You Never Can Tell

Chuck Berry is going to be 85 years old on Tuesday. So I figured I should really get on that whole seeing Chuck at a small club in St. Louis--and getting his autograph after the show--thing. Who knows how much longer he'll be doing his monthly gig at Blueberry Hill, and, even if he does, who knows how much longer I'll want to see it. I'm all about paying respects to the heroes of rock and roll where they're still among us, but hopping on a plane to St. Louis (not the most exciting place on earth) to see one of those heroes in a severely diminished capacity might not be the best use of my money going forward.

So, while initially planning a trip to Nashville, I began to look into cheap flights to St. Louis so I could start the trip there. I found a pretty cheap one, but then getting from St. Louis to Nashville turned out to be problematic. There were no direct flights, and the only other option was a ridiculously long Greyhound trip that might have seemed appealing (or at least like something fun to write about) 10 years ago but now seems like a nightmare on wheels. The trip to Nashville went by the wayside. Maybe next year, Music City.

While holding on to the St. Louis idea like Wilson Phillips, I started concocting baseball playoffs scenarios. Milwaukee was within reach, so I could plan a side trip there. And then Atlanta started collapsing, and it seemed like St. Louis might make the playoffs. Very interesting. But I needed to lock in my flights/trains/hotels so I wouldn't be spending more of the money I couldn't afford to be spending. So I went with this itinerary: fly into St. Louis for Chuck on Wednesday, take the train to Milwaukee (via Chicago) for a Brewers playoff game on Thursday (or, if tickets were too tough to come by, a Jets-Blackhawks game in Chicago), and then fly out of Milwaukee on Friday. So I booked all that on the last night of the baseball season (a/k/a The Greatest Night of Baseball Ever), as the Brewers clinched the #2 seed in the NL and the Cardinals won the Wild Card. Cool. I figured the Great Almighty Phillies Pitching Staff would easily beat the Cardinals, and hoped the Brewers would have enough to get by a tough Diamondbacks team.

One out of two aint bad.

The Phillies' choking threw a wrench into the plan, because now the Brewers were the home team in that series, and that meant Game 4 on that Thursday would now be in St. Louis. And seeing a playoff game at Busch was less appealing than one at Miller Park. Did I really want to break the bank to see a playoff game where I'd be rooting against the home team? Eh, maybe.

Then, a fortuitous comedy club booking was revealed over the Internet. David Koechner, better known as Champ Kind in Anchorman (or best known to me as Gerald "T-Bones" Tibbons of the Naked Trucker and T-Bones comedy duo), was doing a comedy show that Thursday night at a hotel comedy club in Illinois that advertised itself as 14 minutes from the Gateway Arch (or 44 minutes via MetroLink and bus). Whammy!

Trip itinerary completed. St. Louis and Chuck on Wednesday, Fairview Heights, Illinois, and T-Bones on Thursday, and then a ridiculously early train to Chicago Friday morning before another train ride to Milwaukee and my flight home Friday night.

Well, that was easy enough.

Chuck Berry shows, or, for that matter, any rock and roll shows by 84-year-old men, are an iffy proposition. Some nights he's so wildly off that it makes you sad (e.g., the first time I saw him, at a baseball stadium in New Jersey), and some nights you see enough of the old magic that you feel grateful to be alive to see a pioneer of rock and roll a few feet away from you (e.g., the second time I saw him, at a festival in New Jersey). You pay your money, you take your chances (although the time he was good was free, so that was even better).

So as I made my second trip to the Delmar Loop of the day (the first was right from the airport to do a Vintage Vinyl run), my expectations were pretty measured. If it stunk, I could still say I saw Chuck Berry in a small club with a few hundred people. If it was great, well then I saw Chuck Berry in a small club with a few hundred people and it was awesome. Plus, there would be the bonus of getting Mr. Berry's autograph after the show, as the club usually sets up a table and he signs stuff after the show.

But, before all that, it was time for what I'd been saving up for my big meal of the day, at Pi Pizzeria, a few blocks away from Blueberry Hill. St. Louis is unjustly famous for its mediocre cracker-thin pizza with Provel cheese in lieu of mozzarella, but Pi, apparently a favorite of President Obama, doesn't use Provel and is best known for their deep dish pie. I'm not a huge deep dish guy, but the reviews looked promising, so I dug in.

In order to give my gorging a healthy sheen, I started with a salad, the Bada Bing (field greens, toasted almonds, gorgonzola cheese, dried bing cherries, with a raspberry vinaigrette). That was quite good. In fact, I could've left happy with just that. But then came the pizza.

And that was even better. It's the cornmeal crust that does the trick. The sauce was pretty good, too, but the cornmeal makes it stand out from your average pie. I started to feel a little bloated toward the end, but my mama didn't raise no quitter, so I dusted off the whole pie and walked to Blueberry Hill wondering if throwing up during the Chuck Berry show would ruin the trip.

There is limited seating for the Chuck shows at Blueberry Hill (120 seats, and I think they said the room is 300 capacity), so I knew to get there early. I got there around 6:30 and there were already about 25-30 people in line for the show (doors opened at 8). So I joined them, stared at the pictures of the owner and various celebrities on the wall, read a chapter of "The Maltese Falcon," watched two women almost pass out, listened for updates on the playoff game, and then, voila, it was 8 pm. I got a seat in the second row, right next to the people who looked to be about fifth in line. I'm not sure how that happened.

The opening act, Butch Wax and the Hollywoods, did a wedding-band set of oldies that was pretty good and then the stage was reset for Mr. Berry and his band. After a while, a guy came out to tune his guitar and I thought, "Hmmm...he's not in the band." Then, as I looked closer, I thought again, "Hmmm...I think that's Johnny Rivers." And it was. And he sat in for the whole set. Nice.

Having Rivers on stage seemed to loosen Mr. Berry up a bit, and the extra guitar took pressure off him too, as there are some things 84-year-old fingers can't quite do anymore. If you go see Chuck Berry now, those guitar runs aren't gonna be quite like they used to be. In fact, they're probably gonna make you cringe. A lot. But so what. He's Chuck Berry. You can cut him some slack. Going to a Chuck Berry show and complaining that he "just doesn't have it anymore" would be like meeting Thomas Jefferson in 1825 and being disappointed that he didn't write the Declaration of Independence for you. He's done the work already. Now's the time to be glad you're alive to see him.

Rivers sang a good portion of the set (with Mr. Berry joining in on a few verses here and there), starting off with "Maybellene" and continuing with "Carol," "Memphis, Tennessee," "Reelin' and Rockin'" (done twice...Why? Why not?) and "Little Queenie," among others. Mr. Berry seemed to be having just as good a time as I was, and even gave an abbreviated duck walk of sorts during "Let It Rock." If Rivers hadn't been there, I probably would have still had an OK time, but his presence made the night far more memorable than I had anticipated going in.

And then Mr. Berry left without signing. Curses! Foiled again. Oh well. What was it the old folks would say about that? Oh yeah...

It was still a really fun night. Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!

I switched hotels on Thursday, so I could be a little closer to the train station. This made it slightly less sad to not have time or money to go to a playoff game, because the hotel I stayed at Wednesday was literally a block away from Busch Stadium. I could walk out of the lobby and see the ballpark. Sigh. I did pop into the pep rallies outside the ballpark on Wednesday and Thursday, though, where I looked so out of place not wearing any red that I feared someone would point at me and I'd soon be burned at the stake. But I wasn't. So I took some pictures of playoff fever in St. Louis.

I had nothing to do during the day on Thursday, so I decided to walk to the City Museum and check that out. I'd heard good things about it, and that though it was intended mainly for kids, adults would have a good time at it too. And that was very true, because I had a great time wasting two hours there. If you've got kids, or you're a 34-year-old single man, I highly recommend visiting it.

The City Museum is and old shoe factory and warehouse that has been turned into a completely ridiculous funhouse of sorts, with about a dozen slides (including one ten-story slide), a cave, a human hamster wheel, a ball pit, a Ferris wheel, two gutted-out airplanes, and a school bus that juts off the roof. This has to be the coolest place to take a class trip in the whole wide world. I thought about going down at least one of the slides, but I had visions of an ER visit, so I chickened out. I did go on the Ferris wheel, though. Good times.

After that, I watched some of the ALCS game in my hotel before heading out to Fairview Heights for the David Koechner show. I got there a little early, but too late to grab some food (and since the comedy club was in a hotel on a highway, the main option--TGIFriday's--wasn't exactly inviting anyway), so I went in for the 8 pm show around 7:20. And there were 5 people there. Oh boy. This might be a rough night--if not for me, then definitely for Koechner.

And it was kind of a rough night. I was sitting next to a gentleman who was celebrating his 32nd anniversary with his wife. And, man, was he chatty. Not with me, though; we had only an odd 20-second conversation in which he asked me the last name of the headliner, whom he said he had just met in the hotel.

No, he was way chattier with the opening comic, who probably wished he had never started talking to him at the beginning of his set. And that set, I would say, was about half the comedian talking and half the guy next to me talking. The guy next to me (I honestly could not determine if he had a legitimate mental handicap or was just odd; his wife seemed normal) just kept interjecting himself into the set, vowing to stop talking after every time he spoke, until he capped off his mini-set by asking, "Was she really from Soulard?" after the comedian told a story about losing his virginity to a girl in Soulard (a neighborhood in St. Louis). He then proceeded to give us his thoughts on Soulard and telling us about the time his brother fell through a floor in a house in Soulard. The comedian just gave up at that point and let him tell the whole story.

The guy was only slightly less chatty during the beginning of Koechner's set, interrupting only once, punctuating a story Koechner told about his cousin giving him chewing tobacco at the age of 10 and telling him to swallow the juice by saying, "I've heard that story a thousand times." He again vowed to stop talking after Koechner's reaction, and mainly kept his promise until he got visibly bored and antsy toward the end of the set and started what I assume he thought was whispering in his wife's ear. Which you kind of can't do in a front row in a comedy club when you're five feet from the comic. Koechner shushed him, then did so again when he and the missus started hemming and hawing on their drink order while Koechner told a story about how his wife can't give birth anymore and the scare they had with their youngest child, born via surrogate (yes, I agree, that is odd material for a comedy club). After the second gentle admonishment from Koechner, the gentleman slammed his beer bottle down and walked out. He came back later and took a picture with Koechner after the show. He sounded like he had a good time.

I'm not so sure Koechner did, but he did a good job of holding it in. I can't imagine doing a show for a quarter-full room on a Thursday night at a hotel comedy club is a thrill ride. I hope the Friday and Saturday shows went better.

In any case, I got my Champ Kind bobblehead signed (and my Naked Trucker and T-Bones CD, too), so I left happy. And that happiness almost went right away when I thought I missed the last bus to the MetroLink station. But just as I went to go call a cab, I saw the bus coming, and tragedy was averted. I finally had dinner back at the hotel bar, roughly four hours before I had to board the train to Chicago. It was at this point that this part of the trip began to seem like a terrible idea.

I took a nap and made the train on time, drifting in and out of sleep for the first few hours. We got to Chicago a little late, and I thought my plan to go to the World's Finest Chocolates outlet in a Chicago strip mall might have to be postponed, but I pulled it off. We used to sell (and by "sell," I mean, my mom would sell a few bars at work and then just give me the money for the rest of the box) World's Finest candy bars in grammar school as a fundraiser, so I wanted to relive that glorious time by buying an excessive amount of WF chocolate at their outlet store. And I did. Bought a hat and a bag, too. Here's to you, Blessed Sacrament.

Then it was back on the train to Milwaukee, buying tickets for shows I'm going to in Milwaukee with my sister at the end of the month, getting on a bus to the airport, finding out my flight was delayed for three hours (later knocked down to one-and-a-half), listening to the Brewers lose while on the plane, and finally making it home from LaGuardia around 1:30. I think I tied my record for most states visited in a 24-hour period (5) and I fell asleep in four of them, which I think is a new record.

If you've been holding your applause until the end, you can now commence clapping.

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