Those were genuine rock-and-roll legends on the Wolf Trap stage Tuesday night, and the sold-out crowd clearly appreciated them as much for what they'd done 40 years ago as for what they did this particular night. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis--these are truly seminal figures in the music's history, and the pleasures they delivered long ago were not lost on an audience that looked mostly to have come of age at the same time as the music. In "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," Berry sang, "Deliver us from the days of old," but the crowd clearly wanted him to deliver them to the days of old.
Jerry Lee Lewis, once the rowdiest of rockers, performed a painfully pedestrian opening set. Lewis's voice sounded fine and his piano pounding was as assured as ever, but he seemed somewhat disengaged, opening with a latter-day hit, the rollicking remake of Stick McGhee's R&B classic "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee," and futzing through several minor songs before ending his short set with his two 1957 classics, "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta of Shakin' Goin' On." Recognizing that this was a rock show, the 63-year-old Lewis eschewed his considerable country repertoire, underused a band featuring legendary guitarist James Burton, and ended "Shakin' " by planting his butt mid-piano for a farewell chord that was clearly anticlimactic.
Little Richard, who maintains the highest pompadour in show business, remains the wildest of the original rockers. If only he didn't work at it so hard! Had his performance been on video, one could have edited it down to a highlight reel in which Little Richard, resplendent in a shimmering white outfit with sparkling boots, raced through classics like "Good Golly, Miss Molly," "Lucille," "Tutti Frutti" and a snippet of "Long Tall Sally." But there were also too many partially invested covers, including Larry Williams's "Bony Moronie," Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" and the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There."
The last was appropriate, of course--the song's giddy, ear-piercing falsetto whoop was clearly the Beatles' tribute to one of their original inspirations. Little Richard was far more frenetic on the piano than Lewis, and his voice, too, seemed none the worse for wear despite a half-century of abuse. On a number of songs, he invited audience members of all ages onto the stage to dance, re-creating the wild club scenes of a dozen vintage rock-and-roll films like "The Girl Can't Help It." Well, almost.
The problem was that Little Richard interrupted himself too often with audience asides, his trademark "shut-up" and excessive posturing. Still, just often enough, his whoops, hollers and spasms of pleasure recaptured a manic musicality that seems as undiminished at 66 as when the singer was 18.
Berry closed the show with a program that was both thrilling and disappointing. Thrilling because the canny Berry knew what the audience wanted and he gave it in three-minute slices titled "Roll Over Beethoven," "Memphis, Tennessee," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Reelin' and Rockin'," "Little Queenie" and the distaff triptych of "Maybellene," "Carol" and "Nadine." There were some digressions--the bluesy sway of "It Hurts Me Too" and "Mean Old World"--and a shuffle that Berry eventually lost track of. "I'm allowed to forget, you know," he jokes. "At 72, you're allowed to do anything!"
On the downside, Berry still makes do with unrehearsed pickup bands, though this one featured local pianist Daryl Davis, a frequent accompanist who does the best Johnnie Johnson imitation this side of Johnson himself. Berry's guitar playing was fundamental at best--of course, it is the very foundation of rock-and-roll--and the most spirited solos came from Davis. Still, Berry went about his business with a genial informality, closing the show with a "Johnny B. Goode" that included a very brief duckwalk.