Music Review

Berry still true to his legendary tunes

Chuck Berry (shown earlier this year) provided some nostalgic moments at Berklee on Sunday. Chuck Berry (shown earlier this year) provided some nostalgic moments at Berklee on Sunday. (Santiago Ferrero/reuters/file)
By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / April 16, 2008

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Fifty-three years after his first single, "Maybellene," rode to the top of the pop charts and helped usher in rock 'n' roll, the mere sight of Chuck Berry with an electric guitar can still thrill the onetime schoolgirls and boys who remain forever young in Berry's universe.

We are all older, of course (including Berry, who is now 81), but everybody was sweet little 16 once, to borrow a familiar phrase from one of Berry's signature songs. Would the Beatles and Rolling Stones even exist without "Rock and Roll Music," "Little Queenie," "Johnny B. Goode," and the two dozen or so other R&B-greased slices of teenage life that Berry cooked up like so many lunch specials at the malt shop?

And there he was, suddenly. Emcee and comedian Steve Sweeney had barely sputtered out his introduction during Sunday's sold-out show at Berklee Performance Center when Berry - still lean and sparkling in red and black with a white yachtsman's cap perched atop his head - strolled onstage.

The night raised roughly $100,000 for Right Turn Inc., the Arlington-based addiction treatment center founded by ex-Del Fuegos drummer Woody Giessmann. But the start of Berry's set was considerably less successful. As soon as he hit the opening riff of "Roll Over Beethoven" he became unplugged from his amplifier. And unstrapped from his guitar. After some fiddling and fussing, Berry took another stab at telling "Tchaikovsky the news." A bluesy reading of Little Walter's "Mean Old World" followed a spry "Sweet Little Sixteen," and a crisp "Carol" still swung eternally.

But in fact, while his voice remained the wiry tenor that had jumped out of a million jukeboxes, Berry didn't play a lot of guitar, or finish a lot of songs, during his choppy 45-minute set, which leaned heavily on his own legendary personage and Daryl Davis's boogie woogie piano. The effect was tantalizing and frustrating - especially when Berry took a request for "Nadine," forgot the first verse, and abandoned it in favor of "Maybellene," which he cut short to chastise a photographer for taking too long to take pictures.

Mostly, Berry banged out a few familiar chords - and some unfamiliar ones, too - as punctuation marks to the ancient classroom texts of "School Days" and "Reelin' and Rockin'." The scintillating musical moments had come earlier, during a rousing set by Supergroup, an all-star cast of musicians led by Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell, that felt like a classic rock and soul revue.

Still, Berry's presence was a reminder that, unlike other iconic performers of his era - James Brown, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett - who have passed on and whose music was celebrated Sunday, Berry was still among us: still ornery, still frustrating, still tantalizing.