It started with a cattle call.
Well, a song by that name. Bill Briggs, sitting alone, awash in light, on the Center Theater stage, kicked off Monday night’s Hootenanny at the Center for the Arts with Tex Owens’ cowboy classic. Briggs yodeled and picked, then walked off to thunderous applause, commencing an evening of song.
Once a year the Hoot, a Monday night tradition at Dornan’s, travels south to pack the Center Theater.
“It is an absolute thrill. The Center is a great place to perform,” said Hank Phibbs, a longtime Hoot player who lent his Dobro to song after song.
The night, which started with folk music and wandered all over the spectrum, was poignant for many onstage and in the audience. Not simply a show under the lights, the evening was a tribute to John Byrne Cooke, a musician whose path took him from running Janis Joplin’s tour to being a Hoot mainstay. Cooke died in September 2017.
Being a man of talent and experience, Cooke expected a lot from his fellow players, and that excellence was on full display Monday night.
“He was a stickler,” John Carney told the crowd. “He always pushed us to do it right.”
Cooke’s name made its way into several of the artists’ introductions and speeches, as did the name of Dick Barker, a Hoot founder. Remembrance — of favorite songs, of past shows — threw something into focus: The Hoot’s main players, the ones who carry the traditions of its founding, are no spring chickens.
Briggs, Carney, John Sidle and Hank Phibbs, men who, along with Cooke, have defined the Hoot for years, are fast approaching retirement age or are looking at it in the rearview. But an early moment signaled a generational shift.
To introduce the fourth mini-set, Sidle told a story.
“One of the best things I’ve ever done as a father,” he said, “was put an electric bass in my son’s hand when he was 7 years old.”
That son, Rob, was ushered onstage with his partner, Tasha Ghozali, who smiled mischievously at the crowd.
“I’m going to bring a little soul for you,” she said.
With that she belted out renditions of two Aretha Franklin hits, “Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools,” that the Queen of Soul would have admired.
The younger Sidle and Ghozali found themselves on stage plenty, sitting in with several artists, including the elder Sidle as he sang the Carter Family standard “Gold Watch and Chain,” in a night of virtuosity and community.
From Mike and Kate Swanson celebrating their wedding anniversary with a rendition of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” to Carney, Phibbs and Dan Thomasma’s harmonies on a Crosby, Stills and Nash number, the exacting Cooke would have found little to fix at the Center on Monday night, especially the closing number, a song that represented his feelings about his adopted state, “Sweet Wyoming Home.”