Sunday, April 11, 2010
"Just him and his guitar"
There's a scene in "Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll when Keith Richards and Chuck Berry are rehearsing "Carol!" Keith wants to play lead. Chuck wants to play lead. And Keith says something like: "You don't want to play lead and sing at the same time, do you?"
"Well I did it," says Chuck.
And how. This clip shows him in England at his peak of virtuosity in the early 1970s-- with rhythm, lead and singing all intertwined. The best moments come when the band gets quiet and it's "just him and his guitar." ("Got it and Gone").
When people talk or write about Chuck Berry doing short uninspired shows with bad pickup bands I know I've been lucky. At South Lake Tahoe and in Monterey, California I saw him like this, playing inspired music with great pickup bands. (I saw some less inspired shows, too; but he always pulled it out in the end.)
Another thing about this song: it's proof that you never see Chuck Berry play a Chuck Berry song the same way twice. He's like Bob Dylan in that respect. The songs are alive. They only exist while he's playing them. There aren't "tunes" per se-- there are chord changes. The lyrics morph. (I like how the car becomes a Mercedes here in Europe). The guitar just happens. The band may or may not have played with him before. It's never the same.
Nowadays he doesn't play with the virtuosity you see here. (The difference may simply be not doing a show ever day of the year.) Some days his playing is strictly garage style punk-- loud, honking, approximate. But it still works. What he lacks in fine motor skills he makes up with experience, chunking out weird rhythm chords that are as much a part of his playing as the famous intros. And every now and then you see him light up and hit the old notes the same old way.\
This one, though, is pretty special.