The tribute album may be the trickiest art form in popular music. You must pick a worthy subject, someone whose songwriting is durable enough to be beaten around by lesser life forms. You must find the right bands -- and not merely good bands, but a variety of bands. Nothing is more boring than a tribute album made entirely by followers of the guest of honor's sound. And at the center of every tribute is a dark question: Aside from a quick novelty listen, why would you sit through a cover album, when the original's recordings are sitting right there? I can think of only one tribute album that stands out as a real work of art: Virus 100, the Dead Kennedys tribute featuring everyone from Mojo Nixon to the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy doing insane covers of the punk legends. But in most cases the real question is: Why bother?
Maybe, Kip Loui suggests, because someone needs a shot at redemption. Loui is the mastermind behind the new Chuck Berry tribute album, Brown Eyed Handsome Man. The idea for the album germinated while Loui was putting together an hour of Berry's music for a KDHX (88.1 FM) special.
"In the process of producing that segment, I was reacquainted with Chuck and what he had done, and was just reminded all over again how vital and alive and crucial those 1950s recordings are," Loui recounts. "They're the blueprint, plain and simple, for rock & roll."
But it would take something a little darker to really get the balling rolling for Loui.
"A few months later at band practice [with the Rockhouse Ramblers], somehow Chuck's name came up, and someone, of course, made a dirty joke. And I chortled along with everybody. But then I was driving home, and I thought: You know, that kind of bothers me. I realized where we'd come to a point where even in his hometown, the man had become a punchline to a dirty joke."
Well, yeah, a little. It's kinda hard to picture the man without, well, you know, picturing him.
"He's like the crazy uncle who did something kind of scary at the Christmas party one year, and now we're all kind of afraid of him," Loui continues. "People had either forgotten what he had done, or they had never known because they were too young."
After an Internet search revealed no Chuck Berry tribs (there are a few out there, actually, according to A Collector's Guide to the Music of Chuck Berry, starting with 1964's instrumental Bill Black's Combo Plays the Tunes of Chuck Berry), Loui got down to the business of putting one together.
"I started making phone calls among people I knew, and they almost all said yes, and said yes enthusiastically," he says. "Because they knew it was time to do something for Chuck. It was almost a matter of civic pride."
The CD is about as St. Louis as toasted ravioli. It's being put out by the local Undertow label, and the proceeds are going to go to KDHX. The CD boasts some big names from around the Lou, including the Skeletons, Jay Farrar, the Soulard Blues Band, Bennie Smith and, most notably, the legendary Fontella Bass, who opens up the CD with a lovely reinterpretation of "Brown Eyed Handsome Man."
But there's one name not on the disc that really pains Loui.
"The person most missing from this is Oliver Sain," he says. "He agreed to contribute a track. His band came in and laid down the backing track. He was scheduled to come in, and three days before he was coming in he passed away. It was tragic. I got to hang with him, though, while his band laid down their tracks. It was something else."
Oddly, the disc doesn't feature Chuck Berry's name -- its full title is Brown Eyed Handsome Man: St. Louis Salutes the Father of Rock N' Roll -- and therein lies a tale of woe. "We couldn't acquire the rights in time for the release date," Loui explains. "Both his name and his image are trademarked, which were legalities we didn't fully comprehend until it was too late. It was our fault."
Loui is well aware of the more prosaic pitfalls of producing a tribute album.
"I desperately wanted something that doesn't suck and wasn't boring," he confides. "So many tribute CDs that I come across are well-intentioned but ultimately kind of dull. I didn't want people to regurgitate bar-band versions of the songs. I wanted them to dig into it."
Do they succeed? More or less. Generally speaking, it'd have been nice to see a few radical reinterpretations, by artists whose music is far away from Berry's influence: a crunk act like Ruka Puff, say, or someone lost in noise like Tone Rodent. The Cajun folks in Gumbohead should have been forced to pick any song other than the obvious "You Never Can Tell." But along with the boss Bass track, Waterloo's very quiet "No Particular Place to Go" and the Highway Matrons' raucous "Sweet Little Sixteen" are standouts. And some tracks -- like the Trip Daddys' "Johnny B. Goode," for instance -- certainly meet the rock requirement and aren't just regurgitations, but rather the kind of renditions you'd want to hear in a bar.
And you can. This Saturday, September 18, check out the Bottle Rockets, Fontella Bass, the Daddys, Waterloo and "a special appearance" by Jay Farrar during an all-Chuck night at the Pageant. The live atmosphere, the good cause (once again, the dough goes to KDHX) and the absolute St. Louis-ness of the whole thing make this event a must-go.
Will Chuck himself be there? Probably not. Loui had "absolutely no" contact with the man over the entire course of the production, and the elder statesman usually holds himself above this sort of thing. Still, Loui hopes it reaches Berry's ears. When I asked if he had anything else to say about the album, Loui was succinct:
"Hope Chuck likes it."