Monday, 3 January 2011

Chuck struggles at 84

Chuck Berry, whose 1973 dance smash “Reelin’ and Rockin’ ” was his last hit for Chess Records, was reeling more than rocking Saturday night at the standing-room-only Congress Theater.

Berry, 84, slumped over head-first into his keyboards about an hour into the “Winter Dance” concert. He was helped off stage, and most of the 3,700 fans in attendance began to leave.

About 15 minutes later, Berry returned to the stage and tried to tune his guitar before being led off again. He returned a second time, 10 minutes later, apologized for having no strength and did a weak variation of his legendary duck walk into the cold winter night.

“Chuck Berry passed out,” said Shakespeare District police Capt. Marc Buslik. “He was just faint initially. He was real confused. He wouldn’t come off the stage.”

Buslik said paramedics examined Berry before he went onstage the second time and added that Berry did not get taken to a hospital.

On Sunday, Berry’s longtime agent, Dick Alen, said, “Chuck was suffering from exhaustion at his concert last night but is home resting comfortably.” Berry lives in Wentzville, Mo., outside of St. Louis. He performed two New Year’s Eve sets at B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill in New York City.

The Chicago concert’s promoter, Michael Petryshyn, said Berry arrived in Chicago around 9:30 a.m. Saturday and went straight to his hotel. The rock legend did a 5:30 p.m. sound check with his Chicago-based pickup band at the venue. “Chuck doing a sound check is rare, from what I hear,” Petryshyn said Sunday. “They did that for about 45 minutes and he left.”

Berry took the stage around 9:30 p.m. Wearing a red sequined shirt and his traditional white sailor’s cap, he entered to a standing ovation, but musically the night never got off the ground.

Berry began with a downbeat version of “Roll Over Beethoven” backed by Steve Gillis (Sugar Blue, Dion Payton), bassist Bill Stephen (formerly of the punk band Naked Raygun) and keyboardist Vijay Tellis-Nayak (of the jazz fusion band Kick the Cat). By the evening’s second, misfired song, “Sweet Little Sixteen,” it was clear something was amiss. Berry, who almost always uses local bands for one-nighters on the road, was frustrated in his inability to find the right key for “Let It Rock” on the keyboards. He complained the band was playing too loud.

Berry only did mash-ups of his hits. At one point he launched into a tasteful version of “Everyday I Have the Blues” and just stopped. He recited a prose piece about winter. He appeared to settle into his 1955 blues hit “Wee Wee Hours” and just stopped again. “Memphis, Tennessee” was an unlistenable disaster.

The “Winter Dance” had the disjointed, avant-garde feel of an Art Ensemble of Chicago rehearsal.

Berry was out of his comfort zone. During his monthly residency in the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis, his band includes bassist Jim Marsala, who has been with Berry for 36 years; Berry’s daughter Ingrid, who helps her father on vocals when he forgets lyrics, and maybe most important, Berry’s son Charles Berry Jr. on guitar.

Berry spent the entire night at the Congress Theater searching for a rhythm guitar he never heard.

The only song he was able to muddle through was his goofy 1972 hit “My Ding-A-Ling,” which was peppered by chippy call-and-response from the well-lubricated audience. Another Blueberry Hill concert is scheduled for Jan. 19, and on Sunday owner Joe Edwards said Berry still plans to appear. The rocker is in fine health, Edwards said, although “he sometimes thinks he’s still able to do everything he did in his 20s.”

The whole “Winter Dance” night was just plain weird.

Fans stood two and three rows deep in the first balcony of the 85-year-old movie palace. During the wait for Berry to return to the stage, a few dozen people in their 20s were dancing in the lobby to a DJ playing the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Bartenders sold Cazadores tequila at $6 a shot.

The Congress smelled like sweat and stale beer.

A shining light in the middle of the mayehm was radio legend Dick Biondi, who served as the evening’s host. The WLS-FM (94.7) star introduced Berry wearing a natty necktie and sweater as if he were at a Bobby Vee sock hop. Biondi told the audience that Jerry Lee Lewis could be the next rock icon to appear at the Congress.

Biondi said on Sunday he left before Berry collapsed but that he did speak with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer before the show, and Berry had trouble hearing him. “I noticed when he came out on stage he wasn’t really poppin’,” Biondi said. “He was talking the songs more than singing them. I’ve introduced him about six times and the spark just wasn’t there.”

Fans were empathetic and respectful of the last living father of rock ’n’ roll. No one booed, and the crowd hushed when Berry collapsed. Petryshyn said as of Sunday, no one had asked for a refund for tickets that ranged from $40 for the balcony to $250 for a table at the front of the stage.

“He tried to give it his all,” said Petryshyn, who is bringing the Pogues and the legendary metal band Motorhead to the Congress. “He definitely put a scare into a lot of people. The age variation of that show was all over the place; you had parents with kids, parents taking their parents and the whole rockabilly crowd. People who stayed until the very end appreciated they had an intimate moment with Chuck.

“For him to do his duck walk before he went off stage the last time will be a lasting impression for anyone who saw it.”

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