Sunday, September 14, 2008

Too Pooped to Pop

Friday night I saw Chuck Berry at an out-of-the-way Indian casino, the sort of place where Eliza says "dreams go to die." Though my expectations were low, I still came away disappointed.

The man is rock 'n' roll ground zero, influencing anybody that's worth a damn. His incomparable '50s and '60s singles are undisputed classics, with their clever wordplay and indelible riffs and blah blah blah. I never tire of playing "Let it Rock," "Little Queenie," "Promised Land," etc.

When ads recently appeared for the gig, I was surprised to learn that Berry's still performing -- he's 81! (How many octogenarian rock stars are there? B.B. King is 82, though he's more of a bluesman than a rock 'n' roller. Everyone else is dead.) I'd never seen Berry before, so I jumped at the chance to catch this living legend.

Going in, I was well aware of his custom of recruiting local musicians to form ad hoc backup bands for his one-nighters. So, instead of playing with a tight touring unit, he assumes his raw recruits will know his catalog by heart, and instructs them to simply follow his lead onstage (a trend he briefly bucked, at the urging of Keith Richards, in the killer concert doc Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll).

So, despite over 50 years of concerts, Berry seemed hardly the seasoned professional. Rather than playing complete songs, he offered mere fragments of his tunes, while he and the band were often out of synch, or out of tune, or playing in different keys altogether. Sloppy's fine, but this was too sloppy, not to mention haphazard, erratic, and clearly unrehearsed. As well as half-assed -- as in half-sung lyrics, a half-played guitar, and halfway coaching his band throughout the 45-minute set. It seemed like all he intended was to show up, noodle through a few hits, and beat a hasty retreat. I got the sense that this is the norm for all his shows, and that a less sympathetic crowd would likely boo. It's tempting to call it a sad spectacle, but Berry seemed to enjoy himself, as did his starstruck twentysomething rock-dude band, as did most of the sixtysomething crowd.

Only during the closer, "Reelin' and Rockin'," did he cut relatively loose on his Gibson for a decent spell, as if he conserved his elderly energy for the finale. Afterward, in the hotel lobby, he scrawled his initials in my notepad, seconds after I snapped the above picture.

Top Chuck Berry covers:

"Around and Around," the Rolling Stones
"Back in the USA," MC5
"Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," Neko Case
"Carol," the Flamin' Groovies
"Don't Lie to Me," the Groovie Ghoulies
"Let it Rock," the Yardbirds

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