By Mark Guarino
Thank god Chuck Berry still duckwalks among us.
At age 73, the legendary rock originator brought delightful mayhem to the Riviera Theatre Tuesday, the kind Chicago blues audiences have not expected — nor experienced — in years.
Of course, a Berry show at this stage in his career usually involves an out-of-sync pickup band he hasn’t rehearsed with, an out-of-tune guitar and songs that don’t really end, they’re sort of lopped off somewhere in the middle.
But Berry is the rare breed who capitalizes on chaos like this. As scrappy a set his was compared to others on the Hopefest 2000 bill, Berry embodied rock’s wildly carefree abandonment he first shaped 50 years ago.
Not only did he cover his canon of songs that became the blueprints of rock and roll (“Roll Over Beethoven,” “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Rock & Roll Music,” “Nadine,” “Little Queenie”), he barked each of them out with the voice of a teenager.
In an hour set which ran well past midnight, Berry was an impish comic, springing up and down on both feet and frequently playing the sexual sneak, at one point bringing seven women from the crowd up to join him for some dirty dancing with the command: “now boogie, boogie, boogie!”
When urged by worried sideline organizers to finish things up, he walked off the stage a few times still playing, then turned back around to play some more.
He’s 73, folks. When’s the last time your elders partied like this?
Berry’s appearance on this excellent six-hour-plus show was largely due to the Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation which was the night’s beneficiary, along with the Chicago Coalition For the Homeless. Dixon, the late Chess Records bassist and talent scout, played in Berry’s band and the foundation, led by Dixon’s daughter Shirli, founded a museum at the Chess studio site.
Just like Chicago weather, there was an endless variety of blues on the Tuesday’s bill.
Bo Diddley has been the benefit show headliner for ten years now. Playing after his old Chess-mate Berry was tough to beat. But he proved to be just as an original player as when he first started, playing a sly groove for all its worth and even coyly rapping along.
Long-time Chicago blues belter Koko Taylor’s voice went blank on the long notes, but her energy and sass made up for it, especially on her gender switching take of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.” Hometown legends the Staple Singers performed their early R&B hits including “Respect Yourself.”
Robert Cray was the most stylish performer of the night. Largely avoiding his radio hits, Cray’s guitar playing had a steely, tight subtlety to it and his voice was sweet and expressive.
These days, youngster Kenny Wayne Shepherd sells more records than the rest of the bunch, and he believes in the hard sell. Shepherd played up every hackneyed rock move in the book, grimacing in pretend pain and thrusting his guitar around as he played superduper fast.
Well, the best thing you could say about him was he was playing for a good cause.