Chuck Berry Nutty Jerry's, Winnie March 4, 2011
"Chuck Berry is food" - Keith Richards
There is no adequate way to describe the evolutionary gift that Chuck Berry signifies to the world at large. He created everything that we hold dear and true - all the sex, anger, struggle, revolution, happiness, and strength that he helped create on a grander scale by creating rock and roll and every other tributary of it with a handful of his hopped-up blues and rockabilly chords shaped the past 60 years of the world.
"It's as if the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame loaned the Chuck Berry exhibit to the venue tonight. They turned it on and it still works, somehow," one of our moustachioed brethren said to us as we sat outside Nutty Jerry's smoking a cigarette on Friday night. Our Chuck Berry countdown stood at a little less than a 30 minutes.
A black limo was circling the Winnie venue, and we still weren't sure if it was Berry himself enjoying the spoils of being a touring artist, or some local celebrity on a weekend splurge. There was a sense of reverence in the venue, at least among the younger set.
On the way to the show, we wondered aloud about how an 84-year old could stand up next to his legacy. Would the show be a wash of epic proportions, or a fiery testament to the sacraments that this prophet, along with Elvis Presley, divvied out to the masses? The things that would birth the Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page...
In the end it was depressing, humbling and life-affirming all at once, because no one, not even Berry the bitter octogenarian, could come close to replicating the sound he made in the '50s. One million artists and groups would follow him, but now not even the man himself could hold one of those songs up to the same quality as the day he recorded them.
When you watch Chuck Berry play, for better or worse, you are seeing Adam eat the apple, the beginning of the Mississippi River, the opening minutes of The Godfather, or the marriage between chocolate and peanut butter.
Hail, hail rock and roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock and roll
The beat of the drums, loud and bold
Rock, rock, rock and roll
The feelin' is there, body and soul.
Berry was introduced by birthday boy and Beaumont radio legend Al Caldwell, who related a story about seeing the man in 1956 and the performance changing his life and the world to come. Berry appeared onstage behind Caldwell, long and lanky, in his trademark captain's hat, black slacks, and red spangly button-up, toting his guitar in his massive hands.
As per the Berry custom, behind him was a pick-up band made up of a drummer from Lake Charles, a local keyboardist and Berry's own longtime bassist. He doesn't sound-check with any of his local guns, nor does he seem to tune his guitar anymore. For their part, the band was on point, as much as they could expect to be while trying to get a bead on where the elderly Berry was going.
Opening with "Roll Over Beethoven," Berry was loose and fluttering. He no longer plays as fast as he could just two decades ago. But with the slowing of his wizardry, you can hear every single chord that holds the DNA of rock and roll. For "Sweet Little Sixteen", slowed down to a crawl, you could hear the guts of most every Keith Richards-written Stones stomp.
With the band clueless as to where he was going, and Berry working off a supposed list of 280 of his classics sitting on an amp, the sound rarely came into focus. At times, it sounded shambolic, or to be a little more modern, reminded us of hearing someone bombing (badly) at Guitar Hero.
The drums would slow, the bass would speed up, the keys would try to float above the mess, but then Berry would throw a curveball and change his own arrangement completely. But this wasn't the work of a virtuoso, it was old age.
He was unrepentant about his stuttered playing. "I'm 84 years old. I will play you a make-up show in the morning if I live through the night," he giggled as the older folks in the crowd, the ones who paid the big bucks to sit feet away from Berry, watched their evening's investment fly away. This would be no muscular greatest-hits set, but an exercise in patience and respect.
Berry played "Nadine" twice, as he said, once for the crowd and once for the band to get in tune together. "Little Queenie" showed signs of life, with its immoral tale still intact six decades on. As old as a man may get, he doesn't stop being a man. He would forget the words for his sole No. 1, "My Ding-A-Ling," but the crowd filled in for him.
Each of the night's eight songs, counting the doubling of "Nadine," never took off the way they should. He would forget words, repeat the choruses, or simply hum the melody into the microphone.
"Reelin' And Rockin'" was a bright spot, with the song's blues structure letting the raunch shine through and reminding everyone where all these songs come from. If Berry had the time, he could have a decent, slow-burning blues record in him. It was a special moment.
"I haven't played "Johnny B. Goode"?" he asked the crowd, who cheered at the mention of the standard. The opening yelp of it would come slowly and methodically, like a beginner fumbling for the chords. He invited most of the women in the crowd to join him onstage to dance.
The stage was a mass of women of all ages, jiving and moving with Berry moving through them with a salacious grin. And just like that, he walked off stage and into his dressing room, still playing, until he unplugged his machine.
The house lights went up, and most of the crowd shrugged and laughed as Caldwell thanked Berry and the audience for such a wonderful evening. Some looked dejected and bewildered, while just a few looked downright angry.
Maybe seeing Chuck Berry live now while we still can is akin to gazing at the stars in the sky on a bright night, away from the city and the smog. You are just seeing twinkles and dust from a long-dead star, but they shine on just as bright as ever when you lay back and take in their luster, imagining what they must have looked like eons ago when the Earth was still in flux and no one was around to record their beauty in words or song.
But luckily with Berry, we have a hours and hours of music, and the music of the bands directly influenced by him, to remind us what he did to the world. Even if he can't do it himself any longer.
Personal Bias: Not one piece of rock and roll has come through any of your ears these past 60 years that Berry's brain and hands have not given birth to. He's a living Rosetta Stone of Rock.
The Crowd: A few elderly folks from the area who may have seen Berry in his heyday, a few hipster couples soaking in history, and a few rock and roll lifers, young and old, taking notes and pictures throughout the night.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I really thought he was dead," said one of the younger bartenders at the club. Heartbreaking and understanding on too many levels.
Random Notebook Dump: Only 200 tickets were sold to see the man who invented rock and roll, with maybe an extra 100 upon walk-up Friday night.
Bonus Tidbit: We met Berry after the show, sitting with him for five minutes in the dressing room until he grew tired of our presence. We don't blame him. We did ask him how this Texas trip treated him, and he snapped back, "Boy, I've been to Texas before, I'm 84 years old." Well put, sir.
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Roll Over Beethoven Sweet Little Sixteen Around And Around My Ding-A-Ling Nadine (X2) Little Queenie You Never Can Tell Reelin' & Rockin' Johnny B. Goode