The Killer still possesses much of his old menace.
His 2010 album Mean Old Man had appeared to be Lewis’s swansong, his final forceful statement, but now a follow-up called Rock & Roll Time has arrived. Released this week, it’s an impressive collection of songs, combining all of its creator’s obsessions with rock’n’roll, boogie woogie, gospel and country music. Starry guests abound, including Keith Richards and Robbie Robertson. On the same day it came out Rick Bragg’s biography of Lewis was published, with its subject’s full support.
This gig at BB’s Club and Grill, just a stroll from Times Square, presented the 79-year-old Lewis in a less diverse form. The audience had been seated for almost two hours before the show began, seizing the unreserved tables closest to the stage. Then, at 8pm, local bluesman Jon Paris played his rock’n’roll set, peaking with Link Wray’s Rumble. The Lewis combo entered, most hailing from Memphis, and, taking a song’s lead vocals in turn, warmed up for their leader.
After about 30 minutes, Lewis came onstage and launched into Chuck Berry’s Little Queenie. He is dressed in a subdued fawn jacket and blue trousers, but with a glitter-spangled handkerchief in his breast pocket. Seated side-saddle, with the microphone stand characteristically placed between his legs, he proceeded to flay the keys with full finger-splays punctuated by single-digit stabs, followed by flowing ripples from low to high notes. His old pianistic style remains intact.
The traditional See See Rider Blues reveals a voice that might sometimes veer away from the tune, but Lewis still sounds authoritative and tough, with a swaggering delivery. When it came to his holy trinity of hits, the power is sustained for the duration, as Roll Over Beethoven, Great Balls Of Fire and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On follow in quick succession, the latter benefiting from a stuttering scat breakdown in the middle.
As Lewis struck his walking cane on the high keys with a sense of finality, there was a feeling of dread as these songs were trotted out, climaxing at barely 30 minutes after he’d taken to the stage. Indeed, this was actually the end, the man’s frailty only becoming apparent as he stood up to leave. If the audience felt that $130 worked out somewhat pricey for such a brief showing, it could console itself with the sheer concentrated nature of these songs, which lie at the very heart of rock’n’roll history.
This article was written by Martin Longley, for theguardian.com on Friday 31st October 2014 19.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010