Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll

Two concerts on Saturday proved--in different ways--that as Tinsel and Rot deity Huey Lewis sang, "The heart of rock and roll is still beating." Yes, we are proud to nonironically quote Mr. Lewis. We'll probably do it again.

The concert day began in Cranford, NJ, where I was hoping to finally erase the bad memories of Chuck Berry's set in Bridgewater, NJ, last year. I have never been so thoroughly depressed during a show as I was during Berry's time on stage, during which the band struggled to follow his very shaky lead and only hit upon something listenable at rare moments. There's probably no person in rock and roll that I'm more willing to cut some slack to than Chuck Berry, but even I had a hard time justifying that show. I don't even like thinking about it.

So I was a little nervous about seeing Berry again. But the concert was free, and early word had him being backed by the Smithereens, so I figured it was worth a shot. The Smithereens are a good band, so I figured they'd be able to keep pace with Chuck, or at least make a better go of it than the band in Bridgewater. And even if they couldn't, at least it wouldn't cost me any more than train fare.

Then, I checked the Chuck Berry website in the days before the show and saw that Berry was bringing his band from St. Louis for the show (or, really, for what I assume was the higher-paying gig the night before at BB King's), which was even better news. Surely, they would be well practiced in keeping pace with Berry. And then my sister expressed an interest in going, so the financial considerations of paying the train fare went away, too. So it was looking like giving Chuck Berry in concert another shot was a damn fine idea.

And, amazingly, it worked out just that way.

Yes, Chuck Berry totally kicked ass (at the age of 81) in Cranford. I was slightly nervous when he came out and announced that he would rock the crowd for 30 minutes. But a few minutes later, it changed to an hour, and it wound up being a thoroughly entertaining sixty minutes. The highlights included two versions of "Reelin' and Rockin'" that featured Chuck's daughter Ingrid on vocals and harmonica (his son played guitar in the band, too) and an early-in-the-set rendition of "Sweet Little Sixteen" that danced around between cool and just a little bit creepy (something about singing that song after you reach a certain age doesn't quite sit right). No "My Ding-A-Ling," but, hey, you can't have it all.

Throughout the set, I was amazed at just how much difference a good drummer makes. The drummer at the Bridegwater show seemed fairly frightened while trying to keep up with Berry, who essentially sings and plays at his own pace and stops songs whenever he feels that they're over. But the drummer in Cranford, Keith Robinson, had no trouble keeping things in order. And the rest of the band (Berry Jr., Bob Lohr on keyboards, and James Marsala on bass) was similarly on point. It was night and day between Bridgewater and Cranford (figuratively and literally), and I was happy to finally have that bad memory of Chuck erased. I can't tell you how relieved I am to say I have seen a good Chuck Berry show. Makes me feel a lot better about my life.

We stuck around for the Smithereens, and they were pretty damn good, too. So it was a pretty awesome afternoon, particularly when you consider the price of admission.

Then, things took an odd turn in Philadelphia, where we went to see the mighty Hudson Falcons as they embarked on another two-month-plus tour of the United States (and, alas, one that I will not be joining at any point this year). When Mark (Head Falcon in Charge) told me that the show at the Halfway House was in a basement, I guess I just assumed it was a club that was like a basement. And I was wrong. It was a basement. Of a house. Next to what looked to be an actual halfway house. Interesting set-up. I have no pictures. Aside from the fact that it was way dark, I was afraid that if I took out my camera, the punks would think I was a narc and whip me with their studded belts.

Anyway, after being prepped on what we were walking into, and once I was able to block out the mysterious puddles of mystery liquid and the leaking pipes in the basement (deftly balanced by the old-school, Glaser and Soul "Starsky and Hutch" poster upstairs) and embrace the fact that someone was going to slam into me at some point in the evening, I realized that the show was more rock and roll than Chuck Berry playing at a free festival on a Sunday afternoon. Sure, rock and roll is played in arenas and festivals to thousands of fans--and often quite well--but it's likely not played with as much heart and soul (another Huey reference!) as it is in a dank basement on a Saturday night/Sunday morning in Philadelphia with a bunch of people who need that musical release to make it through to the next day. They're not talking through the set, text-messaging on their Trios, or killing time until the afterparty. They're in the moment, screaming along, thrashing about, and just letting the music take over. It's rock and roll at its rawest (is rawest a word? I don't care), and if it aint that pretty at all, it's still pretty damn beautiful.

Hail, hail rock and roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock and roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock, rock, rock and roll
The feelin' is there, body and soul.

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