Sunday, August 31, 2008

CHUCK BERRY RUINS THE HITS



The Long Beach Blues Festival was this weekend. It's always on Labor Day, which sucks because I want to go out of town and I want to go to the shows. What's a boy to do?

Well, free tickets change everything. So I went. This year's big attraction was none other than Chuck Berry. Anyone who knows me knows about my Elvis infatuation. But let's face it -- Elvis didn't invent rock 'n' roll. Chuck Berry did.

We got there way too early and walked around a bunch. The move from the athletic field at Cal State Long Beach to Rainbow Lagoon was a good idea. But I'm not here to review the show, so take my word. It's better.

Anyway, John Mayall played a good set. Then Berry came on after the quickest downtime between sets in the history of music festivals.

It's well known that Berry (or whoever manages him) hires back-up bands every show he plays. Supposedly, this results in either great shows or total nightmares. Luckily for us, we got the total nightmare.

Chuck comes out wearing his sailor hat and a sparkly blue sequined shirt. He opened with "Roll Over Beethoven" and it was a bit rocky to say the least. When white rock bands go overboard (I'm looking at you Rolling Stones, Guns n Roses, Sting, etc...), they hire back-up singers. A studio engineer I recorded wtih once called this "the black chick version." Well, Berry's black, so I guess he was playing the white frat dude version.

After the song, he introduced himself not to the crowd, but to his band, which consisted of a bassist, keyboardist and drummer. They followed along as best they could and I hoped things would pick up once they found Chuck's groove.

They didn't.

May God strike me dead right now if this isn't the truth: Last night Chuck Berry's performance was the absolute worst thing I've ever seen in the 14 years I've been going to shows. Worse than teenage garage bands. Worse than bands too drunk or high too play. Worse than anything.

Because they had no practice, Berry began each show with his voice and guitar, but couldn't sing and play at the same time. He's the inventor of rock 'n' roll, but at his age (he's reported to be 81), he slows down his songs to make them sound like traditional blues. Or maybe he did that because this was at a blues festival. I don't know.

In an ironic twist, ya remember that scene in "Back to the Future" when Chuck's supposed cousin Marvin calls him from backstage after Marty McFly instructs the band to follow him on a blues riff in B ("watch me for the changes and try to keep up")? Yeah, that's basically what Chuck did to his band.

He ran through "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Reelin' and Rockin'," "Nadide (Is It You?)" and "My Ding-a-Ling," which no one say along to. He'd start songs, then change the words to other songs. The bass got turned WAY down once it was determined that there was no way in hell to follow Berry's playing.

He didn't say much to the audience and started taking requests. He said something about how people were trying to kill him by asking for the fast songs. Well, you're goddamn Chuck Berry. Of course we want the fast songs. But he's got plenty of slow songs (my all-time favorite CB song is a slow one, "Memphis." He didn't do it).

Of course someone yelled "Johnny B. Goode" and he said he'd play it if girls got on stage to dance because it was a rocker. One by one the old ladies came and the band jammed for about 20 minutes. The festival let the VIP barrier down, so we got about 10 feet away to see him up close. A word to the wise: Don't.

In fact, don't go see Chuck Berry. It pains me to say that because I freakin' love his music. Or, I love what he did 50 years ago. It's not only a total debacle on stage, last night he showed ZERO respect for the thousands of people who paid at least $50 and sat in the heat all day to see him. His set was a total joke and lots of people left early.

The highlight was one of the 40-something women on stage who kept dancing next to him, acting like she was going to fuck him after the show. It was embarrassing to watch her as he did his best to stay away from her.

Seriously, I am a writer and I am speechless as to how to properly describe how bad this show was. I wish there was a way to inflict the sort of uncomfortable vibes from the performance through these computer keys and onto your screen. It's best for you that I can't.

God, I'm really searching for something good to say, but I can't. Even for free, it was a complete waste of my time. There were moments when Berry's playing sounded like the voice of Jesus, but those were few and far between. He couldn't keep up with the lyrics and his band sounded timid and confused. I felt for them because it wasn't their fault, although I wondered where they came from. A few tunes they seemed to be oblivious to, but maybe it wasn't that. Here was their 15 minutes: A headlining festival set with Chuck Berry and it sucked.

Check the video above, but don't believe what the person who posted it on Youtube said. The show was a joke.

On the way home, my girlfriend had a good idea. She loves CB as much as I do. She suggested people bring iPods to his shows, turn them on and then watch him. That's the best idea I've heard in a looooooooooong time.

Just to make myself feel better about this posting, I HIGHLY recommend getting his Chess Records greatest hits volumes 1 and 2. There are a ton of amazing songs -- Maybellene, Thirty Days, You Can't Catch Me, Downbound Train, Too Much Monkey Business, Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Havana Moon, Oh Baby Doll, Little Queenie, Sweet Little Rock 'n' Roller, Back in the USA, Promised Land, No Particular Place to Go, I Want to Be Your Driver -- all incredible songs that he did not play.

Old people don't do the Internets, so I doubt Chuck will read this. But if he does: Chuck. I'm sorry for the things I said. I love your music and wanted more than what I was given. Please ditch the hired guns and give us your A-game. You deserve it. We deserve it. The music deserves it.

PS No duck walking! Bummer.

5 comments:

thejustman said...

You suck.

I didn't post my video for it to be used on a blog where someone was going to bash Chuck for 21 paragraphs. You are so incredibly unfair to give such a ridiculously callous review of Chuck's show. Ridiculous to review an 81 year old man as if he was a 25 year old. A rational and respectful person would have cut him some slack because of that. Ever heard of "respect your elders"? Well, that falls into this category. You would think that all your love for Chuck that you say you have, would have cushioned your anger a little better.

For anyone who has followed Chuck in the last 5 years would have had more appreciation for the other night's performance. If you look up more videos on YouTube, you can see that there are times when Chuck is playing more erratically. It's so obvious that you haven't seen or heard Chuck live since maybe the movie "Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll" (if you even saw that). Well that's a huge 20 year gap since that movie, and 50 odd years from when he recorded those songs that you so dearly love. Yes, Chuck's playing can be a little off at times, but that night in Long Beach....he was focused and delivered some great versions of "Let It Rock" and "Nadine" and even the long "Johnny B. Goode."

The band yes, was struggling, but they were in a tight position...Chuck was a bit ancy. For the last 2 years or so, Chuck HAS been traveling with a regular band:

Chuck Berry (Guitar and Vocals)
Charles Berry Jr. (Guitar)
James Marsala (Bass)
Nick StarGu (Keyboards)
Steve ? (Drums)

He had stopped his tradition of picking up a new band in every town. Saturday night's performance was the first time in a long time he's used a completely new band. Still, though, what I saw was that the band was egging Chuck on....pushing him and actually energizing him in a way he hadn't been pushed in a long while. You, of course, could not have seen that. But for me, it was obvious that there was an ancy feeling on that stage. That sloppiness and anticipation kept everyone on their toes which added a little bit more excitement. All of this, would of course mean nothing to you if you haven' been following Chuck for the last few years.

Not only do you have high standards...you obviously don't know how or when to temporarily (and sympathetically) lower them. Especially when you have a senior citizen still on stage playing rock and roll. Do you know ANY other musician at that age playing as fast of songs as Chuck? To be so damn critical of Chuck's performance is ludicrous...like you say....he invented rock and roll....so give him a fucking break. If you saw your own grandfather in his frail old age, trip and fall on the floor...would you say to him: "Fuck Grandpa, get the fuck up! What the hell is wrong with you? You are so fucking clumsy"

People were not leaving early BECAUSE of Chuck. People began going home even during Mayall's set. That has nothing to do with the performers---you know, it was already the 6th hour of straight blues...people wanted to go home. Has nothing to do with Chuck. In fact, the entire mood of the crowd had changed when Chuck came on...what had started as a soothing, nice blues festival turned into a rock and roll show. Everyone was standing....people who sat all day...were now standing and dancing. People started to fill in next to me waiting for Chuck to come on stage. Everyone knew what was about to happen...rock and roll.

To anyone reading this blog (if anyone)...ignore this guy's "wise” advice to not see Chuck. GO see Chuck. Go and be a part of history and share a room with the man who wrote the blueprints to rock and roll.

Walking out of that park, I overheard a couple kids (in their late teens) with homemade Chuck t shirts absolutely ecstatic--they were over the moon with what they saw. The had seen their idol and you could see that they were blown away. Even me, walking away that night, felt extremely happy with what I saw, and I'm 23. I wasn't even born when Chuck had ANY new records out. Yet, here we have some 30 or 40 year old blogger whining about what a crappy night it was. Well, Jim Hall, you should have just slept in all day Saturday.

Jim Hall said...

Ah, young moron. Where to begin???

First, I am 28, not in my 30s or 40s. I am barely older than you, to call me an old fuddy duddy is just wrong.

Your approach to music is why Chuck and others like him are allowed to rip off their audiences. You see, unlike you, I don't feel like I should be lucky just to see someone in the flesh. If I wanted that, I'd got to an autograph signing. When any artist takes the stage, I expect them to be as professional as can be. Hiring a bunch of musicians and not practicing with them shows the utmost disrespect towards a crowd that paid at least $50 to see the show.

If Chuck has a full-time band, where were they? If one of them couldn't make it, fine. But you list four other musicians and NONE of them were available that weekend? Bullshit. You got played, just like I got played and everyone else in attendance got played.

I've read a few reviews of this show and most are from people like you -- fanboys who don't know the difference betwen a good and bad show. Chuck Berry walked on stage and for you it was over. He had you once you saw the shirt and the hat. Me, I wanted to hear some good music, which I did not get.

As far as following Chuck Berry for the past five years, what the fuck do I or anyone else at that show care what he's been doing for the past five years? We care what he was doing AT THAT PARTICULAR MOMENT. I don't care about his resume (impressive as it is).

By the way, where did I critique his performance other than to say it sounded like he was showing his age? Based on your footage, ANYONE can see that is a fact. There's a big difference between artists changing their songs over their careers and not being able to keep up. Chuck was the latter.

"Respect my elders." Bullshit. Have Chuck show some respect for his fans, then we can have a two-way discussion about respect.

You say his playing was focused. I'd LOVE to know what you think about bands that actually practice because if that was focus, wow...

Do I have high standards? Maybe. I know when I see a show I expect a little more thought and effort put into it than what I was given. Call that high standards, I don't care.

If teenagers walked out of that show thinking they saw something special, then the rest of society is fucked. Guess what? When I was in my teens, I thought everything was great too. Then I grew up. Maybe you'll do the same.

Thanks for reading.

thejustman said...

Hey if the rest of the world shared your despicable disposition THEN the rest of society is fucked. Who am I kidding...people already suck and it's individuals like you that make things so unpleasant.

You think Chuck ripped you off? What, you think he made a conscious effort to slip a few notes or forget lyrics? Did it pass through your narrow head that maybe he was trying his best? His best for an 81 year old? Are you too thick headed enough to be realistic and rational to realize that? Or even care? If you don't care...well you're not critiquing music...you're just being a prick. Mad at an 81 year old for not sounding as PERFECT as those songs he recorded 50 years ago.

Yeah, $50 to JUST see Chuck. Was it just me or were there 7 hours of blues even before Chuck? It was a Blues FESTIVAL...not just a Chuck Berry concert. 8 hours of music for $50 is hardly a rip off.

Chuck tries his best on stage...he didn't have to stay on stage as long as he did that night. He was up there jamming away...he plays what he plays...trying his best. For a Chuck show...it was quite rare for him to stay up there and jam out the way he did.

I can recognize when a band is focused and playing well...me giving Chuck this credit is because I'm not comparing him to OTHER bands but I"m comparing Chuck to Chuck's own standards. I'm comparing him to past performances. What use is it to compare Chuck to someone half his age?

When you're 81 and still writing this blog, you let me know how different life has become. you tell me if you can still move around and do things as easily you do today, at age 28.

Consider me a fanboy if you want...but at least I'm fair. You, though, confuse aging with unprofessionalism. What's simply laughable is that you devoted a whole blog detailing how badly Chuck played. Aren't you 28...more mature? A simple "Chuck's playing was off...he's showing his age and I wouldn't see him again." would have sufficed. But I guess you needed something more to fill your very controversial blog.

Jim Hall said...

Ugh...

I don't have the time, effort or desire to get into an Internet pissing match over our opinions of Chuck Berry's performance. But can I point out that you are completely missing my point. Never did I say Chuck should be the player he was 50 years ago. Yes, maybe Chuck was giving it 100 percent on stage, but he did NOT give it 100 percent in the preparation stage. That's where we all got ripped off. I think the show would have been better if Chuck played solo because -- as you pointed out on another site (http://www.iorr.org/talk/read.php?1,961718), the band was having a hard time keeping up. That had NOTHING to with his age and EVERYTHING to do with the fact that he just didn't give a fuck.

It's well documented that he hasn't given a fuck in years. You say the show was the best you've heard/seen in 15 years, yet you've say you've only seen him twice. Newsflash: Chuck Berry was old 15 years ago.

You contradict yourself on your statements here and your review of the show on the other site. So let's leave it at this: I thought the show sucked. You didn't. The end.

Jim Hall said...

PS This site is far from controversial. I wrote what I wrote because it's how I felt, not because I thought it would generate all sorts of attention.