Here was my first assignment for “online,” whatever that was.
Even the word “assignment” isn’t right. “Dilettante” was most decidedly an autodidact’s column. Not long after shoving my way into this internship at the SFBG, and aiming to turn it into a job, a friend and I wanted to take a road trip on a budget.
So I called up Goldenvoice and proudly told them I “worked for” the Bay Guardian (not a lie, just not for pay), and asked for two passes to the 1997 Hootenanny in Irvine.
Before “Dilettante,” I mostly just wrote about rock’n’roll. New music was a mystery to consumers: Record stores thrived, but most didn’t yet feature listening stations. It helped if a professional music critic told you whether or not an album was worth buying before you paid $10-15 just to hear it. That was my job: Applying a critical ear towards music to make connections within the realm, to save people money on records and CDs.
Coming from a rockabilly town like Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the legendary Sleazefest has jumped the joint for over 20 years now and quirky greasers lurked in every wooded hovel, I was subconsciously looking for familiarity with this assignment.
To expand my horizons beyond the prospect of seeing the same hipster bands at the same bars, shows, and galleries in Chapel Thrill for the next however long, I’d migrated West to San Francisco the previous year. It was a good move: One’s 20s should ideally include a never-ending supply of music and art scenes in which to splash around.
Now, how was I going to stay poor and free and obtain free tickets to any rock show ever? Without facing the responsibility of becoming a performing artist myself? I had an idea.
Nobody in Chapel Hill knew I was a musician anyway, since singers don’t have instruments to carry. Only the people I grew up with thought I’d “be a singer,” as in a paying job. My imperious opera professor at the UNC-CH opera program could tell I felt repelled from his world of classical stuffiness and drawn to more … subcultural life choices. We went our separate ways.
In school and in general, I could never settle down into a wheelhouse and master it. Muses were as numerous to me as areas of interest and singing styles. That’s why I chose the name “Dilettante” for the column — to trumpet the praise of anyone who had foregone ultimately useless nights out in those same bars, shows, and galleries for everyday practice and performance. The artists on my beat had achieved — or at least begun slouching toward — mastery.
And I, most glaringly, had not, and wanted to own that, too. If other artists were the bright lights of humanity, then I would be a disco ball. Being unwilling to commit my life to the opera world, I had to make spectacle-hunting at the bars, shows, and galleries mean something positive and productive. In this new nightlife smorgasbord of a world-class port town, with traveling groups and weirdos coming in from all over the globe, I would find a way to make a living enjoying spectacle.
Didn’t know how lucky I’d get.
So this Hootenanny assignment was the prototypical column which would score me the gig as one of ten “Guardian Web Exclusive” columns at the paper’s new online desk. Beth Loudmouth from the SFBG’s art department designed a logo to my request, and it was thrilling, punk rock perfection:
Honky Tonk Heaven: Hootenanny, Oak Canyon Ranch, SoCal
by Summer Burkes, 7.5.1997
I TOOK MY first road trip down south last weekend. No, it wasn’t to see all the cellphone-toting plastic surgery victims, the speed-addled surfers, or the place where River Phoenix died (although all three happened to fall in my path…. Okay, okay, I went to the Viper Room. So sue me.) I went down to Armageddon Land because El-Lay was hosting the swinginest, greasiest rock festival of the summer — Hootenanny.
The brainchild of promoter group 98 Posse, Hootenanny was designed as a yearly homage to the burgeoning swing/rockabilly scene in Cali. This one-day outdoor festival with three stages, ultra-hep vendors, and an amazing car show takes place at the stunning Oak Canyon Ranch outside of Irvine. Now in its third year, beautifully organized, and well-attended, the event shows no sign of slowing down.
Directions to the gig were hard to come by, but my friend and I finally made good by tracking a pack of pompadours in an old Corvair down a long, winding, desert road. We reached the dusty parking lot, walked almost a mile down a narrow footpath past a picturesque lake and rock quarry, and thanked God that we were so undevoted to the ‘scene’ that we were free to wear the poly-cotton materials of our own era. No fishnets and velvet cigarette pants for us, no sir.
Outdoor music festivals are almost as good for people-watching as a Monster Truck Rally. All sorts of freaks showed up for the Hootenanny, but my two favorite factions to watch were the Old People and the Sharks, Jets, and Pink Ladies. The Old People, obviously there to see Chuck Berry and not really aware of what an eyeful they were in for, sat bored in the shade with their kids and Danielle Steel books for most of the day. The Sharks, Jets, and Pink Ladies, an endless source of fascination for me, were seen mostly loitering around their custom cars, looking for all the world like carbon copies of their grandparents. Hep.
The first band we saw, Tenderloin, had the psycho-roadhouse rock thing down pat. The drummer used to play with the Rev (that’s Reverend Horton Heat to the uninitiated), and his influences are obvious. The enormously fat and half-naked lead singer screamed loudly, pogo-ed with abandon, showed more ass-crack than a house full of plumbers, and wailed on a distorted harmonica with the kind of punk rock enthusiasm that would send Blues Traveler home crying to Mommy. Talk about starting off on the right foot.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy then took the main stage in the blazing sun. This 10-or-so piece band, made famous by the movie Swingers, was proficient without being outstanding. All the Cab Calloway cliches for the ultra-hip swing set didn’t impress. I mean, of course all the bands at Hootenanny were ripping off somebody, but when a swing band doesn’t have a single trademark, gimmick, or distinguishing feature, they might as well be playing a wedding.
Speaking of a distinguishing feature…Russell Scott and his Red Hots don’t sound like a 3-piece, even though they are, and his scratchy voice doesn’t seem like it would mesh, even though it does. Scott’s standup bass and Peter Criss-like vocals made for some of the best authentic rockabilly of the day. We then stayed by the shaded side-stages to see Hot Rod Lincoln, the Paladins, and James Intveld deliver more of the same retro-only fare. The Paladins rocked my town like the Stray Cats–what energy!–but I wouldn’t recognize the other two bands if they came up and smacked me in the face. For me, four hours of rockabilly has the same effect as a droning techno song–no matter how good it sounds, once the satiation point is reached, dreams of opening fire on a crowded McDonald’s are never far behind.
As if the gods could sense that the crowd was starting to have too much fun, the biggest let-down of the day arrived, armed only with an acoustic guitar, a harmonica propped on his chest, and a collection of songs designed to torture even the most seasoned folkie. The supposedly legendary rockabilly star Steve Earle wheezed his way through a tortuously long set, provoking me to dub him Country Steve and the Fish. Except that there weren’t even any Fish to relieve us of the tedium. The disappointment was palpable. Don’t eat the brown acid!
As if to add insult to injury, the second Steve Earle finished, the Rugburns appeared–prompting crowd murmurings along the lines of, “how the hell did they get on the bill?” This frat band for the ironically challenged covered such classics as ‘Little Red Corvette’ without a smirk or a hint of ennui. How dare they!
Ahhhh…the Supersuckers. Their honky-tonk punkabilly sent a wave of relief over the throng. Our happiness was slightly marred by the somewhat violent moshpit instigated by the SoCal Dude Set (no shirt, wallet chain, pants cut below knees, Vans with socks inexplicably pulled up like a German tourist). After tearing through some of their country punk classics, the Supersuckers invited Steve Earle onstage (argh!) to guest-star the whole ordeal into classic rock nowheresville. Boys, next time don’t get so close to your roots. It’s like Alex Chilton and Teenage Fanclub all over again.
Top Jimmy and then Robert Gordon were the next old-fart-abilly bands to darken the stage, each winning accolades from the Sharks and Jets in the crowd for the prize of Most Elvis-esque. Maybe because it was late in the day and my friend and I were tired, cranky, buzzed, and sunburned, but we really started to tire of the endless I-IV-V-I chord progressions and white trash cliches (lonesome train, my gal is red hot, etc.) that make rockabilly ‘authentic’. What was quaint and nostalgic at 1:00 turned to grating and uninventive by 6:00. I love rockabilly, I was raised on it, but I also love psychobilly, punkabilly, voodoobilly …anything that’s a re-working of the original perfect mesh between Celtic and African, country and blues. I don’t want to look like a Pink Lady, and I don’t want to pretend I don’t live now. I like living in an era where women can actually get onstage and rock out. I have no interest in being stuck in a time warp–I want to see where rockabilly is going as well as where it’s been.
By the time Chuck Berry comes onstage (the only black person I saw all day, no lie), my friend and I were ready to leave. He’s great. In a lot of ways, he’s the father of this music. But all his progeny were already here, playing his songs before him. Sadly, and through no fault of his own, he seemed redundant. But he’s still got it–at 71 years old I’m just hoping I can stand upright — and this champ rocked, rolled, and blew all his proteges out of the water.
Next time, let the legend go first and then everyone else can take their poetic place in his shadow. This was the only planning glitch at Hootenanny this year; where they fell short on variety, they shone in keeping history alive. Yeah, I’m going next year.
P.S. In this trip to greater Los Angeles, toes were dipped in the California dating pool: I met ___ The Clown, my first long-distance and secret junkie boyfriend, who dropped off the face of the earth a short time later and we all thought he died. He was courteous enough to call me a year later to say that he hadn’t.
This is the first piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project.
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