Monday, September 07, 2015

Baby, you've (just about still) got what it takes...

Jerry Lee Lewis made sure to make a joke about it but his first visit to Britain was the beginning of the end for his first rock’n’roll reign.
"That was the 'good old days'," he sardonically drawled - before adding: "... that we had to modulate and bring up to better days..."
Thankfully, what he claims – to Metro, no less – will be his last tour to these shores will doubtless turn out only the latest triumph of a relentless career.
As his 2006 LP's title put it: Last Man Standing.
("Can I play the piano standing up? Man, I can play it lying down...")
Okay, maybe Chuck Berry and Little Richard may disagree. Although for all their rumoured feuds, Chuck turned up in a five-minute video tribute before Jerry Lee eventually took the stage, this Sunday night at the London Palladium…
Others shown giving him his dues included long late past compadres such as Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Sun Records supremo Sam Phillips.
As Perkins put it: "It was all over, playing piano for everyone else, because that was Jerry Lee Lewis..."


He truly is a survivor, as surprisingly highlighted by a stage invasion at the end of this Palladium gig including the likes of Ringo Starr and Robert Plant, handing him over an over-sized cake while dutifully chorusing along with “Happy Birthday To You”.
For once, if only briefly, the Jerry Lee assurance seemed to slip.
Perhaps evidence will emerge to suggest otherwise but this looked some authentic spontaneity amid a bill tightly and impressively organised and controlled, for all the main man himself remains unpredictable.
Even if the between-songs banter, infectious as it seemed in the moment, may well have been pre-practised: "Yeah, one of them out-of-tune pianos again..."
Opening act, introduced by (in)famous DJ Mike Read, admittedly full of informed “banter”, was someone he said could be described as Lady-va or Ladyva.
Ah, anyway, shy as she seemed, her winsomely-trickskyboogie-woogie piano-playing went down well and impressively, marking her out as surely more than simply the Swiss, er, Jools Holland…
Then came plenty of patter from Peter “and Gordon” Asher, backed by legendary and legendarily versatile guitarist Albert “Country Boy” Lee: duetting together on the Everlys’ “Bye Bye Love” before the McCartney-penned 1963 P&G hit “World Without Love”.
Asher – Jane’s brother, you know – did also deliver a nice line, mind, about being part of the “British invasion” of the US as being “90 per cent The Beatles, ten per cent the rest of us”.
His dialogue lines might have been even more enthralling had he not been kitted up in burgundy-tartan top and trousers, but he seemed endearing enough. Even without somehow performing that ever-arch 1966 hit, “Lady Godiva”.
Albert Lee remained on-stage to welcome – indeed, too self-deprecatingly abase himself before – James Burton, a lead guitarist whose CV beats most: Ricky Nelson, the Wrecking Crew, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley for the final decade of his life (well, his life that we know of, pending whether he really did die…
Burton, in motorbike acrylics and badges and backwards cap, eventually came into his own, riffing, when the venue and occasion’s natural bias towards a pounding piano eased off a bit.
And it was truly warming to hear and see Lee and Burton not simply tradin’ licks but tradin’ whippin’ licks, as they joyously rocked their way through "That’s Alright Mama" (“we’ve got to do an Elvis song”), "Hello Mary Lou" and "Suzie Q" (whose riff Burton made/at least mastered when aged 14 or 15)…
So, anyway. Quite the warm-up acts, Jerry Lee’s own sister then following for a few.
Of course it was all adeptly managed, the interval proving even more of an appetiser – Buddy Holly heavily featured amid the muzak soundtrack – for the birthday boy’s eventual arrival.
Finally, there Jerry Lee was – half-tottering, half-sauntering towards his piano in the middle of the stage.
And, then … yes, we’re off. Except that the workaday blues he was singing, he wasn’t touching a key. Before starting the set itself, he’d plonked a few fingers on the piano, given a “huh!”, then sat down and … not bothered to play another note for the next few minutes.
Ah, and then – well, then, he started… and that curious choreography of white slippers playing footsie with the pedals when those fingers – no, actually, more those arms – go into a natural pattern that seems almost robotic while the head’s turned entirely way.
Whisper it, but the piano-playing, as virtuoso and emphatic as ever, is the highlight of the evening.
He may no longer quite hammer those keys with the same ferocity as, say, like on that Live At The Star Club 1964 LP - but nevertheless comes surprisingly close.
Jerry may have given himself a career renaissance in the late Sixties as a more purely country artist – his "Green Green Grass Of Home" only shows up even more than anything the hollering blundering naffness of Tom Jones.
And yet ballads no longer really seem to suit him. Not that he doesn’t still have that rich baritone, that sharply taunting timbre not necessarily warm and yet always self-assured – the audible raised eyebrow of his "What’d I Say", for example…
But, alas, tonight, for all his piano-playing remains on point, his singing doesn’t always sound quite on-pitch. If needing to pay too much attention, that is.
"Whole Lotta Shakin’" and "Great Balls Of Fire", on the other hand – both surging in after deliberately-misleading piano intros – are about as exhilarating as could be expected. Once, that is, he has demanded and received a drink. A bottle of Coke.
Walking, talking, running, singing – never mind the melodies, just rock along with the roll.
And, yes, he still rolls, rocks, much more than anyone could reasonably expect of such a survivor, even one appearing a little like Paul Whitehouse playing a character amalgam of Johnny Cash and Harry Grout.
The £10 commemorative – yeah, glossy but thin, but still – concert programme ends with a portrait of JLL and his present wife, emphasising how happy they are. Happy to hear it.
Turbulent past unmentioned. Poor ex-partners, no sign.
His name is Jerry Lee Lewis, comes from Louisiana – goin’ to play you a little boogie on this here piano...
Yeah, this Killer’s instincts can’t but be ever got away with, somehow.
Pounding those pedals, letting that left hand instinctively simmer while the right one runs free with frills. Jerry Lee remains impeccably irresistibly blasé.

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