A life affirming joy

As temperamental as they come, the prospect of a Chuck Berry show is always tainted by the worry of what mood he’s going to be in…if he even shows at all! Two old rockers ahead of us in the queue were bemoaning the fact that he hadn’t turned up to the last gig they went to. As it turned out, he was in fine form. In fact, he was stunning.

While one paper called his efforts “passable”, I would defy their jaded hack to rip a stage up with visceral rock and roll aged 81. Okay so he wasn’t nimble fingered or firing out blazing solos, but just being witness to the man, the legend, on stage and smiling naughtily, with a glint in his eye, was a life affirming joy. Born in the ’20s, Berry was labelmates at Chess with other blues supremos Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Willie Dixon by the ’50s, making him one of the world’s last links to a forgotten age and rich musical legacy.

‘Roll Over Beethoven’ started even before the Empire’s grand curtain was raised. Chuck’s chops were few, but his guitar sounded razor sharp, much like the player’s eyes. Backing him up on second guitar was his son, Chuck Berry Junior, who was smoother in style and ever mindful of the paternal presence.

‘School Days’ follows; its distinctive coda of “Hail, hail rock and roll!” resounding through the forest of raised fists. ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ continued the hits – Chuck’s phrasing often off the beat, excused given the fact the old boy needs to catch a breath.

For ‘Let It Rock’, the group were joined by another of Chuck’s offspring, his daughter, Ingrid Berry Clay. Clutching a harmonica, she began wailing into the microphone until a tumultuous riot of blues threatened to overshadow her father, receiving massive applause for her undoubted blinding talents. Never one to be outdone, Chuck tried to pull out an audience favourite – unfortunately the audience, mostly pensioners with balding duck ass do’s, couldn’t muster the energy to shout the choruses of ‘My Ding A Ling’. “I wrote that sucker when I was blue,” Chuck grins, and nobody believes him.

Giving up a couple of slow numbers halfway through (either impatient to rock or watching the clock, mindful of fitting the set list into his strict one hour appearance), it was moving swiftly on through the favourites; ‘Little Queenie’, ‘Memphis, Tennessee’, and an ‘Around And Around’ that was as rousing and primitive as ever – no wonder the young Rolling Stones covered it.

“Have I played ‘Johnny B Goode’ yet?” Chuck asks his band, teasing us for a second before launching into his signature tune’s searing opening riff. The song that many had travelled just to hear, and the penultimate song of the night, witnessed the famous Chuck Berry duck walk in the solo – much to the delight of all.

For the final number, the suitably titled ‘Reeling And Rocking’, the singer called for a dozen girls to join him up on stage to dance. At first gutted that I didn’t have the right equipment to shake my stuff alongside Chuck, I was then shocked at the lack of a tidal wave of women crashing on to the stage. A handful did, but in general they were very subdued. This could be down to the fact that they were missing the golf on TV, or down to the Nazi security staff that pounced on anyone who dared leave their seat.

With the seconds approaching the sixty minute mark, Chuck turned his back and ambled off stage left while still mid solo in the last song’s extended blues jam. A prickly old fella to the last, tonight’s performance appeared to be enjoyed hugely by those on and off stage. As long as that cheeky glint still burns in his eyes, the world is all the better for having Chuck Berry. A cherished evening.

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