Monday, January 25, 2010

A Chuck Berry Show at Shepherds Bush Empire, June 9, 2002

I asked Fred Rothwell for his memories of a memoriable Chuck Berry concert, and he sent this review.

The Empire Rocks Back

Chuck Berry at the Shepherds Bush Empire 9th June 2002
by Fred Rothwell

It is hard to believe but Chuck Berry has not had a studio recorded release issued since the Atco album 'Rockit' came out in 1979. There have, of course, been numerous live recordings of his concerts in the intervening years, most of them of a dubious provenance, and one very weird duet with Jamaican 'rude boy', Shabba Ranks which needs to be heard to be believed. He has, however, kept active; a regular level of one-night stands played with pick-up bands has kept his chops on form. Berry's contractual stipulation for the band is 'they must be professional musicians who know Chuck Berry music' – no problem there then as the terms 'guitarists' 'rock and roll' and 'Chuck Berry' are synonymous. He also plays a regular monthly club date at the 'Blueberry Hill' in his hometown of St. Louis to great acclaim and this gig at the relatively small Shepherds Bush Empire is about as close as we are likely to get to a club atmosphere this side of the pond. To add to the anticipation, Chuck has a whole CD's worth of new compositions in the can and waiting to be released. Titles such as ‘Lady B. Good’, ‘Jamaica Moon’ and ‘Hell Bound Train’ don't perhaps need much second guessing as to how they will sound but one's called ‘Dutchman’, ‘The Big Boys’ and ‘Loco Joe’ are more than intriguing. So, would we be treated to some new stuff or would we get the tired old retreads from those bygone days of old?

At the contracted time of 9.30 to little fanfare but a tremendous cheer, Chuck appeared on stage followed by just three musicians, piano, bass and drums - no rhythm guitarist so he was going to have to double up on his trusty Gibson. He did, however, have the assurance of his long-time bassist and European travelling companion Jim Marsala. Without any introduction Chuck cranked out the well-worn guitar intro to 'Roll Over Beethoven' and we were up and rockin'. No matter how familiar the introduction, or how many times you might have heard it, to see those enormous hand slide effortlessly up the fret-board and hear those notes ring out is nothing short of magical. 'Beethoven' was followed in quick succession by 'School Day' - 'that song is forty years old you know' -, 'Sweet Little Sixteen' and 'Nadine' all performed almost by rote as though he wanted to get them done and out of the way. The audience didn't notice or care, they were surfing on a nostalgia wave, singing Chuck's songs for him. Chuck pretended to be surprised, but he looked genuinely pleased and it seemed to spur him on.

At his time of life Chuck needs to pace his shows so, thank you god for the blues, which he judiciously interspersed between his rockers. And what a great selection of blues to choose, Elmore James' 'It Hurts Me Too', Jimmy Reed's 'Honest I Do' and his very own 'No Money Down' all got an airing, albeit the last song was chopped short with the comment, 'I don't want to play no more blues'.

By the time the 'Carol / Little Queenie' combo hit the stage he was all limbered up and raring to rock, his guitar firing on all strings and ringing like the veritable bell. 'Let It Rock' has always been a highlight of Berry concerts and here it came again, the train hurtling down on the railroad workers who, no matter how many times you hear it, always scramble out of its way! Chuck was really up for it on this song and he was inspired sufficiently to attempt his show-stopping duckwalk. It wasn't so long or so low as of old, but it was a recognisable waddle nonetheless and was greeted by an enormous roar from the enthusiastic throng.

During the usual 'you name it we play it' request spot, after a brief discussion with Jim Marsala, he performed a short version of 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man' with the comment that he hadn't sung that in fourteen years. The treat of the treats, for me however, was his lilting version of Ray Charles' countrified waltz '3/4 Time', in which he sings of making love in 3/4 time, or 6/4 time or even 12/8 time, in fact any old time!

It was then back to the classics with 'Rock And Roll Music' but sung here with some new lyrics reflecting on a life well spent in rock and roll. "Sometimes it's loud and gets out of control/ Can't even understand the story told/ But if you love it, you ain't never too old/ To cut the mustard with rock and roll!" and again later on, "Some people say rock and roll is dead/ It's forty years since that remark was made/ I'm here to show it's live and well/ And all American like ringing a bell.”

His contract was for one hour and by now the time was drawing nigh, but Chuck doesn't need no watch to tell him this, he's been at it so long it's second nature to him now. The final coupling then was a surprising 'Around And Around' followed by the usual extended closer, 'Reelin' And Rockin' complete with risqué lyrics and riskier female dancers on the stage to assist Chuck with an easy exit, guitar held outstretched, bowing and backing off stage left.

And there he was, gone: probably away in his Mercedes limo before the cheering and foot-stamping subsided; no encore (the word is not in Chuck Berry's vocabulary), no Johnny B Goode, and no new songs. At this stage in the game, should we expect more? Despite my hopes for some new material, I think not. To attend a Chuck Berry concert is to witness a rock and roll ritual, in which both performer and audience know what is wanted and what is expected and I do believe both parties left the theatre with satisfied minds.

Chuck Berry’s reputation precedes him. How many times have you read about Chuck Berry the jailbird before Chuck Berry the rock and roll legend, or Chuck Berry, Mr Ding-a-ling instead of Chuck Berry, rock and roll poet supreme? How many people have been short-changed by his lack lustre performances in the past? Well, if you passed up on this gig because of his past misdemeanours, you missed a treat. Chuck Berry is an old man, in October he will be 77 year old, but for a man of his age he is still remarkable fit and, on the basis of this gig, can still rock the socks off young pretenders half his age. His paunch may have grown a little, his thinning hair is now hidden beneath a seafarers cap, and his long legs are not as 'crazy' as they used to be. But, believe me, he still has that ingredient, vital to all good rock and roll - the ability to instil excitement into an audience through his wonderful music, which will never, ever grow old.

Fred Rothwell – author of ‘Long Distance Information – Chuck Berry’s Recorded Legacy’

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