Tuesday, August 17, 2010
I got lucky once, a year and a half ago.
I had been threatening to go to Blueberry Hill for years, telling anyone who loves me enough to forgive my Chuck Berry problem that I needed to see one of these famous shows. And then, finally, my lovely wife (I knew she was good when she gave me an autographed picture of Chuck a few months after I met her) gave me the incentive: a $25 (cheap!) ticket to the January 14, 2009 show. I live in Seattle, so this forced me to do some creative work-- but long and short, I Got a Booking with the Airline, packed up, and prone to go, flew in on Delta (not 903, alas,) and showed up at Blueberry Hill hungry, frozen, excited, and dead tired.
Blueberry Hill is a big place, a block long, (on a great street), jammed with people, beer, hamburgers and memorabilia. Chuck's beautiful blond Gibson (presumably the guitar that played Maybellene, and rocked the Apollo) is in a glass case right by the front door. A "Chuck Berryn" poster from the pre-Maybellene days is on one wall. There are photographs of owner Joe Edwards with everyone from Barack Obama (yeah!) to Bo Diddley (RIP!)
The show is downstairs in a basement room called The Duck Room. There are ducks all over the place. The fanatics all waited in line for at least an hour to get a choice spot near stage, but there really isn’t a bad spot in the Duck Room unless you are too short to see over heads and shoulders. The room is wider than it is deep, with a bar in the back and a low stage up front. A hundred or so folding chairs are set up beneath the stage. Late comers stand. It’s all flat black and unpainted brick—a classic rock and roll dive.
I sat next to two guys a few years older than myself. They both were from the area—or at least were born there. They remembered hanging out at Berry Park in the 1960s.
There was an opening act—a trio of musical prodigies of great talent. But they weren’t Chuck Berry.
Then comes Chuck Berry’s band. His son, Charles II, backs him up on guitar. Charles II has his dad’s good looks, but not his height or his hair. He’s bald, with glasses and, of all things, a Fender guitar.
Also on stage is Chuck’s long time bassist and collaborator, Jimmy Marsala. Marsala has played with Chuck Berry off and on for 30 years or so—but this is the first time I’ve seen him live. The drummer is Keith Robinson. A lawyer/piano genius named Robert Lohr is on keyboards.
And then Chuck Berry—tall as ever, unbent, grinning from the start, captain’s hat, but none of the grump I saw at the EMP.
And here's why: he's with a group of great musicians who love him-- and it shows. He’s HAPPY up there, trading beats with the wonderful Robinson; sidling up to his son and Marsala; laughing with keyboardist Lohr.
It's a great band that knows exactly what to do.
Chuck's fingers don't do quite what they used to do-- but his voice and spirits were strong, and whatever he lacked in picking virtuosity he made up for in guitar wisdom, knocking out the weird rhythm chords that are a much a part of his playing as the double-string leads that he's more famous for.
I’m reasonably certain the guitar he played that night in 2009 is the same one I saw him play in Monterrey, California in 1974 and in Seattle in 1989 and 1998. It is battered, scratched, duct-taped, missing parts (on purpose)-- and evidently as good as a guitar can get. It'll need to go on display somewhere someday. Maybe the Louvre.
He played (not necessarily in this order!) Memphis, You Never Can Tell, Nadine, Rock Me Baby, a Ray Charles number that begins "I like Enchiladas...", (What a great song!), Sweet Little Sixteen, Around and Around, Bio, School Days, and Reeling and Rocking.
He forgot the lyrics once or twice-- notably during School Days. ("I've forgotten the second verse but I can still PLAY the mother!") He was 82 years old that night! But whenever he forgot Chuck Junior or Bassist Jimmy Marsala would lean in with a reminder and then-- off to the races, with newly modified lyrics rattling out as usual.
When he finished with Reeling and Rocking the usual flock of 21 year old girls (and a few closer to my age) jumped on stage to dance with the band. (He's 82 years old, and the girls are still falling all over him! He said during the show "I'm 82, but I've had it pretty good.")
As usual he left the stage before the song ended. He didn’t back off bowing, he just stepped through the stage door, still playing. The band worked its way through another 12 or 24 bars. And then-- don't ask me how-- Chuck finished it with that trademark string of 4 descending ninth chords that he uses so often at concert to slam a song shut. You didn’t have to see him to know who it was. The tone is unmistakable.
After the show he sat on a folding chair in the doorway on stage and signed stuff for us. I was speechless, as usual. "You're my hero," I said-- not much changed from when I yelled "You're my idol" 39 years ago. But he signed my picture and I also had a chance to give him the drawing that my then four year old had made for him at preschool-- a four year old's picture of Chuck in red, yellow and green with the name spelled backwards as if he was writing in a mirror. Chuck was about to autograph it and then said "Oh, this is for me!"
Lately Chuck Berry has been busy, and has been putting on some fine performances with his St. Louis band not just in St. Louis, but in Brazil and Italy, too. In the videos I've seen his fingers-- more practiced, perhaps, than when I saw him, have been working just fine. And as he recently told an Italian interviewer (and here I'm paraphrasing a double translation from memory): "maybe not as well as when I was in my 20s, but I'll tell you, people leave my shows happy."
If you ever get a chance to see him at BBH, do it.
As for me-- I've been threatening to go again for at least another year. So maybe I'll get lucky again soon.