Chuck Berry was an hour into his set at Chicago’s Congress Theatre on New Year’s Day when — as his pianist tuned his guitar — he slumped face-first into the keyboard. “I’m struggling,” he said before several venue staff members rushed Berry off the stage to receive medical help.
He returned 15 minutes later to tune his Gibson ES-335 before a man approached Berry, lifted the guitar off him and escorted him offstage. Ten minutes later, he returned once more to apologize for having no strength. “Someone took my guitar,” he said. “They’re afraid I’ll do my scoot, but I’m gonna try to do my scoot anyway.” He did, but looked physically weak.
“Chuck Berry passed out,” Chicago’s Shakespeare District police Capt. Marc Buslik told the Chicago Sun-Times. “He was just faint initially. He was real confused. He wouldn’t come off the stage.” Berry’s rep Dick Alen told the Associated Press the guitarist’s collapse was due to exhaustion.
It was Berry’s third gig in two days — he had played two New Year’s Eve shows the night before at the B.B. Kings Blues Club in Times Square in New York City, the first of which was as erratic as Chicago has been described.
As someone who has seen Berry six times since 2002, I’ve learned to never expect consistency, but rather short bursts of greatness. On New Year’s Eve, there were none of them. Wearing his sparkling button-up sailor’s cap, Berry kicked off with “Roll Over Beethoven.” But he hardly made it through a single song, repeatedly stopping to apologize for his out-of-tune guitar. Early on, when he kicked into “Rock and Roll Music,” he hit a wrong note and stopped. “I don’t play it wrong,” he said. “I just stop and start over again.”
He apologized several more times throughout the night. “As old as I am — and I’m 84 — I can’t stand here and play the wrong keys. I got to get it right,” he said. He never did. After a long stretch of failed tuning, he handed the instrument to his keyboardist, who hooked on an electric tuner.
“There’s a 30-year difference between us — he’s showing me. I’m listening,” Berry said. “I think I got it now.” He introduced his “favorite song,” but then asked the band what it was. It was “Around and “Around,” which he played three more times during the set.
Berry asked for requests at one point. “Maybellene,” someone shouted. He began the chorus, but then once again sang the verses of “Around and Around.” “We’re doing Maybellene aren’t we?” he said, and then let the track fizzle out. He attempted “It Hurts Me Too,” but stopped after he couldn’t settle on a key. “I’ve been playing guitar for 57 years and I don’t have the audacity to stand here and let the wrong note ring out for you. I just have to take a break.” He sat down at the piano for the night’s most moving number, “We Wee Hours.”
Soon, it was time to call it a night. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been trying to dig myself out of this hole that I’m in,” he said. “If I’m living next New Year’s, I’m gonna walk on this stage and do a whole new show. I want to apologize.” He played “Reeling and Rocking” and “House Lights.” And instead of inviting the crowd onstage to dance as he usually does, he sauntered off playing his wireless guitar.
It’s hard to watch the legend in such poor form. It may be partly due to his grueling schedule. Between his monthly gigs at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis, he plays one-off gigs throughout the country, traveling without a band. On his European tour in March 2008, he played 14 venues in 15 days, including a stretch where he played Finland, England, Ireland, Switzerland and Spain on five consecutive days. Joe Edwards, who owns Blueberry Hill, told the Sun-Times yesterday Berry is in fine health, but “he sometimes thinks he’s still able to do everything he did in his twenties.”