On Sunday, rock & roll pioneer Chuck Berry will turn 83. It's a respectable enough age for kicking up one's heels and taking it easy, but Berry's got a still-active touring schedule, and the duck-walking octogenarian still performs once a month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant in his native St. Louis.
Just like clockwork last night, Berry strutted onstage at the stroke of 10 decked out in a sparkly shirt and sailor hat with that famous cherry red Gibson around his neck, nimbly ripping into the opening riff of "Roll Over Beethoven."
Berry's shows at Blueberry Hill take place in the restaurant's downstairs level, a smoky basement called the Duck Room. There are only four rows of seats, making it easy for nearly everyone to be no further than 30 feet away from the man himself. The sets are hit-packed, jumping from "School Days" to "Nadine" to, yes, "My Ding-a-Ling," the novelty record that became Berry's sole Number One hit. "I see all those cameras lighting up on 'My Ding-a-Ling'" he joked with the audience, which gleefully sang along with the chorus.
When it comes to vocals, Berry has set aside his youthful rapid fire delivery and settled into more of a wizened storyteller sort of voice, like a winking, all-knowing grandpa. His guitar playing is still in full effect, particularly on the solo of "Rock and Roll Music," and during a fiery take on "Reelin' and Rockin'," the evening's rowdiest number. Although he's backed up by his son on guitar, there's no mistaking where the twang that slices through the entire mix is coming from. (And, as always, his stance on guitar tuning can be described as "arbitrary at best.")
Berry closed the night by inviting all the ladies — young and old — onstage to dance during "Johnny B. Goode." But when the song ended and it was time for the good nights, Berry was long gone, having slipped out the state door during the free-for-all. November's show will be his 150th at Blueberry Hill, bringing in a fresh crowd to eat out of the palm of his hand. His age will have increased by one, but his spirits seem to have remained in high school.