' roll."

Berry's presence was missed at the party celebrating the release of the tribute CD "Brown Eyed Handsome Man: St. Louis Salutes the Father of Rock & Roll," a collection of 19 Berry songs performed by area musicians. But his impact was clearly felt -- as it has been by rock fans for almost 50 years.

The show had just about everything: local Undertow artists Waterloo to warm things up; rockabilly ravers the Trip Daddys to kick start the feet; and Festus' Bottle Rockets, headlining and backing up special guests Jay Farrar and Fontella Bass, to bring it on home.

Bass especially electrified the house with her bluesy take on "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," from the CD, as well as her self-penned 1965 Top 40 smash "Rescue Me" and its single-record B-side, "The Soul of a Man," written by the late St. Louis ax legend Oliver Sain.

But while tribute was paid and thanks were given to the writer of "Johnny B. Goode" -- the rock 'n' roll national anthem, as the Trip Daddy's Craig Straubinger called it -- the artists had to really work to keep the energy level in the Pageant on simmer. It was so quiet between songs in Waterloo's opening set that you could hear a guitar pick drop.

The Trip Daddys made sure the crowd got its fill of Berrys with what was billed as an all-Chuck set. Manic guitarist Straubinger, bassist Jamey Almond and drummer Joe Meyer tore through the master's catalog, from "Nadine" and "Maybellene" through "Thirty Days." KDHX jock Al Swacker of the "Greaser's Lunchbox" show sang lead for "Living in the USA" and "Sweet Little Sixteen."

The Daddys were especially effective on the smoldering blues of "Wee Wee Hours" before the Bottle Rockets' guitar ace John Horton joined them for "School Days" and "Memphis, Tenn." Then Straubinger said, "It's not very rock 'n' roll to do what you're told," and ripped into a couple of Trip Daddys originals.

An increasingly svelte Brian Henneman, sporting (finally!) a newer, bigger, wider and higher straw cowboy hat, led the Bottle Rockets through 17 of their songs before bringing out Farrar and Bass. Bittersweet love songs such as the 9/11-tinged "Baggage Claim" nestled nicely among tales of working folks ("Lucky Break"), poor folks ("Kerosene") and just folks ("1000 Dollar Car," "Indianapolis," "Get Down River").

The Rockets played Berry's "Come On," their contribution to the "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" CD, before bringing on Farrar for the relatively unknown Berry blues tune "Why Should We End This Way."

The Belleville native -- can it be 15 years since Uncle Tupelo, his band with Jeff Tweedy, played Cicero's? -- gives the tune a stark guitar and kick-drum arrangement on CD, but it blossomed as a full band song with Horton, Henneman and Farrar trading solos.

Master of ceremonies Loui, a member of the Rockhouse Ramblers and Diesel Island bands, put together the tribute as a fund-raiser for KDHX-FM, where he is a DJ. After Bass' closing miniset with the Rockets, Loui had to coax the Rockets back for an encore, with Henneman coming out to challenge the crowd: "I guess the question would be does anyone really want to hear anymore?"

They did, and the Rockets and Farrar obliged with a scorching take on Doug "Sir Douglas" Sahm's '60s hit "She's About a Mover."

As Berry says, "Hail, hail rock 'n' roll."