Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chuck Berry LIVE with the Motown Session Musicians and Geffen records recently put out a four cd release called “Chuck Berry: You Never Can Tell: His Complete Chess Recordings 1960-1966.” It’s a follow-up to the 1950s edition. I’ve only just begun to listen—but for me the collection was worth its hefty $80 price tag just for the live recordings of a 1963 concert in Michigan.

The show has always been talked about. It was taped just days after Chuck Berry was released from prison for a trumped-up Mann act violation. The back up musicians are unidentified Motown session musicians. There was supposed to be a live album, but it was held up because of contract disputes between Motown and Chess. Time must heal all wounds, because here it is at last.

And worth the wait.

I first found Chuck Berry in 1969 or 1970, and I’ve always assumed that his live shows evolved and changed over time. And I’m sure they have. But this 1963 version shows that his best performances have been remarkably consistent—an amazing performer improvising over the bones of his classics.

He arrives on stage yelling “Oh Yeah!” and asking to hear his echo from the crowd. The lively crowd obliges before he jumps into the instrumental “Guitar Boogie.”

He must have been practicing in the penitentiary because the guitar playing is rough but wonderful throughout, exploding with “pent up” energy. My favorite is an extended solo on “Wee Wee Hours.”

The sound quality is not always perfect, but the sound is live and fresh, like it happened yesterday. The backup band (to the extent you do hear it) is the best I’ve heard on a Chuck Berry live album, chiefly because it just swings. On my first listen I was struck especially by the horn section and the drumming. The crowd is audible and lively. You can hear individual comments and requests.

Berry is hoarse during the performance-- but he was hoarse from road wear and tear most times that I saw him. (The freshest I've heard him was at age 82. He's probably travelling less. His voice sounded 32 again.) But throughout this performance he sounds exhillerated to be back in business. Freedom will do that, I guess.

Chuck plays “Almost Grown,” something I’ve never heard live except in the movie “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and does the back up vocals himself! “Wo-woah! You know I’m almost grown!” It’s a performance that completely renewed the song for me. (All I could think of was my teenage daughter.) On “Johnny B. Goode” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” the crowd sings along en masse. I always assumed that was a tradition that developed much later in the game than 1963. A lesson for me: these songs have always been loved.

When I saw him live the last time, in January 2009, at Blueberry Hill, Chuck stopped the show to tell a long story about a letter from his brother. When he first pulled the “letter” from his pocket, his son Charles, Jr., rolled his eyes and laughed—a signal that he’d heard this one before. Evidently! The same story got told in Michigan in 1963!

He ends with a tease, mixing “Good Night, Sweetheart” and jumping full force into bits of his bigger hits.

This one live set was worth the price for me. But if that doesn’t do it for you, there are a total of 107 cuts on the disks.

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