The annual Hootenanny Festival always celebrates the maverick spirit of roots rock and punk music, and this year's edition on Saturday at a new site--Hidden Valley Ranch in Irvine, adjacent to Verizon Wireless Amphitheater--was no exception.
But thanks to key moments in headlining performances by rock elder statesman Chuck Berry and veteran punk band Social Distortion, Hootenanny 2001 also turned into a poignant thanksgiving for another day on planet Earth.
The recent deaths of John Lee Hooker and Chet Atkins and the realization that Berry turns 75 later this year combined to make his atypically focused and energetic set all the sweeter.
There were awkward moments, to be sure, including one right at the start when he cut off his hired band seconds into the first number.
Then midway through his hourlong set, Berry gave a respectful nod to mortality with an unexpected version of Tony Joe White's country waltz "3/4 Time," in which he sang "It's a mean old world/And we all gotta live our lives/One thing's for certain/Ain't none of us gonna get out alive/So while I'm still kickin'/I'm gonna keep pickin' my tunes/I love what I'm doing/I hope it don't end too soon."
During "Rock and Roll Music," the man who introduced literacy to rock altered his own lyrics with a verse that chided those who predicted rock's popularity would fade quickly.
Where his performances in recent years have been wildly erratic, Berry largely gave his Rock 101 classics in full, inhabiting rather than simply reciting those artful lyrics. One misstep was cutting the exquisitely structured "Memphis" short to make room for his 1972 novelty hit "My Ding-A-Ling."
Not surprisingly, he made no reference to the lawsuit filed by his former boss, pianist Johnnie Johnson, contending that Johnson co-wrote many of Berry's biggest hits but never received songwriting credits nor royalties. It was hard not to consider it a wordless retort when Berry took his hands off his guitar in the midst of "Little Queenie" and took over at the piano for a spicy solo as if to show he knows his way around instruments with more than six strings.
Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness has long been punk's most consistent proponent of the message that life's too short for self-destruction, ignorance, artifice or pretty much anything except living fully and honestly.
That view has only gained resonance for him and the throngs of Social D. fans who jammed near the stage in the two years since the group's guitarist Dennis Danell died of a brain aneurysm. Along with "Don't Take Me for Granted" and "Bad Luck," the Orange County quartet introduced new material from its first post-Danell album, currently in progress, as if to show that life does go on.
Earlier in the day, British rock singer-guitarist Dave Edmunds tipped his hat to Atkins in an unannounced appearance with roots-rock bassist-singer Lee Rocker. Rocker had been scheduled to perform with former Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore, but Moore canceled because of illness.
In a couple of solo instrumentals Edmunds peeled off on an amplified acoustic guitar, he managed to simultaneously pay tribute to Atkins and Moore. Edmunds said goodbye after a solo three-song set, but returned at the end of Rocker's performance to join the band on a rollicking romp through Presley's Sun Records-era hit "Mystery Train."
The lineup also included the Reverend Horton Heat, Supersuckers, Cadillac Tramps, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, the Blasters, John Doe (who paused to acknowledge the deaths of Southland punks and roots rockers including Danell, Rik L. Rik and Top Jimmy), James Intveld, the Paladins and Russell Scott.
Although the music and hot rod show was forced this year out of its longtime home in Oak Canyon Ranch by real estate development, the move to Hidden Valley Ranch found the communal spirit of Hootenannies past intact.
So was the virtually incident-free coming together of roughly 11,000 fans in a mini melting pot that crisscrossed age, cultural and ethnic lines. Spiky-haired white punks stood alongside pompadoured Latinos next to old hippies next to surfer dudes, Elvis wannabes and long-haired hard rockers.
The lesson seemed to be that anyone interested in promoting cultural diversity needn't waste time trying to pass a law. Just book the right bands and throw an all-day party.