“All roads lead to Chuck Berry.”
For Kenny Pirog, the 30-year-old D.C. musician whose band Wanted Man incorporates blues, surf rock and rockabilly into its contemporary sound, it’s as simple as that.
“In a word, I would say it’s the ‘feeling,’” said Pirog. “Because everything about the records that he made—whether it’s in his voice, the guitar playing, the lyrics—had so much—very powerful—feeling.”
Recapturing that feeling is a task that falls to Pirog and an all-star band of young local musicians who are staging a tribute to the late, great Berry (who died in April) at AMP by Strathmore.
“It’s a tribute to the music,” he said. “We won’t be playing each song note for note. Every musician in the band has their own character and style, so naturally we’ll be bringing that to the table.”
As lead singer for the show, Pirog is particularly conscious of the shoes he must fill. “I’m sort of channeling some of the energy,” he said. “I let it affect the way I’m delivering the vocals and moving onstage.
“I can do my best, but no one can ‘recreate’ Chuck. We’re paying homage to the musical language that he created, the music that means so much to us.”
It’s a language Pirog has understood since he was a child growing up in Vienna, Virginia. “Performing in a rock and roll band was just always something I wanted to do,” he recalled. “I set my mind to it and found people I could play with.”
Like his brother, Anthony Pirog, who influenced his younger sibling’s tastes growing up and joins the tribute to Berry as lead guitarist, with Mark G. Meadows on piano, Larry Ferguson on drums, John Previti on bass and Elijah Jamal Balbed on saxophone. It’s a top-notch band, Pirog pointed out, as befits the musical pioneer who paved the way for rock musicians from the Beatles to the Stones to Bruce Springsteen and beyond, forever reshaping the path of pop music.
“Chuck Berry’s listed as an influence on virtually everybody,” said Pirog. “I heard him a bunch growing up—more in passing—but when I was about 13 or 14. I got a copy of ‘The Great 28’ and the first 10 seconds of the first song, ‘Maybellene’ I was hooked.”
Even then, Pirog felt the energy that was uniquely Chuck Berry: “I could drop the needle on any given point of a Chuck Berry record and find that something really exciting was happening.”
The excitement began in 1955, when a young musician named Charles Edward Anderson Berry first recorded “Maybellene”—followed by “Roll Over Beethoven” in 1956, “Rock and Roll Music” in 1957 and “Johnny B. Goode” in 1958. Berry, a music-obsessed middle-class kid from St. Louis, had grown up to be one of the most influential artists in the nascent American genre of rock and roll. He survived a stint in a reformatory as a teenager—there was always a whiff of scandal to the Berry legend, even at the height of his stardom—and rose out of his potentially ordinary life in an automobile assembly plant by sheer force of will and talent (and some help from Muddy Waters). As a guitarist, singer and songwriter, Berry blended classic rhythm and blues with the emerging pop elements of the 1950s, hitting a sweet spot that brought together teen angst and post-war consumerism and sent it straight up the charts.
“Chuck Berry’s originality and influence cannot be matched,” said Mark G. Meadows. “He could write, unite and perform like no other.”
And Meadows can identify. The actor (known for his star turn in “Jelly’s Last Jam” at Signature Theatre), composer, professor, and jazz musician was born in D.C. and raised between the District and Richardson, Texas, attending Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas before earning two bachelor’s degrees (in psychology and jazz piano) from Johns Hopkins University. He was a member of the Strathmore Artist in Residence (AIR) program’s Class of 2015—jazz saxophonist Balbed was AIR Class of 2014—and sees what he does as a reflection of the musical unity Berry introduced so many decades ago.
“I do a good job of connecting people, relating well to white and black culture, and seeing the similarities and the differences,” said Meadows, 28, who started off as a classical pianist and later turned to jazz—appropriately enough, as his dad is jazz and gospel musician Gabe Meadows. “That’s part of who I am as an artist.”
Just as it was part of Berry, who was called “the father of rock and roll” by Rolling Stone magazine, was loved and lauded by John Lennon and Leonard Cohen in their day, and was called out by National Museum of African American History and Culture curator Kevin Strait as “one of the primary sonic architects of rock and roll.”
Meadows agrees: Berry was the bomb. And he promised that on Friday night at AMP “we’re going to tribute him with a show that you won’t forget.”
“Hail Hail Rock ’n’ Roll” A Live Tribute to Chuck Berry takes will start at 8 p.m. Friday July 28, at AMP by Strathmore, 11810 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda. Tickets range from $20 to $28. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.ampbystrathmore.com. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.