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Lemmy Kilmister Salutes Chuck Berry at All-Star Tribute Concert in Cleveland

Lemmy Kilmister and Chuck Berry
Patrick R. Murphy, Getty Images

Chuck Berry turned 86 this month. Yet there he was, doing his signature duck walk across the stage during a sold-out tribute concert Saturday night at the State Theatre in Cleveland. Berry was the honoree for the 17th annual American Music Masters series, presented by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and Case Western Reserve University.

The star-studded cast assembled to salute this primary architect of rock ’n’ roll ranged from country icon Merle Haggard (who nailed ‘Memphis, Tennessee’) to hip-hop legend Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels of Run-D.M.C. (who unveiled a cool ‘School Day’ rap). The eclectic bill underscored the extensive influence of Berry’s three-chord jukebox poetry, which spans genres and generations.

Ernie Isley rose to the occasion with an energetic ‘You Can’t Catch Me,’ the Berry oldie from which John Lennon cribbed a line for the Beatles’ ‘Come Together.’ Rick Derringer revisited ‘Sweet Little Sixteen,’ otherwise known to Beach Boys fans as ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ And it wasn’t hard to hear echoes of the Rolling Stones in Chuck Prophet’s brawny take on ‘Ramona Say Yes.’

Implicit in other selections was the debt of gratitude owed to Berry by none other than Berry himself, who never was above recycling his own hits. Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister growled the ‘Johnny B. Goode’ spin-off ‘Bye Bye Johnny,’ while Rosie Flores (who did a duck walk herself – in cowgirl boots, no less) revisited the ‘School Day’ rewrite ‘No Particular Place to Go.’

Among the other performers were Joe Bonamassa, Ronnie Hawkins, David Johansen, Steve Jordan, Vernon Reid, Duke Robillard and Ray Sharpe. Dave Alvin was a last-minute fill-in for M. Ward, who bowed out because of illness. Alvin kicked off the festivities with a primal rendition of the Berry travelogue ‘Promised Land.’

“I owe him a lot,” Alvin told the audience. “No matter what you play, you owe a lot to Chuck Berry.”

Three hours later, the guest of honor brought it all home with a brief appearance that fell somewhere between triumphant and bizarre.

Backed by a five-piece band that included his daughter Ingrid Berry Clay on vocals and harmonica and his son Charles Berry Jr. on guitar, Berry appeared to be enjoying himself, despite some missed cues during a loose stab at ‘Johnny B. Goode.’

Sporting a captain’s cap, Berry made it clear who was in charge — the occasional senior moment notwithstanding. When it was time to play the second song, he wondered aloud: “What was the second song?”

The band launched into ‘Reelin’ & Rockin’.’ Berry didn’t like what he heard, stomped his foot and cut off the intro. (Remember the grief that he gave poor Keith Richards in the 1987 documentary ‘Hail! Hail! Rock ‘’n’ Roll‘?) Fortunately for all involved, Berry was satisfied with the next try.

“Goodnight, good people,” he said before the grand finale: a shambolic all-star jam to the tune of ‘Rock & Roll Music.’ “We gotta go now,” Berry said. “Tears are filling my eyes, ladies and gentlemen. I’m 86 years old — and I’m glad to be anywhere!”

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