At a sleepover when I was younger I brought my Walkman with me and a friend brought the 'Back To The Future' soundtrack. I spent the entire night listening to "The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis and the News and would flip the cassette over and listen to "Johnny B. Goode". That opening guitar riff made me feel the power, sway and sexiness of the six strings. I've spent my entire life listening to music that gives that same emotional reaction.
Six years ago I finally had a chance to see Chuck Berry in concert and with his passing, I'm tempted to reevaluate this review, but that's something I believe Berry wouldn't want. Portions of the show were bone chilling and others made me cringe. He would be half way through a classic song only to stop it and cuss out the backing band. It wasn't what I hoped for, but it was memorable. I've seen hundreds of shows since then and yet, I will always remember this one, not because of the drama, but because Chuck Berry never lost his fire. I saw a man who didn't ease up with age, his mischievous nature was on full display making him a true original. Here is the original review:
Congress Theater – Chicago, IL
January 1, 2011
Any way you look at it, without Chuck Berry and his six-string guitar, rock n' roll as we know it doesn't exist. He is the man responsible for all that followed including the Beatles and Rolling Stones. This is why, a man who hasn't had a hit in four decades can sell-out a 3,000 seat theater in the dead of winter. Promoted with grace by the same people who did the Riot fest recently in Chicago, there were no tickets to be had come show time and the crowd skewed much younger than most would imagine (at least half of the audience was under 35-years-old). I was expecting to be among the youngest at the show, but I found that everyone there was to see a legend. Whether they grew up with Berry's music or discovered it because of Michael J. Fox, they were there to see a slice of rock n' roll history, and that is just what they saw.
At 9:30, a 3-piece backing band took to the stage and then from the back, in a sparkling red shirt, white hat, black trousers and a Gibson guitar, Chuck Berry emerged to a swell of audience rapport. Commencing the festivities with "Roll Over Beethoven", Berry seemed to be in a jovial and festive mood at first. Much can be said of his performing style, but even at 84-years-old, the way he plays the guitar is unlike any other. Part sly, part subtle and part blistering, there's no one like him. With four musicians on-stage, no one else can create so much with what seems like so little. He alone performs all guitar duties and over the first few numbers, you can clearly see where Keith Richards stole every riff from.
The stage set-up wasn't that different from what it would have been 55-years ago. Instruments and amplifiers were all the jazz Berry needed. Or at least we thought. Throughout history, Berry has been known for always being a wild card when it comes down to live performances. He travels solo and often doesn't meet the backing band until he is about to go on-stage. On this nippy New Year's evening, this seemed to be the case. While Berry appeared to be in fine vocal and performance form, he struggled to congeal with the backing band. Throughout the show, few songs were completed without interruption. "Sweet Little Sixteen" shook the crowd, but Berry's laid back demeanor found him performing a mostly solo rendition of "Everyday I Have the Blues". "School Days" had the crowd shaking but "Let It Rock" proved to be a show stopper, literally. As Berry was shredding on the guitar, he stopped midway through, took off his guitar and sat behind the keyboard to finish the song. Despite reports from various media sources, I can without question say that when Berry sat behind that keyboard, his hands came alive the same way as they do when he is grasping a guitar. Known for his legendary guitar riffs, he showed the sold-out crowd there was more than meets the eye when it comes to Chuck Berry. He performed the song on piano (mostly solo) with zeal. He may not be Johnnie Johnson, but he could give quite a few a run for their money.
The remainder of the evening featured a number of broken performances. "My Ding A Ling" and "Johnny B. Goode" had the crowd singing along, but both songs were indecipherable until the choruses kicked in. After a dispirited "Reelin' and Rockin'", Berry once again banished the keyboard player to the side and sat behind the keys. This is where reports are appearing to vary. From my viewpoint, at no point did I see him collapse. He may have been ill but to my eyes he seemed dispirited and broken. While I would never yearn to back Berry up, I am not sure if the backing musicians for this performance were ready to take on Berry. This is a man whom Keith Richard and the E Street Band couldn't tame and it's highly unlikely any local musicians could even try. After sitting behind the keyboard, a number of personnel came to the stage, surrounded him and whisked him away. The crowd was appreciative and applauded and then announcement came that the bars would remain open and that DJ's would provide music for the rest of the evening. Then 10-minutes later, Berry reemerged from the backstage, slid his guitar on and made his way to the front of the stage. He struggled with getting his guitar in tune (something that had been an issue most of the evening) and after a few minutes, he was whisked away once again. An announcement was made to stick around for 15-minutes as Chuck Berry would be checked by a doctor backstage. The crowd cheerfully waited and 15-minutes later, Berry emerged for the final time without an instrument in tow. He came out to apologize to the crowd and explained he had been backstage being checked on by doctors. He wished the crowd a good evening and then proceeded to do his infamous "duck walk" and like that, he was gone.
One should never expect Chuck Berry to play it straight or to immediately gel with a backing band. It would almost be like marrying Charlie Sheen and expecting to never to encounter the police, hookers or blow. Berry is a one-of-a-kind a musical pioneer. I can't say his Congress Theater performance was legendary, not by a long shot, but without question it was memorable. Regardless of what one felt about the performance, for the younger crowd, they'll show their children Back to the Future one day and will gladly tell them about the night they saw the man who invented rock n' roll.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
In Tribute: Chuck Berry Live In Chicago