“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”– John Lennon
According to the University of Copenhagen, every person on the planet with blue eyes is a descendent of a single common ancestor, whose genetic mutation 10,000 years ago led to the current distribution of blue eyed human beings around the globe.
Similarly, all rock-n-roll music — from the Beatles and the Stones to the Roots and the Shins — contains Chuck Berry’s DNA. Every song you hear today on the radio, the Internet, or your iPod — whether you’re listening to hip-hop, country, classic rock or top 40 — can be traced back to Chuck Berry.
He is the “Lucy” of modern music.
He’s also still alive. And, perhaps most improbably, you can still see him play live, although with decreasing frequency.
On a recent Saturday night at Washington DC’s historic Howard Theatre — a cultural gem which holds its own place in music history and just reopened after a breathtaking $29 million restoration — Chuck Berry took the stage with little fanfare. He just shuffled onstage in a red sequined shirt (which could easily date to rock’s early days) and a Greek captain’s hat, greeted the audience (“I’m 85 and I’m still kicking!”), and started into “Roll Over Beethoven.” And just like that, the hands that created rock-n-roll were wrapped around a Gibson ES, playing the notes that are the elemental building blocks of song you’ve ever loved.
It was surreal, it was breathtaking, it was… anachronistic. It’s 2012. How could we be sitting in an audience watching Chuck Berry perform? It would be like going to a Mark Twain one man play and having Mark Twain himself (not Hal Holbrook or some other actor) actually show up and read from his most beloved work. And then it hits you—“Holy shit, I’m seeing Chuck Berry!” Just like your parents, your grandparents, and maybe even your great grandparents before you.
Was it the greatest performance of his career? No. Was his guitar always in tune? Oh, no. Was he coherent throughout the entire show, nailing every solo and remembering every lyric? Oh, hell no!
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