Thursday, October 21, 2010

Chuck Berry at Blueberry Hill, October 20, 2010

Last Saturday I gave Chuck Berry a copy of a picture that I drew of him when I was 17.  It’s a drawing of the photo off the Bio cover.  He accepted it graciously.  

Last night I brought it to him again as he sat in a little doorway signing autographs after his show at Blueberry Hill.  I wanted him to sign my copy.  He obviously didn’t recall ever seeing the drawing.  “Looks like me,” he said.  

“It is you, dad!” said CBII, who was just behind him.  

He signed it with a sloppy silver pen, and I left a happy man.

These little interactions are part of what make Chuck Berry and the Blueberry Hill shows so remarkable.  The man who  taught The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, who changed the sound of America and the world, is right there, joking with the crowd, shaking hands with a guy in a Cubs outfit, signing autographs for a long line of fans after the show.

And playing rock and roll.

He started out last night with “Carol,” “Schoolday,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

Then somebody requested “My Ding-a-Ling.”

Ah well!

Although he played many of the same songs, it wasn’t at all the same show as at The Pageant a few days earlier.  At The Pageant I kept being thrilled by the flawless and nearly flawless guitar licks-- sounds that were the obsession of my youth.  I remember seeing Chuck Berry play a show at Monterrey where I stood just a few feet away reveling at the fact that these sounds were being produced right there on that guitar right before my eyes.  

Same thing, for most of the show, at The Pageant.  And if I can read minds, which I can’t, I’d say he knew it, too.  He became daring with the guitar, pushing his fingers up and down the frets with abandon.

Last night at Blueberry Hill it wasn’t quite that way.  There were moments when everything clicked, moments when the circle did not hold, and moments when pure anarchy was loosed upon the world.

But you know what?  It was fun anyway-- and the crowd at Blueberry Hill never uttered a whisper of complaint.  They danced, sang “Go Johnny, Go!," and shouted “Happy Birthday!” and “We love you Chuck!”  

But let’s dispense with the chaos, first, because, if nothing else, it was interesting.  

After what seemed to be a reluctant “Ding-a-Ling,” Chuck began to tune his guitar.  He’s not reading this, so I’ll report (and this requires some of that mind reading again) that I saw momentary cringes from both Jimmy Marsala and CBII (whose look seemed to say “You’re digging your own grave, pop!”)  (Marsala’s look, though lightning fast, had the character of that oft-repeated scene where a person runs towards the camera in slow motion yelling “Nooooooo!”)  But too late.  

And then a remarkable thing happened.  Chuck Berry paraphrased that line from “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!”   “It is as we wish it!” he said, stamping his foot.  

The first song out was a rocker, and the remarkable thing was that it worked fine.  Even though the guitar was partly out of tune, he was able to bend the strings to the exact spot they belonged.

But eventually all was lost-- for a few moments.  From off stage we heard Ingrid singing the opening lines of “Rock Me Baby.”  There were a few moments of confusion about the key.  And as the song began, Chuck began cranking every tuning knob on his guitar-- not just tweaking or nudging them, cranking them, up, down, in, out, any way he wanted.

The result was three minutes of musical chaos, with the band playing one number and Chuck Berry making disjointed (but very loud) noise in the background.  I’d call it passive aggression except that there was nothing passive about it.  He settled in morosely at the back of the stage, leaning his forearm on the bass amp and making loud, incoherent sounds on his guitar, with a look that said (unconvincingly) “this is how we wish it.”

How Ingrid and the band managed to keep going, I will never know.  Ingrid and Charles huddled at one point, with looks of incredible determination.   

But all’s well that ends well.  When the song was done Chuck surrendered his guitar to Jimmy Marsala, accepted a Stratocaster from his son, almost “tuned” that, accepted a very meaningful head tilt from same son, and then launched into another good rocker.  

For me this was a treat.  I’ve seen pictures and video of Chuck Berry holding a Fender, but I’ve never seen it in the flesh.  Funny thing-- when it’s not a deep throated Gibson up there, it doesn’t quite sound like Chuck Berry anymore.  But he was in key and hitting the licks again-- and there was a novelty to it that I thoroughly enjoyed.

And as you can see, it caused some quick adaptations in the band.  CBII was suddenly playing bass.  And then Chuck does a double take.  Someone’s playing that chugga chugga rhtyhm again.  Chuck looks and laughs and sees Jimmy Marsala coming round from behind Bob Lohr with the big, red Gibson.

Afterwards they switch back, and Chuck says apologetically that he’ll make it up later.

The truth is, (and I’ve always found this true at Chuck Berry shows), even the chaos was interesting and fully absorbing.  Usually I’d 
find it painful to see him so far off the mark-- but hey, this show was gravy, and when he was back there leaning on the bass and playing random sounds on a completely out of tune guitar, I could actually laugh.  It was like a little family drama, and not mine!

I think it was when he got his guitar back that someone requested Johnny B. Goode, a song I hadn’t heard at my last two CB shows, and he did a good one.  There was even a little scoot through a dark stage with strobe lights flashing.  Then reeling and rocking, and dozens of women, and a crazy fun “House Lights,” and he was gone.

A highlight: he asked his son, Charles II, to solo several times, and what I loved was to see him play attentive rhythm guitar behind his son.  When he wants to, he has the ability, born of decades and decades of experience, to accent what another player is doing.  And he clearly wanted to.  It reminded me of what happened at The Pageant when he mouthed the words “I love you” to Ingrid.

On the other hand, Bob Lohr, who played so many brilliant solos at The Pageant, rarely got the nod at Blueberry Hill.  You gotta be a quick study to back Chuck Berry.  Keith Richards was taken by surprise, but even though it’s always the same songs, it’s “wing it, boys and girls!” every night out.

But one thing for sure: we all left happy.  The proof is in the rush to the stage by practically every female in the house the moment he says “three girls over here, and three over there.”  This is still great rock and roll-- and for that I thank the St. Louis Band, who keep things together and keep it moving through thick and thin spots.

This whole trip, has, of course, been incredibly special.  I give special thanks to Bob Lohr and Jimmy Marsala, who did me one favor I’ll never forget; to CBII and Keith Robinson, who are incredibly gracious to all of their fans; to Paul and Liz, who met me in St. Louis and followed me through sorghum fields and run down neighborhoods in search of Chuck Berry history; to Doug, who sent me prints of his incredible pictures, most of which are now signed by Lohr, Marsala, Robinson, Berry and Berry.  (One Berry, Ingrid, got away!)  To Peter K, who gave me an easy source of addresses.  To Rebecca, who let me go.

And last night, special thanks to Karen and Judy, who invited us into their world for a night, shared dinner with us, shared their stories and insights, took us on an elevator ride down to the Duck Room, and helped us get into seats we’ll never forget.  Hope they get that December 15 show!

Karen and Judy did something else: just before the show they presented Chuck with a painting by European painter Bryan Tones.  You can see it by clicking HERE.  This was a newsworthy event, and Judy did an interview for the local news.  If I can find it, I'll certainly post it.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Tulane for the up to the minute reviews and updates during your trip to St. Louis. CNN couldn't have done a better job. Sounds like you saw a wonderful show at BB Hill. Chuck really does "Let It Rock" in the Duck Room!!! I love the picture of the guys all with each others guitars - without your description of the events, we all would be wondering - "What the heck"???!!! Chuck looks odd without the wine colored ES355 strapped to him. Thanks for letting us know about the TV interview with Judy.
CB Forum ID - Busseybootlegger

Anonymous said...

Doug is right. CNN couldn't have done it better. Thanks agan for taking your time on your trip doing this for us. You pictures are great. Do you know if Chuck got the flowers ?


Peter said...

ahhg! Peter, forgive me-- I got so swept up in the moment I forgot to say something about them-- until now! I do hope he did! Peter

Anonymous said...

No problem Peter.
I think he got them :-)