For some, the Fourth of July is a good opportunity to reread the Declaration of Independence or the writings of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams or George Washington and reacquaint themselves with the spirit behind the nation's founding.
The Hootenanny Festival each Independence Day weekend serves a similar function for anyone looking to reconnect with the spirit underlying the birth of that quintessentially American musical form, rock 'n' roll.
This year's lineup held out the prospect of a summit meeting between two of rock's titanic figures — Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis — along with the usual amalgam of roots rock, punk and Americana acts spread Saturday over the daylong festival's three stages in the park-like surroundings of Irvine's Oak Canyon Ranch.
Unfortunately, Lewis, 74, never made it, canceling under doctor's orders. Festival-goers were advised to hold onto their tickets, which will get them into a Lewis 75th birthday celebration in September in Pomona, where he is scheduled to perform.
That left the elder-statesman duties to Berry, who at 83 still succeeded in wowing a crowd of several thousand guys with greased pompadours and rolled-up jeans and women outfitted in various guises of '50s pinup Bettie Page.
Rock's first poet and original guitar hero confessed during his hourlong set to tiring easily these days. So he alternated such rollicking anthems as "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Days" and "Sweet Little 16" with slower numbers including "Every Day I Have the Blues" and "Wee Wee Hours," in which he let his big Gibson electric guitar do most of the singing.
The man who invented much of the musical lexicon for his instrument reeled and rocked with a perplexing string of chord progressions and melodic runs during his solos, the logic of which may have been perceptible only to certain breeds of guitar-loving dogs. Yet just when you thought he'd completely abandoned musical cohesion, those long, limber fingers would slip back into the exhilarating dimension he largely defined more than a half-century ago.
The St. Louis-based Berry was accompanied by his regular bassist, Jim Marsala, and a keyboardist (Andy Hill) and drummer (Three Bad Jacks' Kyle Helm) he picked up locally. His appearance capped a day that spanned the earnest, western-soaked solo music offered up by Nick 13, singer for the psychobilly band Tiger Army; the expansive Southern blues rock of Shooter Jennings; and the raucous Americana of the Old 97's on the two side-by-side main stages. The second stage featured more obscure acts such as the theatrically cross-dressing thrash punk band Whorehouse Massacre.
The invigorating thing about Hootenanny, beyond the fascinating intersection of roots music, punk attitude and custom-car culture, is the window it offers on the many variations that have sprouted from the seeds Berry, Lewis, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and their cohorts planted in the '50s. The common thread is raw emotion and visceral energy. The impact of the individual performances hinged largely on the degree to which each act embraced the freedom from formal constraints of musical conventions that distinguished rock's original class.
Nick 13 seems genuinely inspired by the "Ghost Riders in the Sky" school of western music, with its eerie textures and tales of loners on the frontier, but so far seems too in awe of the genre's tradition to put much of a stamp on it. Jennings has broken from the tradition bequeathed him by his outlaw country parents, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, and seemed comfortable in his own musical skin exploring the border territory where Southern rock meets roots country.
Rhett Miller was characteristically compelling fronting the on-again, off-again Old 97's, the perpetual rock-star-in-waiting à la Gram Parsons, a chief musical influence. Miller, though, does not yet consistently exhibit Parsons' songwriting expertise. Singer-songwriter Roger Alan Wade fulfilled the don't-give-a-hoot storyteller role with bawdy and witty songs including "D-R-U-N-K" and the self-explanatory "If You're Gonna Be Dumb, You Gotta Be Tough."
Even with a relatively modest advance ticket price of $35, Hootenanny didn't escape the doldrums hampering the concert industry across the board this year. Goldenvoice chief Paul Tollett noted backstage that attendance, around 4,000 for the one-day event, was down from peak years: "It's not the best, but not the lowest either, about in the middle," he said after Berry wrapped up.
Yet from the enthusiasm shown by those who did turn out, the joyfully liberating potential of music rooted in American tradition is the truth that remains self-evident.