They don’t allow cameras at the Argosy casino, so there are no pictures. Which means I have work to do. I have to try to put the excitement into words. This was a good show and a good night.
It starts backstage, where we are lucky to find ourselves for a few minutes before the show. And some point I go to the hallway and catch a glimpse of a familiar figure in the other room—thin, tall, dressed in black, a captain’s hat. It’s just a flicker, but after forty-one years of adulation and obsession, it’s a powerful flicker, enough to send a shiver through me.
We go out for the soundcheck. For a while it looks like we will have to watch from the side of the stage but Bob Lohr helps us get great seats in front of the sound board. I'm happy for Rebecca, who has never seen Chuck Berry live. There’s no warm up or opening act. The band plugs in, a woman makes an announcement, and there he is.
He’s dressed all in black. He nails a “Chuck Berry” intro and begins “Let it Rock.” You know right away it’s all clicking—that this is going to be a good night. He even does the “scoot” during that first song. He’d do it a couple more times during the evening.
The Argosy is a fun place to see and hear Chuck Berry-- good sound, with an older but appreciative audience. The room seats about 500-- big enough, but not too big. We were near the back but could see every expressive movement of Chuck's face.
He does “Wee Wee Hours” and takes a request for “Maybellene.” “You’re asking for the fast ones to see if I can still cut the mustard!” he says.
After he plays "Promised Land" he thrills me with a comment about "marches" and Birmingham. I've always thought that "Promised Land" was about a lot more than just planes, trains and automobiles-- that he's talking, in his own way, about the same "Promised Land" as Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about. It's no accident that the song talks about Greyhound busses and Rock Hill, where the police disappeared and young Freedom Riders were harassed and threatened by angry crowds of crazies. It's no accident that the song was recorded just a few months after the church bombing in Birmingham killed little girls. I was thrilled to hear him acknowledge the song's actual depth, if only indirectly.
He slows it down for a powerful rendition of “Rock me Baby.” His voice is strong tonight-- really singing, sounding 55 years younger than he is. Ingrid joins him and sings part of it. He does a very short “Ding a Ling” (and proves that size matters, but in this case, the shorter the better). Charles suggests “School Days,” and he does a knockout version. Bob Lohr requests “Carol,” and Chuck begins it sitting down and ripping out a perfect, powerful guitar introduction. After a bit he turns it to “Johnny B. Goode,” then back to “Carol.” Ingrid does a powerful version of “Key to the Highway” and gets great solos from CBII on guitar and Bob Lohr on keyboards and a great beat from Keith Robinson. It's a pleasure at the end of his career to see Chuck Berry, who played so many gigs with local pickup bands, backed by a group of truly stellar musicians-- ones who clearly love and respect him.
At one point we get a special treat-- a guitar needs tuning and Chuck fills the time with a version of the poem once put out on San Francisco Dues as "My Dream." He gets part way through (I have a feeling the full poem might take half the set) when Jimmy Marsala returns with the freshly tuned guitar and the musicians do an exchange that could have been directed by Charlie Chaplin-- Chuck dons a Stratocaster, then removes it when Marsala reappears with the Gibson. Marsala turns and does a double take when he sees CBII wearing his bass. CBII takes that off and returns it to Marsala, then takes back the Stratocaster. The audience enjoyed it.
The guitar CBII was playing on "Key to the Highway" was a Gibson prototype once owned by Derek Trucks. But I was pleased when Chuck talked about his own guitar. “I love this guitar,” he said. “It’s all scratched up and ragged, but it’s a good one. And it doesn't go out of tune!”
He played “Around and Around,” and “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” (the lovely Rebecca dancing right next to him and Ingrid at that point) and a few lines of “House Lights” and then he was gone.
Except that he wasn’t.
He kept playing. I was off to the side by then and can’t say if he was on the stairs or down the hallway—all I know is that I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him, for another couple verses.
In the land of neurological deficit I'll add this: He played "You Never Can Tell." Rebecca heard it. Doug heard it. I HEARD IT AND HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO MEMORY OF IT! Ah well. That's the way the brain crumbles.
Sometime soon I’ll tell you the rest of the story. Or the rest of the stories. Even the ones I forgot or didn't see.
For now I’ll just say thanks.
Thanks Rebecca. Thanks Bob. Thanks Doug. Thanks Charles. Thanks Ingrid. Thanks Jimmy and Keith. Thanks Judy and Karen. Thank you Jade, Gemma and Rafferty.
And thank YOU Mr. Berry—for everything you’ve done, and for what you keep doing, show after show, year after year. Amazing.
(Hey! If you got here through a link, be sure to click on the "Go Head On!" masthead at the top. That'll get you to the site, and you'll find several years of stories about Mr. Berry, and lots of great pictures and videos.)