Got dragged to see Chuck Berry at BB Kings by my friend, Dave. Never been there before. He handed me a ticket as we walked in. I looked at the price: $90. I asked him if he was completely insane as we went down the stairs. He was going to take one of his girlfriends, but her back was giving her pain.
The place is about as rock and roll as a shot glass filled with Kaopectate. It’s a dinner theater setup, like if they ran the Bottom Line through the dryer three times too many. Japanese, Fins, Brits, Des Moinees – a tourist trap set in the middle of Times Square Land. We stood at the bar and watched fat people eat chicken and spill beer on their tiny cameras. Two big screens flank the small stage and they kept scrolling upcoming shows in a loop: Rick Wakeman (of Yes), Keith Emerson (of ELP), Paul Barerre (of Little Feat), Jan Hammer (of nothing), Southside Johnny (& the Asbury Jukes), Seven Seagal (does he just do karate moves?). Very strange how this seemingly random group of musicians end up at this final frontier.
I bought us 2 beers for $15 and waited for Chuck. What was I expecting? He’s 80. Hasn’t made a record since ‘Rockit’ back in 1980. That one was pretty damn good. I half-expected them to wheel out some wizened old critter in a wheelchair with a dribble cup snapped to his collar. The lights dimmed and a band came out. Chuck is legendary for just using pickup guys, playing indifferent shows, and getting off the stage at the one hour mark. This band was some Papa Chubby New Orleans funk outfit that were popular on the dreaded jam band circuit. They were going on themselves after Chuck. They assembled onstage at 8:10 and started playing a Chuck Berry-esqe rhythm. Pretty faceless except for the keyboard player who sounded like the ghost of recently departed Johnny Johnson, Chuck’s old mainstay.
They kept playing their shuffle, looking fidgety toward the wings for Chuck. Suddenly, this guitar came blaring out of nowhere. It sounded like some avant-garde deconstruction of an old rock & roll style. That, or Keith Richard’s right after he fell out of the tree and cracked his cocoanut. It was LOUD. They were playing in A Major, but the disembodied sound kept drifting to A Flat, then B Flat. My friend said, “He must be drunk”. Then a roar came from the front as Chuck strutted from the wings in a red sequined shirt and a pair on slacks. The people seemed to have no idea that he wasn’t playing anything near what the band was playing. They were screaming and hollaring, and Chuck kept on with his Sonic Youth impersonation. Not only wasn’t he drunk, he was lean, muscular, and smiling. The bass player called something over to him and he smiled and slid into A major.
They played all the hits over the next hour. Chuck was playing a BB King Gibson ES 335 through a Fender Twin and he sounded fantastic and raw. I started to appreciate the tonal lapses that would grace all these songs. Everytime he hit a really atonal lick I screamed out, “Go, Man, Go”. The beer flowed and the Danes, Dutchmen, and Somoans cheered. He played two of my non-hit faves, “Let It Rock” and “Reelin’ & Rockin’ (which is not ‘Around & Around’ – he played that, too). One thing that was interesting was that he really used a lot of dynamics. When all the bands of yore played their obligatory CB number, it was always an excuse to go balls-to-the-wall. But Chuck would start certain songs real quiet and reach crescendos, then pull back, over & over. It was very enlightening.
The only real drag was the second guitarist. He was playing a Fender Squire that sounded like thin shit. He was terrible, too. After the first solo Chuck gave him, he smiled broadly and said, “Here’s something you don’t know – that’s my son!!” A loud roar went up. “Here’s something else you don’t know: I’m still married to his mother!” Louder cheer. The guy really sucked. Nepotism at its worst. Chuck, thanfully, took the lion’s share of the solos. During ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ he went onto the drum riser and started egging the drummer accent his phrases. He turned his guitar even louder and the ensuing raunch (which stayed in key) was the highlight of the night. 80 years old? I shook my head. He had a great line when the keyboard player missed a change on ‘Memphis’. He looked his way, smiled, and said “Son, we’ll make a hillbilly outta you yet”. After one song, he was talking about New York, how he likes it because it’s all about making money and everyone here is rich and he happy to see that. “You all know what I’m talking about, right?” That met with big applause.
During ‘Johnny B Goode’ Chuck invited ‘all the ladies’ on stage. A bunch of young good looking Swiss, Tawainese, Belgian, and Inuit babes rushed the stage and were dancing like they were on Hullabaloo. One woman with a fat ass was dancing provacatively at Chuck’s side and he turned and aimed the neck of his guitar right at her crotch and launched into his most atonal barrage yet. It was vulgar and the crowd ate it up. Then he walked off the stage, still playing, as the girls shimmied and his son said, “Let’s hear it for my father, Mr. Chuck Berry”!! I looked at my watch – it was exactly 9:10.