Friday, September 16, 2011

New Chuck Berry Live Recordings from 1972 on Have Mercy

One of the things that excited me about the “Have Mercy” set is that I learned it would have more cuts from the 1972 Coventry concert that produced the hits “Reelin’ and Rockin’” and “My Ding-a-Ling,” along with a rock solid accidental medley of “Bye Bye Johnny” and “Johnny B. Goode.” (Chuck starts singing “Bye Bye Johnny,” till a thousand Julian Lennon voices in the audience start screaming “Go, Johnny, Go!” After that, Johnny went.)

The concert, as produced on The Chuck Berry London Sessions, seemed like a great one. I have my issues with his “Ding-a-Ling,” but who can argue—as recorded in Coventry, it’s a work of pure comic genius. (One that should be shelved now that we know all the punch lines. Please—don’t request it!) And “Reelin’ and Rockin,’” just as funny, really rocks. Chuck’s guitar is in perfect form, moving from delicate rills to hard rocking riffs. And the band is in sync. Chuck and the piano player finish each other’s lines the way Chuck and Johnny Johnson used to do, and by the end of “Johnny B. Goode” the drummer is doing the same thing, accenting Chuck Berry’s stop-start guitar riffs with slamming pops of the snare. By the time the song is ending I can visualize it all. When Chuck Berry slides his pick slowly over a treble chord four or five times I know he is sticking out his tongue and doing some sort of glazed-eyed fish-mouth face at the laughing crowd. And a few seconds later when he begins a double note slur at the highest frets of his guitar, I know he is backing off stage, bowing, his guitar out front as the crowd roars. Then comes five minutes of chanting from a crazed audience while “management” asks for “just thirty seconds! I can explain, if you’ll give me just thirty seconds!” Forget it. “We Want Chuck! We Want Chuck!”

It’s just a taste of what I remember from my favorite Chuck Berry concerts.

But now that I’ve heard the rest of the show, I wonder: did the band just get it together by the time "Reelin' and Rockin'" started,, or is producer Esmond Edmonds actually a genius?

Because even though Chuck Berry is fine and entertaining throughout, some of the other cuts-- well....

“Sweet Little Sixteen” is marred largely by Too Much Audience Participation. They sing the whole song. Which would have been fun if you were there, but doesn’t make for much of a record. As for the band—well, not in sync yet.

Things get a little better on “Roll ‘em Pete,” a nice jump blues number where Chuck tries out some of the riffs that will make "Reelin' and Rockin'" and "Johnny B. Goode" special a bit later. But this is when it begins to occur to me that the drummer in this band has a bit of a foot pedal problem. Maybe that thing they advertise on television now—“restless leg syndrome.” He keeps throwing in a bit too much drumming—especially with his admittedly speedy foot on the bass drum. And it must have occurred to someone else, too, because on the single edit of the song that shows up later (as it turns out, the only Chuck Berry single I ever bought), the backup band from the stage show is gone, replaced by a new rhythm section, and some backup guitar that’s got to be our man himself. (It’s an interesting hybrid of a live cut—not outright falsified like on Chuck Berry On Stage, but certainly doctored. Works, though.)

Then comes the aptly titled “It Hurts Me Too.”  What hurts me is to hear that drummer, who's now gone mad with his crazy bass pedal. But he must have gotten a dirty look, because after a few verses he quiets down some. Still— there’s no reason for this version to have gone out, with a good live version already done at the Fillmore.

On “Around and Around” the band occasionally gets the idea that the song stops and starts. And on occasion they don’t. Chuck keeps plugging gamely away. I would have enjoyed it live. (I would have enjoyed all of it live, despite the flaws I’m complaining about here.)

On “Promised Land” things basically start to click. It’s a good version of the song. No complaints from me. Maybe the band is starting to get it.

And then come the hits. And they are beautiful. Suddenly the band is complementing riffs that Chuck tried out in earlier songs. He gets quiet, they get quiet. He stomps and so do they. They stop when he stops. They start when he starts. The foot pedal disappears.

Some of this, clearly, reflects learning. In the course of an hour, they have begun to know what it takes to back Chuck Berry. And some of it, undoubtedly, was done in the control room by the recording engineer.

Anyway, if nothing else it’s a study.

For the best live Chuck Berry shows I’d still recommend just two: the BBC show recorded a few months later in London, where a good band gets out of the way and let’s Chuck Berry shine; and the Michigan show recorded with backup from the Motown session players a few weeks after Chuck Berry got out of prison back in 1963. If you want more, try cuts from “Let the Good Times Roll.” Or those original live cuts from The London Sessions.

The other live cuts finally released here? Not so much-- but interesting, and good enough to help fill a long drive with something that's old and new at the same time.

No comments: