Fort Worth Legends cast long shadows.
While others strive to step outside them and break new ground, the creators of the legends can also become trapped by twilight, overcome by their own reputations and achievements. Apart from maintaining quality, rock icons rarely age gracefully -- the medium doesn't really allow for it. The music is, all these decades after its inception, firmly a young person's game, built upon the wild energy and cock-sureness of a life still being formed.
As years advance and bodies fade into decay, valiant efforts are made to recapture a spark, a semblance of that youthful vigor, if only for a moment. Some lucky few can, briefly, become young once again. More often, the results are uncomfortable, sobering and simply painful.
I sat, increasingly brokenhearted, and watched Saturday night as 85-year-old Chuck Berry -- the very architect of rock 'n' roll, the man whose compositions spurred the creation of an entire, enduring genre -- struggled in vain to provide a cohesive, hour-long concert experience for the few hundred gathered in the Fort Worth Convention Center's Ballroom B. Originally booked for the arena itself (which boasts a capacity of around 9,000), the concert was moved at the last minute to an upstairs ballroom, laid out as if a time-share seminar was about to unfold. It was antiseptic, cavernous and freezing.
The night was also erratic and bizarrely paced, with a pair of opening acts whose sound could not be further from Berry's bawdy, energetic style. I'm sure Cory Elrod and Andi Laree are perfectly lovely people, and perhaps, have careers which satisfy them artistically, but Saturday was not either's best showing. Elrod, a fiddler with limited vocal range, and Laree, whose quirks (an irritating squeak that would give Skeeter Davis the vapors) distracted mightily from her songs, more or less kept the crowd distracted in the run-up to Berry's arrival. (A question to the promoters, however: Are you not aware that Fort Worth, in particular, has a small army of guitarists and vocalists, any number of whom are likely influenced by Berry, who would have been far more appropriate choices?)
It was when a 10-minute "recess break" (in the words of the emcee) stretched to 20 minutes, and a mystery "redneck comedian" with no material prepared was thrown on stage to mollify the increasingly restless crowd that the night began to take on the dimensions of a waking nightmare. The unfunny shtick prompted calls for Berry to appear, and for a harrowing few minutes, it seemed as though the St. Louis native wouldn't be taking the stage after all.
But, shortly before 9 p.m., there he was, spangled red shirt and jaunty sailor's cap, striding on stage and striking up Roll Over Beethoven. The crowd roared its appreciation, giving Berry the first of several standing ovations. Backed by five musicians, including his son, Charles Atwood Berry on rhythm guitar, Berry presided over a lurching, imperfect set that was nevertheless full of feeling. His spirit is still quite willing, but the flesh, increasingly, is weak. The hits were all there: You Never Can Tell, Johnny B. Goode, Rock and Roll Music and Nadine (during which the famous duck-walk briefly appeared) were aired out, often in fragmentary form.
Berry frequently dropped verses, struck bum notes and retired to the back or side of the stage and simply jammed with his collaborators. The flickers of vintage Berry were fleeting, and many of his indelible riffs poured from his slender fingers as if by reflex. His asides to the audience were heartfelt and rambling ("When you play good rock and roll, your nose runs," he observed at one point). The moment which cut the deepest? Berry launching into Maybellene for one verse, before shifting abruptly into Rock and Roll Music for the second time, as the band ground away on the former song behind him.
For the night's final tune, Nadine, Berry invited any women from the audience to come dance on stage. A rush of ladies joined him, and as the song progressed, he shrank from the stage, eventually disappearing off to one side and out an exit door behind it. As suddenly as he had materialized, he was gone. Roughly a dozen songs over barely 60 minutes, and the crowd, cheering madly, began to turn and head for the exits. Struggling to shake the Twilight Zone vibe of the whole evening, I found myself unexpectedly somber.
It's not fair -- to Berry's legacy or the man himself -- to take what transpired Saturday as anything approaching his best. He is, simply, a person diminished by age. It happens to everyone, rock star or not. I refuse to nail Berry to the wall for continuing to perform (although, apart from monthly visits to Blueberry Hill, a St. Louis venue, Berry rarely tours anymore). Only he will know when it's time to hang up his guitar for good, and he must still glean something from being on stage, in front of people who love him and his music. Chuck Berry is an unquestioned legend, and to have seen him at all is fortunate, and something of a coup for Fort Worth.
Chuck Berry cannot escape his shadows now, and if Saturday's show is any indication, they are only going to grow longer and darker in the coming years. Yet, those befuddled or saddened by Berry's concert can take solace, and reflect upon the artist who once, so effortlessly, did this ...
... and not as the man who has been, crushingly, reduced by his circumstances, to this.