You never can tell

She was right. I was wrong.

When it was announced a while back that Chuck Berry would be playing a gig at our local casino, I was skeptical. Now 82, he rarely plays outside of St. Louis, where he lives. I bought tickets, but I figured it was 50-50 that the show ever would take place.

When I heard he was playing a benefit in New Orleans on the night before he was to play here, I became doubly skeptical. No way does he make all those trips. Our paper’s entertainment writer, who’d asked me to cover the show, said she was sure he’d make it. I wasn’t so sure.

With Chuck Berry, you never can tell.

But there he was on Sunday night, on stage in the ballroom at our local casino. It was terrific, even if it wasn’t perfect, especially because it wasn’t perfect. Here’s a little of what I wrote for the paper:

“Chuck Berry played a show here on Sunday night that won’t soon be forgotten. …

“Was it that he opened with a little ‘Roll Over Beethoven,’ then a little ‘’Round and ‘Round,’ then a little ‘Sweet Little Sixteen,’ all played only slightly faster than a shuffle pace … then announced: “If you guarantee at this moment that we are in tune, we would like to open our show.”

“Speaking of which, was it that Berry’s guitar seemed to lurch in and out of tune as he jumped from song to song?

“Was it that Berry was in fine voice and genially accepted requests all night long … then never performed a song in its entirety?

“Was it that his backing band – two young guys on piano and drums and an older, more familiar cat on bass – gamely tried to keep up as Berry played a little of this, a little of that, perhaps only Berry knowing where he was headed, and in which key.

“Was it that Berry played for roughly an hour … or played roughly for an hour?”

I had only a fan’s access, so I don’t know whether Berry’s backing band was a group of locals who could play his songs, as contractually required. I suspect so. I recall Bruce Springsteen’s story of backing Berry, told in the 1987 film “Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and it rang true. Knowing that only made this show all the more enjoyable.

Berry played bits and pieces of almost everything you’d want to hear, closed “Memphis” with a sassy little strut and started his exit from the stage with — what else? — a short duck walk.

And, yeah, he still can play the guitar like a ringing a bell.

chuckberrygoldendecadelp

“Bye Bye Johnny,” Chuck Berry, 1960, from “Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade,” 1967. My vinyl copy is a 1972 reissue. It’s out of print. This tune, a follow-up to “Johnny B. Goode,” is available on “The Chess Box: Chuck Berry,” released in 1990. The 3-CD set is $30 and well worth it.

2 Comments

Filed under June 2009, Sounds

2 responses to “You never can tell

  1. Shark

    Isn’t “Hail Hail Rock & Roll” a movie that also featured Linda Ronstadt? That’s one I’ve never seen, but would like to see it sometime.

    Imagine seeing Chuck Berry in concert in his prime? That would’ve been awesome! You could make a strong argument that he invented rock & roll.

    Bob Seger pays a great tribute to Chuck Berry in the song “Let It Rock.” I love listening to that song from the “Live Bullet” album.

  2. Chuck Berry is proof that it’s possible to be simultaneously legendary and underrated.

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