Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Just let me hear some of that... (A rerun from April)

What it boils down to, I think, is the magic of rock and roll—- whatever energy gets an audience up and moving, or made the 14 year old me flip out in the upstairs room where I first played Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade.

In Chuck Berry’s case part of the magic is improvisation.

Musicians who’ve backed him always mention the lack of rules. No set list. No rehearsal. No warning about the key. Songs just start. If the musicians aren’t his regulars they scurry to determine if it's C, G or E flat. And the key might change mid-verse. In “Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll!” Chuck tries to change keys in the middle of a well rehearsed song. Keith Richards refuses and Chuck accepts it, laughing, but spitting out a few flat notes on his guitar just to be Chuck. But even though the band doesn't change keys, the show becomes an improvisation. Says Richards: “Weeks of rehearsals, out the window. Wing it, boys!”

And that's where Richards identified the secret ingredient he and the Stones were looking for when they sought, for years, to imitate Chuck Berry.

Wing it!

The songs are never the same. Even when he was making them. Listen to the alternate takes of some of Chuck Berry’s biggest hit records. Even the “tune” changes between takes until it settles into the version we’ve come to know.

This isn’t a surprise. As far as I can tell, the “tune” changes in some tiny way every time Chuck Berry sings. So do the lyrics. So do the guitar solos. So does the band. So do the arrangements.

It's something he shares with Dylan. The songs remain alive. They change. They are reborn every time he plays them.

Blues and jazz are improvised music, and Chuck Berry is pure improvisation.

For years he traveled without a band and took a fair amount of criticism. The contract called for “three(3) professional (AF of M) musicians, capable and familiar with Chuck Berry’s music, to serve as a back-up group which must consist of only a “show” drummer with drums, a pianist and a grand piano, an electric bass fuitarist with a bass guitar…”

I saw it work and not work terribly well. Mostly it worked.

(Loosely quoting Richards again, in "Hail! Hail!" he said that Berry gets away with it because of the power of his personality. He mugs, jokes, grins, and plays the hell out of his guitar to cover up a drab backing band.)

The biggest problem with the pickup band approach was that Chuck Berry could only play the mega-hit 12 bar blues based songs, with Memphis thrown in for good measure. In ten or so live shows I never saw him perform “No Money Down,” with it’s hootchie-cootchie riff, or the Caribbean styled “Havana Moon.” And he never played the ballads when I saw him—just blues or blues-based rock and roll that he could (usually)count on the musicians knowing.

Nowadays it’s a bit different. He’s got a core group of musicians who know him and love him, including his son, Charles, Jr. They can play what he wants, when he wants it. When I saw him at Blueberry Hill last January it was the first time I ever heard him play "You Never Can Tell." (He also filled time with a five minute skit involving toilet paper and letter from his brother.)

But I’ll bet one hasn't changed despite the band.

When he walks out on stage: "Wing it boys!"

Hail! Hail!

No comments: