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Chuck Berry - Chuck (Album Review)

Wednesday, 28 June 2017 Written by Simon Ramsay

These days, the term legend is flung around as casually as insults are across the barbaric playgrounds of social media. Ed Sheeran a legend? Gary Barlow? Justin Bieber? Let’s get real. The term should be exclusively reserved for game-changing artists, pioneers and visionaries who reshape the cultural landscape and leave behind a legacy that echoes through the ages.

Moulding guitar-driven R&B into an exhilarating, high octane new form - and allying it with street-smart poetry that gave a rip-roaring voice to the aspirations, experiences and sexual awakening of American teenagers in the 1950s and ‘60s - Chuck Berry established the sonic and lyrical template, as well as the rebellious swagger, that defined rock ‘n’ roll and inspired every generation that followed.

Having said that, when he passed away earlier this year at the age of 90, you may have initially thought: "Was he still alive?".

Although an active touring musician until 2014, Berry hadn’t made a record since 1979. People weren’t interested in his new music, they just wanted to hear him perform hits like Maybelline, Roll Over Beethoven and Johnny B Goode.  

Which makes ‘Chuck’ a historic effort, being his first album in nearly four decades as well as a final statement he hoped would match his hallowed early work.  

Comprising a succinct series of self-reverential snapshots, this aptly titled swansong resembles an autobiographical photo album, with Berry using brand new songs to recall his defining moments and contributions while imparting life lessons and preparing for the curtain call.  

Big Boys is this record’s only absolute classic and represents the archetypal Berry sound courtesy of its slaloming guitar intro, libidinous rhythms, fizzing desire and magnificent hook. Likewise, Lady B Goode is a call back to the titular hero of his most famous song, albeit with a gender-flipping twist as it empathises with the titular character in a way that suggests art mirroring life.   

It’s well known Berry had a complex relationship with women that at times strayed into legally suspect territory. So where Wonderful Woman, Dutchman and a seductive cover of Larry Clinton’s You Go To My Head are seemingly messages of devotion to wife Themetta, to whom this record is dedicated, the closing Eyes of Man also suggests an attempt at saying lessons have been learned as it preaches a message of respect.

Every song here deliberately showcases traits that made the man and musician. A live take on Tony Joe White’s 3/4 Time (Enchiladas), for example, highlights the music that inspired him and the charismatic showmanship he exuded. The closing line - “So while I'm still kickin', I'm gonna keep pickin' my tunes. I like what I'm doin' and I hope it don't end too soon,” -  perfectly encapsulates his raison d’etre while foreshadowing the poignant conversational blues of Darlin’. 

Crooned to his daughter Ingrid, who sings back her answers to his ruminations on an eventful life approaching its end, the song’s extremely touching and indicative of how this record is a true family affair, with both Charles Berry Jr and Charles Berry III backing him on guitar.

As great as it is to hear him so energised in spite of his advanced years, ‘Chuck’ does stumble at times. Jamaica Moon is a pale imitation of Havana Moon featuring an embarrassing patois delivery and, for an album whose material was gestating for decades to clock in at a stingy 35 minutes, with two covers, suggests his creativity was either waning or that an avalanche of posthumous releases beckons.

What’s ultimately pleasing, though, is there’s no grab for relevancy here. Guest performers Gary Clark Jr, Nathaniel Rateliff and Tom Morello meld so seamlessly with Berry’s unmistakable style as to be barely discernible. This record doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel and why should it? If the blues had a baby and they called it rock n’ roll, Chuck Berry was the delinquent offspring who made the damn thing spin in the first place.  

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