Chubby Checker often gets credit for freeing couples from dancing close together. His twist, they say, changed pop culture forever. Thursday night, at Alive at Five, 50 years since Checker’s twist hit the charts, he’s still relentlessly twisting.
He mostly sped from song to song — and through each song — covering a good portion of his two-dozen hits. He also sang other artists’ hits, like “(I Found My Thrill) On Blueberry Hill.” His sound is still quintessential early ’60s, though he drove hard a few, like “Twist it Up” and particularly “Dancin’ Party,” which was a bit rough.
There wasn’t as much dancing as you’d expect in the crowd. “Loddy Lo,” the perfect twist machine, did little to move them. Then came “Pony Time,” the kind of tune they play at your cousin’s corny wedding to get everyone on the floor. People shook a little, but the lid never blew, like other Alive at Fives.
“We’re going to do the hucklebuck. You couldn’t do the hucklebuck back in the ’60s. It was nasty. You could only do it in the privacy of your home. But now it’s 2010. Everything is nasty.” Of course the hucklebuck sounds no different than the now g-rated twist.
Nearly 70, Checker looked far younger, wearing skin-tight jeans, his same coiffed hair and build — not any chubbier.
During “A Whole Lotta Shakin’,” he hand-picked a collection of women — all ages, sizes, colors and weight — to join him on stage. He had them “shake it” one at a time. He had a good eye for “shakers” because they all put on a show of their own, some of them drawing the largest applause of the show. This was a fun portion of the show, and while it took away from the music, dancing was also a large part of his legacy.
He did a nice Smokey Robinson medley singalong, then some Elvis Presley — “when I shake this part of my body I want you all to scream” — followed by “Good Golly Miss Molly” before launching into his biggest hit, “The Twist,” the highlight of the night.
Because rain threatened all day the show took place under the highway along the river, a short walk from the intended Riverfront Theater. It’s a sensible — but infinitely less inviting — substitute location. While the rain never came, it never stopped threatening until the last 30 minutes of Checker’s set.
Another not particularly young man — 80-plus years old in this case — opened the show. Local institution Ernie Williams played his family friendly accessible blues for an hour. He delivered dependable, high-energy music that edged near several genres — mostly rock ’n’ roll — but never far from his blues. Songs included nice, lengthy sax and guitar solos, which reached high every time, as they should for an outdoor concert.
Guitarist David Malichowski toyed with the audience at some points before launching into crowd-pleasing licks. He can play blues for real, and he did a bit, but he also knew his place and the audience.
It’s always hard for a warm-up band, particularly performing underneath a highway, even when you’re the personable, Capital Region blues icon Ernie Williams. Williams played old stuff as well as some from his latest release.