Sunday, January 02, 2011

Not Much Goode To B. Said -- Concert Review: Chuck Berry

Photo Credit: Joel Wintermantle, Chicago Tribune
Concert Review

Chuck Berry
with opening act Deals Gone Bad
Congress Theater, Chicago
January 1, 2011
No rating given

On New Year's Day, I went to see a rock concert by an 84-year-old man in a theater of the same age.

And when legendary Chicago DJ Dick Biondi introduced Chuck Berry to a surprisingly full house at the Congress Theater and the world's greatest living rock 'n roll pioneer--with apologies to Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis--took the stage and began playing the opening riff to "Roll Over Beethoven," it was genuinely a thrill with much historical resonance.

Unfortunately, it all went downhill after that, with the downward slope quickly escalating to a point of genuine concern, when Berry ultimately had to leave the stage for medical observation (as you can read about in a bit more detail in the Tribune's coverage).

As you can see from my video below, even the relatively solid opening rendition of "Roll Over Beethoven" saw the once hyperkinetic Berry sounding, well, like an 84-year-old man.

The two classics that followed, "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "School Days" were similarly astonishing simply to be heard in any form, but far from the sparkplugs whose revolutionary sound did nothing less than directly influence the Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones and basically the entire realm of rock 'n roll.

Then things started to get strange. Originally, when Berry expressed concern about his guitar being out-of-tune along with his keyboardist's piano, I thought it was kind of endearing for such a legendary performer to still be so obsessive about the sound quality he was delivering to his audience. Then when Chuck seemingly started bad-mouthing the keyboardist himself, and the bassist, while still struggling to tune his guitar, it became a bit disconcerting.

And when he rushed through an almost unrecognizable version of his most famous song, "Johnny B. Goode," it was becoming apparent that Chuck B. Not So Well. While a subsequent rendition of "Reeling and Rockin'" could likely be done better by every teenage garage band in America, I was contented to hear a song played and sung in full, if nothing else.

But Berry continued to plaintively express his exasperation to the audience, then took a half-hearted stab at playing the piano while the keyboardist tried to tune Berry's guitar. I was wondering why there didn't seem to be any roadies present or why the opening act couldn't lend Chuck an in-tune guitar, but when Berry collapsed upon the piano, it was obvious that the problems went far beyond Chuck's acoustic sensitivities.

He was led off-stage and seemingly checked out by paramedics. He soon came back on stage, with his band still waiting, but could only continue to fumble with his guitar tunings. Wisely, he was led back off-stage and an announcement was made that the show was over, but that "Golden Oldies" would continue to be played by a DJ in the lobby.

At that point, the fully-packed balcony at the beautiful Congress--my friend Dave and I were lucky to get adjoining General Admission seats--emptied out. Only a rest room stop prevented me and Dave from hustling back out to what well may rank as the coldest night of the year long past the first day.

And upon hearing a roar, we went back into the auditorium, where the balcony was virtually empty but there still seemed to be plenty of folks who had paid $100 at the front of the main floor (our tix were only $30). Somewhat surreally at this point, an announcement was then made asking the remaining audience if they could wait 15 minutes while Chuck Berry was checked out by medical personnel.

Although I was disappointed by the subpar and then abbreviated show--Chuck's time was about an hour, but there was only about 20 minutes of legitimate performance--I didn't really see the point of continuing what had become a circus at risk of it being a calamity. But much more out of sheer curiosity than any real desire to hear more music, Dave and I waited until Chuck indeed came back onstage. He didn't have a guitar, but did manage an apology and a brief "duckwalk" as you can see in the video below (not shot by me).

All in all it was a very sad night. I certainly wasn't expecting Chuck Berry to be his 30-year-old self, and really just "seeing him" was enough to justify the outing and outlay. But I read today that he had done two New Year's Eve shows in New York the night before, so perhaps this booking wasn't all that wise.

I sure hope Chuck is alive and well for years to come, and reverently say, "Hail! Hail!" But whereas my interest was piqued pre-show when Dick Biondi said the promoter was trying to bring Jerry Lee Lewis to the same venue, perhaps I shouldn't press my luck (although "The Killer" is only 75).

As much for myself as for anyone else, here is a clip to remind of the legend and genius I had gone to see. I'm glad I had the chance, even if it was seemingly a few--likely several--years too late.

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