Chuck Berry | 08.13.2008

live_chuck-berry.jpgThe guy is 80 years old, for cryin’ out loud, and to see anyone at that age still bring the "rock" is unbelievable.







Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room, St. Louis

I can’t think of another situation anywhere in the country where you can regularly go see one of the kings of rock ‘n’ roll. Little Richard is largely retired from live performing, and Jerry Lee Lewis—the only other living musician who can claim to be one of rock’s originals—tours very sporadically. So it’s really quite an awesome thing that fans can show up at the Duck Room once a month (if they’re lucky enough to have a ticket, that is; the concerts always sell out) and see Captain Chuck Berry do his thing.

This should not be taken for granted, and it’s not gonna last forever; ol’ Chuck is getting on in years. Therefore, I was genuinely excited to be among the wall-to-wall throngs awaiting the man who penned such legendary songs as "Johnny B. Goode," "Rock and Roll Music" and "Sweet Little Sixteen." The first thing you gotta be prepared to do when seeing a Berry concert is to cut the man considerable slack. Berry’s a true icon, a hugely influential musician who defined the "and" in rock and roll. His impact cannot be underestimated; John Lennon even once remarked that if you had to give rock and roll another name, you might call it "Chuck Berry."

The guy is 80 years old, for cryin’ out loud, and to see anyone at that age still bring the "rock" is unbelievable. So, it would be utterly churlish to nitpick about sloppy moments Berry gave here and there, or the guitar not sounding quite like the record. Big deal, man. It’s Chuck effin’ Berry, kids!

Long-time pal Joe Edwards introduced Berry, as he does each month, and the crowd roared. There he was, with his dapper dark jacket and white hat, launching into "Roll Over, Beethoven." Playing guitar riffs etched in stone (and Rolling Stones, too!), these were the blueprints for almost all that came after. "No Particular Place to Go" sounded terrific, every memorable pause resonating with that sense of historical familiarity that music fans revel in. "I been playing this stuff for 53 years," Berry told the crowd, most of whom probably weren’t born when he started out. Berry didn’t move a whole lot, but, by God, he did the expected duck walk at least once, for his signature "Johnny B. Goode." The riff opening this song is almost certainly the most famous guitar riff ever played, and it gives you an indescribable jolt to hear it live, by the guy who wrote it.

The show was all hits, played in rapid succession: the aforementioned "Sixteen," "Little Queenie," "Nadine" and "Reelin’ and Rockin’." That latter song has a fixation with time that achieves something newly profound, all these years later. To hear Berry sing lines such as "I looked at my watch, it was 10:28/ I gotta get my kicks before it gets too late" obviously has a different impact now than it did during Berry’s younger days, and it’s the sort of moment you treasure at a Berry show. Berry’s band kept things loose and raw, with the biggest impression made by his daughter, Ingrid Berry Clay, who wailed energetically on blues harmonica for a number of songs, and sang on a couple others. There was a little jamming, but mostly the set was geared toward Berry giving the fans what they want, and with every instantly familiar riff and lyric, the crowd yelled their approval.

The show wasn’t much more than an hour, but it really didn’t need to be. Like I said, you gotta cut this senior citizen who happens to be the "father of rock ‘n’ roll," as Edwards said in his intro, some slack. Berry is still reelin’ and rockin’, alright, still enjoying himself, inhabiting a musical zone that he has almost entirely to himself. He’s a wonder to behold, the guy who played "three chords and the truth," long before the stuff was ever analyzed. Catch this icon in action while you can; there’s no way of telling how many more of these monthly gigs the mighty Captain Berry has in him. | Kevin Renick

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