Chuck Berry, ‘Live From Blueberry Hill': Album Review
Even in his prime, Chuck Berry in concert was something of a buyer-beware proposition. Pickup bands, inconsistent performances, a sometimes surly disposition did not always guarantee the "Rock and Roll Music" would be as great as it could, and should, be.
Blueberry Hill was different, though. The St. Louis club was terra firma for Berry, a hometown oasis just like Stone Pony became for Bruce Springsteen. It was a comfort zone where Berry had a good and trusted friend in Joe Edwards. It was Edwards who came up with the idea in 1996, the year Berry turned 70, of turning the basement of the bar and restaurant into the Duck Room, named after the rock 'n' roll pioneer's famed duck walk and decked out with Berry photos.
Berry would go on to play more than 200 shows in the Duck Room - including his last show ever on Oct. 15, 2014, two and half years before his death at the age of 90. By all accounts (including Daniel Durchholz's insightful liner notes) it was the best place to see Berry perform - most importantly with a regular band of local players, a quintet that included his son Charles Berry Jr. on guitar and his daughter Ingrid Berry on vocals and harmonica.
The 11 songs on Live From Blueberry Hill, recorded between July 2004 and January 2006, blaze by in a ferocious 30 minutes, proof that Berry Sr. could still muster age-defying fire in the right circumstances. Know going into Live From Blueberry Hill that this is not a showcase for Berry's singing, which had little in the way of range or tonality by that point - something that actually works to his benefit during the loping oral memoir "Bio." But there's still plenty of sting in his guitar playing, and the set has the kind of immediacy and muscularity you expect from a bar band in the best sense of the term, with pianist Robert Lohr contributing as many hot solos as Berry himself.
The group fuses "Carol" and "Little Queenie" into a playful medley, while "Let It Rock" and "Around and Around" are locomotives with that sound ready to jump the track at any time but never do. The slower blues of "Mean Old World" gives Ingrid Berry a welcome spotlight, while the classics - "Roll Over Beethoven," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode" - are ragged but righteous celebrations. "It's my show. I gotta pull it outta the gutter," Berry tells the crowd at one point, but the truth is he doesn't have to pull too hard. Live From Blueberry Hill shows that even in his late 70s, and with his heyday well in the rearview mirror, Berry was still able to ring ring the bell when the spirit moved him.