Chuck Berry, 100 Club, London
Wednesday 26 March 2008
Chuck Berry doesn't need a dressing room. He jumps out of his car at the back of the 100 Club and runs straight on to the stage, and he disappears in a similar fashion, whisked off into the night while the audience is still applauding and expecting that he might return for a parting shot of "Johnny B Goode". As usual, Chuck does things his own way. There was some surprise, earlier, that he even appeared for the sound check, although he spent most of that in a chair, just watching the band – which includes his son, Chuck Berry Jr, on second guitar.
It has to be said that on any given weekend, you could probably find a hundred pub bands turning out more proficient and dynamic covers of "You Never Can Tell" and "Rock & Roll Music" than Berry manages tonight. And it's disappointing that Berry, a living legend with an unrivalled repertoire of solid-gold rock'n'roll classics, should squander precious minutes on that smutty old novelty hit "My Ding-A-Ling".
But normal judgement has to be suspended. This is all about the event, and it doesn't get much bigger, better or more thrilling than the moment Berry strides on stage, lifts his Gibson and kicks into "Roll Over Beethoven". Berry, at 81, is one of a literally dying breed; he is the originator of many of rock's most fundamental and appropriated riffs and licks, and he is walking – although no longer duck-walking – among us in a tiny venue soaked in beer, sweat and history. You can touch him. (Some of us do.)
Adding to the sense of occasion is that this is something of an exclusive affair. According to Berry, it's a "private, invitation-only" gig, although tickets were made available, expensively, in certain circles. Nine Below Zero, hand-picked to warm up the crowd, give a friendly blues performance that includes some memorable solos from guitarist Dennis Greaves and harmonica supremo Mark Feltham.
Famously cantankerous, Berry is in a good mood this evening, smiling benevolently as he unleashes a choppy "Maybelline", the song that started his career, carries off a sensational swerve from "Carol" into "Little Queenie", and invites members of the audience to come up and dance beside him. But he's not about to do us any special favours: by the time his car is revving up, ready to take him away, Berry has been playing for little more than an hour.
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