This New Year’s, I was focused more on the day after rather than the Eve before. A New Year’s Day dance party concert with Chuck Berry at the Congress! The man is 84 years old and still rocking out in St. Louis and occasionally on the road. Here was probably my last chance to see a living legend like Chuck Berry, and no way was I going to miss it. Too bad it turned out to be the worst concert I’ve ever attended.
It started badly, with a long delay before Dick Biondi (the first DJ to play The Beatles in the US) came out on stage to announce the opening act, local group Deal’s Gone Bad. We’d already waited for 30 minutes and now we had to listen to an opener? The crowd rustled uncomfortably. The band took the stage, and although they were technically just fine, playing their instruments well and moving easily from one song to the next, all I heard was white guys doing reggae, and that is enough to make any music fan go “ugh.” Worse yet, the lead singer (who sounded like Michael McDonald of The Doobie Brothers and Bob Seger had a child and raised him solely on Mighty Mighty Bosstones) kept asking us how excited we were to see Chuck Berry. Why yes, now that you mention it, we are pretty excited to see him and NOT YOU. Rookie mistake, that — playing to an indifferent to hostile crowd and trying to get them on your side by reminding them of what they can’t yet have.
But finally, their last strangled note faded away and the stage was reconfigured for the man himself. After a short intro from Biondi, the small backing band of drums, keys, and bass set up and then Chuck Berry came out in a delightfully spangled red shirt and a captain’s hat. He went right into a slowed-down version of “Roll Over Beethoven,” and the hyped-up crowd was a little taken aback by how much harder it was to dance to this tempo, but we got into it. Unfortunately, that was the only problem-free song of the night.
The Tribune would have you believe that everything sounded good for another few numbers, but I’m with the Sun-Times on this one: something was off almost right away. The backing band was keeping up just fine, but Berry couldn’t seem to make any of his solos work, or indeed the basic rhythm parts. He was playing in the wrong key, or off-tempo, or sometimes both. He started playing songs right in the middle, leaving the band to scramble to keep up. He moved from song to song, sometimes after just a few bars. He stopped and recited a poem for no apparent reason.
Eventually, he told us that his guitar was out of tune, and he walked over to the keyboard to get in tune. After arguing with the keyboardist over what notes to play, he shooed him away and sat down at the piano himself. He tinkered around for a few minutes, then came over to the center microphone again and declared that the electronic keyboard was out of tune. Um. Probably it wasn’t. I was really annoyed at this point; I’d braced myself against the winter weather in a dress for this? Why didn’t he just get a roadie to tune the guitar real fast, since it clearly wasn’t working for him? Why did he still insist on touring with no backing band, and then berating the performers who showed up as support?
I watched the documentary Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll! a few months ago and was struck by a few things: 1) damn, Chuck Berry had a huge effect on rock n roll and I was sadly unaware of that before; 2) he is very protective of his money/gig situations, after having been screwed over by promoters and managers in the past; and 3) even his most devoted fans find him difficult to work with. The 1986 concert that Keith Richards headed up with Berry, which is the focus of the documentary, was the first time Berry rehearsed with a band regularly leading up to a concert, rather than showing up the day of and playing with an ad hoc band of local performers, as he usually does (and as he did on Saturday).
The 1986 concert was wonderful to watch, and I admit that I’d hoped that Saturday’s concert would be more like that — with a tight band and an artist on top of the world. Instead, he refused to ask for help with his guitar, berated the band in front of everybody, and spent almost half of his time on stage struggling to keep up with his own songs.
I was getting pretty upset with Berry for not calling in some help or just shaping up and playing the right chords, when two things occurred to humble me right up: First, Berry apologized eloquently for the rough playing, saying, “It’s all my fault. The band, they’re doing their job, but I messed up. It’s my fault the guitar isn’t in tune. I feel bad. The promoter, the band, they all did their job, and we are supposed to be entertaining you, but we aren’t doing a very good job of entertaining you.” When we all responded with loud cheers of support, he said, “You’re very kind, you’re very kind. Now, you don’t want to listen to me talk about what’s wrong, you want me to entertain you, and that’s what we’re going to do.” And then he launched back into an aborted effort at “Johnny B. Goode.” What, was I thinking I knew more than the king of rock n roll about how to put on a good show? Was I thinking he didn’t know just how bad it sounded and that it didn’t matter to him? For shame.
The other thing that shamed me was, as the papers all reported, he sat down at the keyboard and laid his head down on his arms. Several people came over to talk to him, and they eventually led him off stage. The promoter hurriedly told the crowd, “Thanks for coming out, there will be DJs if you want to stick around,” so most of us left, although apparently Berry came on later and tried again, but left for good not long after. The man is 84 years old and had to be checked over by an ambulance crew for exhaustion, and here I was moaning that he wasn’t trying hard enough. I feel real bad about that.
Saturday was musically the worst concert I’ve ever been to (well, ok, except maybe a show at The Mutiny one time), but it was also the saddest concert I’ve ever attended. Here was a living legend, doing his best for loving fans, but despite past glories, his best wasn’t good enough anymore, and he knew it. I was excited to see Chuck Berry because I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, but maybe I shouldn’t have been given that chance. Maybe it’s time he retired to just playing his own concert hall in St. Louis, with a backing band of good friends and an audience that lets him play around with bluesy tunes and doesn’t scream out for “My Ding-a-Ling.” Maybe it’s time for retirement.
But then again, that’s not my call to make; it’s his. He’s called his own shots for twice as long as I’ve lived, and for an industry infamous for managers, promoters, executives, and just about everyone else mishandling artists’ money and creativity, that is quite impressive. He doesn’t take shit from anyone and he plays his music the way he wants to play it, all critics be damned. What’s more rock n roll than that?
In the documentary, Keith Richards says something like, “He’s really the best. I don’t think Chuck even knows how good he is.” I love you, Keith, but you’ve got it all wrong. As with most cantankerous geniuses, a big part of Chuck Berry’s brilliance isn’t that he doesn’t know how good he is, but that he knows exactly how much better he is than all the rest. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone that full of himself, or have to work with someone that controlling of his work, but that’s neither here nor there for the music.
Many reviews of the documentary Hail! Hail! like to focus on how often Berry talks about making money and keeping his money, but damn, he came of age as a black man in the South in the 1950s — of course he’s focused on keeping his money! The part that the reviews don’t focus nearly so much on is how much he talks about singing HIS songs and playing HIS music, about how focused he is on bringing that vision to life again and again, about how much joy he gets from performing. This love of performing — a love that has lasted SIXTY YEARS — makes a performance like Saturday’s all the sadder, because it surely means that Berry knows just how far he fell short of greatness that night. Why, he was almost like one of us, and I’m sorry about that, Chuck. Get some rest and keep on rockin’.