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.


Anonymous said...

You have a way with words. They say Chuck plays what he feels, and that's what's so special about him. The St. Louis band does a great job going in any direction Chuck wants to take a song. Wing It!!! I love it.....
CB Forum member - Busseybootlegger

Peter said...

It's interesting-- check out the interviews with Darryl Davis and Robert Baldori. They both point out that you have to be ready to improvise every second you're out there with Mr. Berry. It's at the heart of what he does. Looking back at a bunch of shows, I saw him first with a scared band, and he just took over; then with a bunch of really good bands, and he had fun. (At two of those shows he played for hours). And then with a casino band at Tahoe that didn't quiite work. The arrangements were set. It was like a television show where the band rams through a written arrangement and leaves CB 12 bars or so to solo. And then a couple of times with a local band that, while competent, seemed stiff. Those two shows got stiff, too. And then, finally with the St. Louis band. And as you say-- they are ready for whatever comes. And they like him-- or more.