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.
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.