Maybe there’s a reason Chuck Berry didn’t play ‘No Particular Place to Go’ last night.

Blueberry Hill, a cosy St. Louis Club in the Delmar Loop area, has been his home away from home once a month on Wednesday evenings since 1996 – and, if Berry ends up performing there in January of 2014, he’ll have played there two hundred times, according to Joe Edwards, who opened the club in 1972 when the area was a virtual no-man’s land.

The first recipient of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Award as well as seasoned lyricist, guitarist and showman, Berry always attracts an international crowd. John Lennon commented on Berry’s “intelligent” lyrics, and the Beatles made their mark early on with Berry hits like ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. The young Keith Richards can be seen, aching to emulate Berry’s style on many YouTube videos. Berry’s rendition of ‘Memphis’, with its surprise lyrical twist, became a hit for many others, including Johnny Rivers.

Just like every other month, the show had been sold out and the standing-room-only patrons fanned out against display cases of Daffy Duck and other related American comic books, rows of Mallards and, well, just about every kind of collectable that would perpetuate a pair of webbed feet.

Edwards, of course, named this sub basement 'The Duck Room' to pay homage to the musician’s famous stage stunt, the “duck walk”. Berry, very fit at 86, came onstage wearing his signature white sailor cap, a glittery top and dark slacks. His backing band includes bassist Jim Marsala, Bob Lohr on keys, drummer Keith Robinson, his guitarist son Charles Berry Jr. and his vocalist/harp playing daughter Ingrid Berry Clay. The age factor seemed to be on Berry’s mind. Before the vivacious vocalist landed onstage, Berry reminded us, “I was 21, but now I’m 86. Do you know how old that is?”

We know and we’re in awe. Berry was greeted with exceptional warmth when he came onstage. More than two hours earlier, excited customers had snaked across the venue, vying for actual seats, as many latecomers would stand for the entire show. The Duck Room is cosy, but the sight lines were good at every angle. Every once in a while, Berry blasted a familiar riff and recited a half a verse from one of his hits: ‘School Days,’ ‘Nadine’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ His diction was clear and, as he rattled off the lyrics he did recall, he frequently stopped to break into a generous smile. But when he did stop mid song, Ingrid pounced to the microphone, to sing or break into a forceful vamp on her almighty blues harp, her sparkly silver leggings and black heels swaddling the microphone stand.

Charles Berry Jr., was dressed in midnight black, except for patches of white on his sneakers. It was easy to get to know this band. In fact, when they first set up, one smiling musician had said, “We’re missing somebody!”

Berry Jr. had responded “Everybody here tonight!” Once his dad walked onstage, and, after the standing ovation and the applause died down, Berry played a fuzz-toned ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and we bonded.

Berry missed lots of notes but it was a joy to watch him. His affection for his grown children was heartfelt. He told us proudly that he named his daughter after a Swedish actress, and looked pleased and grateful when the enthusiastic Clay raced over and handed him an important list. Was it a set list or a lyric sheet? I’m not sure, as each song melted into the next and Berry randomly repeated a number of recognizable riffs.

‘Tweenie’ really got the standing room onlys pumped up, and Charles Berry Jr., who had just played a stunning solo on ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, looked like he was thoroughly enjoying the camaraderie and the infectious rhythm of his band mates. He showed off his skills on the iconic ‘Johnny B. Goode’, engaging in a call and response with Marsala.

I was hoping they would play ‘No Particular Place to Go,’ but the complete song never materialised, although the band teased us with some opening chords.

The optimistic Berry had his own version of what happened: “We started off in two different keys, but it sounded kind of cool.”

After Berry joked that we probably knew more Chuck Berry songs than he did, it was open season for requests. The audience shouted out requests like ‘Round and Round’ and ‘Maybelline’. Berry bounced back and forth across the stage, and then slid into a seat next to the drummer. When he stomped one black leather shoe on the floor; it looked like he was grinding a still-burning cigarette butt into the pavement, and, whilst this action didn’t satisfy our desire to see the famous duck walk, it held our attention.

After diving through the joyous chorus of ‘School Days’ - “Ring, ring, goes the bell!” - Berry suddenly looked flustered, and abandoned. “We waited ten minutes. Where are all the girls?” he asked. Suddenly a cluster of fifteen or so hand picked females of varying ages piled on the stage; dressed in everything from loud prints and heels to floral patterned shifts and sandals, they shimmied and twisted feverishly to the beat. One young woman, however, got so chummy with Chuck that a member of his camp ushered a gentle warning in her ear. Meanwhile, Berry held his own, concentrating on a solid simple chord or two, whilst the backing band retained a steady clip.

Chuck was emotional from beginning to end. Tears filled his eyes as Ingrid raced up to help him finish a song. Her voice was masterful, and you could tell she had grown up on these originals by her comfort level on stage and strong attachment to the lyrics.

Chuck Berry Jr. coloured several songs with biting solo work. Lohr’s piano licks were inventive and well regulated and never drew attention away from Chuck’s front stage antics, which the eyes of the audience remained glued to.

There are many sides to Berry, which we did not see, of course. On one famous YouTube clip, he sits next to long-time piano player, Johnnie Johnson, with his guitar in hand. He tenderly croons the words to the subtle but heartbreaking ballad, ‘A Cottage for Sale,’ about a couple parting ways. We didn’t see that sanguine side, but we saw great glimpses of rock and roll showmanship. Berry, despite looking occasionally detached, seemed thrilled to peer into the eyes of the welcoming audience.

You have to hand it to Chuck Berry, who, at 86, still adores the spotlight and the thrill of performing at intimate venues like Blueberry Hill. Some may be surprised that Berry is still so attached to his hometown of St. Louis when so many other super stars migrated to the US coasts, but the sense of appreciation Berry enjoys here is consistent and palpable.

That said, seeing Chuck Berry was a rather Zen experience - a chance to enjoy the moment but also to fill in the blanks with crystal clear memories of a rock and roll pioneer. To see the great legend up close in his home away from home was not only special, it was inspiring. “Ring ring the bell….”


Lisa Torem would like to express special thanks to Brad Hines and Joe Edwards of Blueberry Hill in St. Louis. The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Philamonjaro at www.philamonjaro.com.















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