The leader of the band has forgotten what song he’s playing. He hits a few notes on his guitar, but they are the wrong ones. And they are too loud. He either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. A balding guitarist in glasses, his son, leans in and says something, and the leader nods back. He lets his guitar hang unplayed and sings some words into the mic, but he’s standing too far away to be heard. Sensing this finally, he steps closer and and sings more, nailing a familiar line. He looks stage left with a grin. A laughing woman in a shiny silver top, his daughter, looks back. Dancing in place, she’s just tucked a harmonica into her bra, “I got no pockets” she yells, while scooping her breasts playfully. He misses another note on guitar.
It’d be the worst concert of all time except it’s such fun.
Plus the leader is Chuck Berry.
Little-known travel secret: The first-ever inductee to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame is still going, at 86, playing the second Wednesday of the month at the buzzing Blueberry Hill in his hometown St Louis. For $35. This is a steal for rock fans. (And my vote for #1 on the Top 40 Rock’n’Roll Travel Sites for Lonely Planet.)
Blueberry Hill is a sprawling bar/restaurant with lots of life, noise and stuff to look at. I eat a burger under a vintage Schlitz lamp, and look at the walls decked out with old record covers, Beatles dolls, a (fake) centaur and a stuffed swordfish or two.
But I soon discover the real highlight of the night: Chuck Pilgrims. It begins when by a case of ’50s rock memorabilia, when a drunk lawyer-type with a knee brace, crutches and a fresh scab on his forehead stops me to point out one of Chuck’s old guitars. A regular here, he explains his wounded state: “I fell out of a golf cart on Monday not once, but twice.” I think I know why.
Downstairs is the 300-capacity Duck Room, named for Chuck’s hilarious scoot-step walk. I get there early and it’s already half full. “You want to be in the middle section?,” I hear. A middle-aged woman with short red-dye hair is asking. I take the spot two chairs in, front and center, next to a guy with Kris Kristofferson hair in his 30s. Jeff, drinking Chardonnay out of a small bottle, tells me he’s seen Chuck “about 50 times.” He deletes photos from his iPhone to clear room for more. “They’re mostly of Chuck anyway,” he explains. He’s a “little Cherokee,” a hair stylist and his dream is to cut Chuck’s hair. “I’d just love to do that, but I don’t want to bother him asking.”
Charles, Chuck’s son, plays guitar with the band and sets out a print-out of the songlist on 11×17 sheets beforehand. I notice it has “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” which I consider to be one of the greatest rock songs of all time, and one of several classics they wouldn’t play. Chuck, wearing a red velvet shirt and bolo tie, never looks at the list. He ends his short set by inviting all women on stage, who come to dance as he does a few steps of the old “duck walk” during his novelty song “My Ding-A-Ling.” It’s all good.
Afterwards an anxious couple dozen of white men in their ’50s crash the stage holding album covers and posters, setting up a practiced queue for autographs. I join it without one. Chuck sits at the entrance of a back-stage room and signs a few autographs. “He sometimes only signs for a few minutes, so you have to be fast,” a goateed man from Indianapolis in front of me explains. When I get up to Chuck, I hand over my ticket stub and say “I came from New York to see you.”
Chuck looks up. “New York? Wo-oww.”