I haven’t forgotten the first time I saw Chubby Checker.
It was around 1980 or so, and I was reviewing for Variety when he opened for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison. He had a young rock ‘n’ roll band that was full of energy, and he made Frankie look tired and boring in comparison. After his set I told him about my friends Dr. Bop & the Headliners who were playing at a campus club and sure enough, he went down there and sat in.
I thought of Chubby Monday night at City Winery, when Eric Burdon did the first of his two-night stand there. The last time I saw him he was with a band made up of guys in his age range, that is, middle and older, now that he’s 75. He was great, they were great, but I will note that he sat on a stool a lot of the time. Maybe he had to—but not now: His band now is made up of youngsters and there was no stool in sight. And when he sang “When I Was Young”—which smoothly segued into “Inside Looking Out”—well, he sounded none the worse for 50 years of wear as one of rock’s greatest vocalists.
He opened with his 1970 hit with War, “Spill the Wine,” his bass player Justin Andres laying out a funky bottom from which Burdon modified the lines “When I thought I’d lay myself down to rest/In a big field of tall grass” to a big field of “medical marijuana”—in Mexican accent. Ruben Salinas added a blazing sax answer to “I could feel hot flames of fire roaring at my back,” and on “See See Rider” trombonist Evan Mackey took a lead.
Other Animals classics performed included “Don’t Bring Me Down” (featuring another great sax part), the anthems “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which Eric dedicated to “the spirit” of its originator, “Miss Nina Simone”–then related how he was introduced to her, upon which she said, “You’re the little white motherfucker who took my song and ruined it!”
He sang Lead Belly’s folk standard “In the Pines,” his “Bo Diddley Special” tribute from his latest album ‘Til Your River Runs Dry (opening with a tuneful dirge during which guitarist Johnzo West reverently placed his hat over his heart and Eric and the rest did the same with their hands), and of course, his Animals signature “The House of the Rising Sun,” really hitting those high notes solid.
“Hitting all the notes in all the original keys,” marveled the great guitarist and Conan bandleader Jimmy Vivino in a post-show tweet. “No small feat. Just wonderful to hear that voice and songs again.”
He even threw in “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” the Randy Newman song that he recorded before Three Dog Night hit big with it, and Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” But maybe the night’s big takeaway came in his self-penned 1967 hit “Monterey,” about the legendary California pop festival and in which he invoked the participants Ravi Shankar, The Who, The Dead, Hendrix, Hugh Masakela and Brian Jones. “You want to find the truth in life?” he asked/sang the lyric. “Don’t pass music by…and you know I would not lie!”
And then he shared the wonderful story about how a girl handed him a white rose while Otis Redding was performing, and in keeping with the overall vibe, he ate it.