Monday, December 28, 2009

Can't Help It, But I Love It (Volume Two)

There’s the pure, simple, very powerful charisma. He’s got loads of it. You’ve got to stare. You’ve got to laugh.

One of Keith Richards’ best observations in “Hail! Hail!” was that his personal presence sometimes got him past bad pickup bands, bad moods, bad tuning, and no rehearsal.

I’ve seen it happen. At the EMP in Seattle back in 2001 there was nothing wrong with the band, but Chuck Berry arrived in grumpy humor. He started the show by pulling all the plugs from the sound system and watching sternly as a young man struggled to get everything hooked up again. Then he kicked a guitarist off the stage. “Drum, bass and piano,” he told him. For 20 minutes or so his performance was cranky and lackluster—best during the blues number “Wee Wee Hours” (during which he nonetheless complained about the piano’s inability to do what he wanted with the song.) Every once in a while he made the band stop playing and did songs by himself—“Ding-a-Ling” and “South of the Border.” It was interesting in a clinical psychology sort of way.

But at a certain point professional responsibility must have kicked in and he got us going, a master puppeteer, pulling our strings and making us laugh and dance and clap for more. It was pure skill at that point—a showman’s knowledge of how to heat things up.  (Pretty good guitar playing, too!) 

Back in the early to mid-1970s he used a thousand tricks, mugging, joking, making faces as he strummed his guitar—but back then it was primarily the music. I was usually lucky to see him with good bands, and he was happy. At a couple of shows he played for hours, turning each song into a six or seven or ten minute jam.

When I saw him last year at Blueberry Hill it was the same, but different. The show was stripped down to a dozen or so songs, all short, but there wasn’t a phony bone in it. It was Chuck Berry surrounded by love, on stage and off. His son calls it “Chuck Berry in your own basement.” He definitely used his skills. He pulled out shtick he was doing in 1963 (a letter from home). He laughed with Bob Lohr on piano, mugged with Keith Robinson on drums, and sidled up to his son Charles and his backbone Marsala. He was happy. And by the end a dozen 22 year old girls were on stage vying for his attention.

Which is, of course, another part of it. He is a brown eyed handsome man, for sure.

The girls and women keep jumping on stage even when he’s 83-- and the guys are all jealous.

Ah well!

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