Mad Lad — A Live Tribute to Chuck Berry
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
It’s not exactly a stretch for Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood to tackle the songbook of arguably America’s most distinguished and storied rock and roller. After all, he’s been playing these licks, and in the case of “Little Queenie” one of these songs, since joining the Stones in 1975 and before that in the Faces and the Jeff Beck Group. He could probably roll through these nine Berry tracks (plus an original and a cover of “Worried Life Blues” that Berry recorded) in his sleep.
But Wood is too much of a devotee to not take this — the first of three albums that pay tribute to his influences — seriously. Wood hired a solid band featuring pianist Ben Waters (who released a 2011 tribute to Stones’ keyboardist Ian Stewart with guests Jagger, Wood and Richards) and singer Imelda May (a roots star in her own right) to crank out Berry’s hits and obscurities with energy and enthusiasm.
Since this is geared towards Berry and Stones fans, the decision to include oldies that have already been done to death like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Back in the USA” and “Rock n Roll Music” is frustrating. Certainly “Little Queenie,” that often appears in the Stones sets, could have been replaced with something more obscure. While Wood and band give it their all, the album is far more successful when digging into Chuck’s voluminous catalog to reveal deeper, less well-known nuggets. Tunes like the boogie-woogie “Almost Grown,” the slow blues of “Wee Wee Hours,” the chugging “Talking About You” and the instrumental title track that features Wood’s bittersweet, raw, slide guitar show different sides of Berry’s talent.
Wood has a hefty list of releases under his name, but as a vocalist he’s a notch less effective than his Stones’ buddy Keith Richards. Which is to say he talk-sings his way through the material, getting by on gusto more than singing talent. Much better is Imelda May, who burns through only a few selections — her “Wee Wee Hours” is an album highlight — and should have been given more chances to sparkle. While two saxes are listed in the credits, they also are underutilized and barely there in the mix. And at 40 minutes this runs short for a live show.
All that said, it’s an awful lot of fun. Wood and band are clearly enjoying themselves, pianist Waters — featured in two large photos in the booklet — shines throughout and the party vibe is contagious enough to make this a success not just as a tribute to Berry, but as a showcase for Wood, one of his most celebrated fans.