LouFest, a late summer music festival with a characteristically local shine to it, did St. Louis and rock ‘n’ roll fans a solid Saturday night by staging an exhilarating — and sincere — “all star” tribute to hometown hero Chuck Berry.
Organizers, including Berry’s family, managed to pull off the one-hour mini spectacle — dubbed Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry! — with a cast of guest artists partially culled from the day’s LouFest lineup, including Huey Lewis, Britt Daniel of Spoon, and several members of Cage the Elephant, who looked positively giddy to be there.
Programmed in a traditional tribute show format, with a crackling band guiding a lineup of guests as they power through song after song, the revue warmed up with local blues guitarist Michael Aguirre fronting “School Days,” Berry’s declaration of rock’s arrival (“hail, hail rock n’ roll!”). Even with a group of anonymous musicians, the massive crowd — dotted with pot-vaping teens awaiting the next and final act — took an immediate shine to the ambitious experience.
Shape-shifting artist Pokey LaFarge (from old-timey river music to Memphis soul in, like, three years) of St. Louis was tapped as the first guest performer, and, after a near-stumble and a finicky guitar strap, he was on his way with a jumpin’ take on Berry’s debut single, “Maybellene.” The Illinois native (and Cubs fan, not cool) then led the band through Berry’s penultimate top 40 hit “You Never Can Tell,” which brought out the Vincent and Mia in many attendees, that is if they were able to carve some room to dance.
Valerie June, the striking blues/Americana singer-songwriter, revved up a high-energy “I Want to Be Your Driver,” followed by a fitting take on “Memphis, Tennessee” (she’s from there).
Spoon’s Britt Daniel got a vocal assist from June when it was time for his song, the compact “Come On.” Daniel, fresh off a muscular set of his own an hour-or-so earlier, didn’t have to work too hard with the classic, with its incredulous-sounding drawl. It would’ve been great to keep the Texan on stage for more, but two minutes later and Britt had hit the road.
Berry’s overlooked mastery of the blues was noted during the night as well, with a stellar jam featuring local singer Tandra Williams and How to Make It in America actor/singer Bryan Greenberg, also an STL native, grinding out “Wee Wee Hours.” As good as the vocals were, this is when the backing band — highlighted by a Hammond-hammering Cory Henry (see below) and keyboardist David Grelle — stepped on the gas a bit.
Captain Kirk Douglas of the Roots (and The Tonight Show Band) took over next, fronting a faithful version of “Reeling and Rocking,” before adding Cage the Elephant guitarist Nick Bockrath for “Roll Over Beethoven.” The young, jumpsuited guitarist stuck to rhythm playing, but he got a chance to stretch it out a bit later.
Then it was time for the night’s biggest guest, Huey Lewis, whose News was anything but fake during a hits-crammed set earlier in the day. “He was the first singer-songwriter,” Lewis said of Berry, just before delivering some “Rock and Roll Music” to the still-vaping-and-digging-it crowd. “He was the first to write songs for kids, and more than anyone else, he created rock ‘n’ roll.”
A family affair: Berry’s son, Charles, took a moment in the night’s closing moments to show off one of his dad’s guitars, a fret-worn 1960 Gibson ES345, then thanked the band and — like a good pop — pointed out his own son, Charles III, among the night’s guitarists.
Sadly, the only uneven performance arrived last. A rancorous version of “Johnny B. Goode” that included Cage the Elephant’s Matt Shultz, doing his bestest Jagger, along with Lewis on harmonica and several other guests, never quite jelled. That “should I go?” look that happens when musicians who basically just met take turns soloing? That.
But a slightly imperfect ending to what was a wholly inspiring tribute to Berry is easily forgiven, especially if this becomes an annual tradition. (Completely unsolicited advice: honor a different St. Louis legend each year — hell, you could hire the exact same band for Tina Turner.)