Hard times

After a slow start, Chuck Berry hits his stride at Blues Fest

Chicago Tribune

June 9, 2001

By Steve Knopper

In the middle of what can generously be described as a wobbly version of his 1957 ballad "Havana Moon," Chuck Berry abruptly reviewed his own concert. "This song sold 17 copies," he said. "I see why." With that he reached down and nailed The Riff on his famous red Gibson guitar, shifting up his Chicago Blues Festival show Thursday from polite historical artifact to dirty rock 'n' roll extravaganza.

Berry, the 74-year-old St. Louis singer-songwriter whose '50s hits were blueprints for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, hasn't had much creative pulse since squirting out the 1972 hit "My Ding-a-Ling." He has a reputation for sleepwalking through his duckwalking, picking up whatever bar band is available in any given city and barely bothering to tune his guitar or remember the words.

About half of his set, headlining the first night of the four-day Blues Festival, had that tossed-off feeling. His quartet, including Chicago pianist Butch Dixon (son of the great blues songwriter Willie Dixon) and drummer Rick King, opened with a version of "Roll Over Beethoven" so plodding that Berry's sparkly purple shirt almost upstaged the music. When he sang "Long live rock 'n' roll!" in "School Day," it was less a call-to-arms than a lament that the king had been replaced by an incompetent prince.

For a while, Berry compensated for his lack of enthusiasm by emphasizing his songs' brilliant humor and wry innuendo. "Drop the coin right into the slot" may have confused and excited teenagers when "School Day" first came out, but Berry's dirty-old-man wiggle left no doubt what he was trying to say. It was only when he shifted from "Havana Moon" to "Carol" that he finally connected with the packed Grant Park crowd. Dixon and King immediately picked up on his energy, sending Berry into aggressive guitar-solo fireworks guaranteed to rival any Chicago blues here the rest of the weekend.

Some of this energy may have come from the setting -- Berry seemed tickled to be playing with "Mr. Dixon," giving the boogie-woogie pianist several extended solos, and made reference to fallen Chicago landmarks Muddy Waters and Chess Records. After Berry met Waters here in 1955, the blues hero introduced him to Leonard Chess, and Berry's string of early rock 'n' roll hits began immediately after that.

Though most of Berry's hourlong set was crowd-pleasing '50s rock like "Rock and Roll Music" and "Roll Over Beethoven," he pulled off several blues jams, including a passable Waters imitation for a few seconds of "I Just Want to Make Love to You." (He cut it off, saying, "I wish I could sing like Muddy.")

Berry closed predictably, with "Johnny B. Goode" and a version of "Reelin' and Rockin'" long since rewritten to bid farewell to the audience. For the finale, he invited a dozen fans, including Shirley Dixon (Willie's daughter) and Shirley King (B.B.'s daughter), to dance onstage -- and seemed content to shrink into the background, leaving amateurs to finish his work.