By Ivor Levene
What goes into a Rolling Stones tour?
It's a question that’s probably older than most of you reading this article, and the answers depend entirely on who’s answering the question.
To the casual fan, The Rolling Stones have always been around; a band that stops in a neighboring city every once in a while and plays all the radio staples heard thousands of times on classic rock radio. To the hardcore fan, the Stones are literally “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band,” a term coined by tour manager Sam Cutler in 1969 and a term the band have tried to live up to for 50 years. To the people who live in the cities the Stones play in, the band is a bounty of employment opportunity, lifting local economies briefly. To the more permanent members of the “company” — from the promoters to the crew — the Stones are probably the best employer/client they have ever had.
The Stones really invented the modern touring machine that we know today. They were the first band to hang the sound system, liberating the entire stage as a kind of rock and roll playing field. This isn’t your grandfather’s road crew, consisting of a handful of roadies and the odd electrician. The Stones employ an army of people to pull off a show, and the list of their occupations sounds like a city’s department of public works. There are structural engineers, audio technicians, lighting people, stage designers, stage assemblers, logistics crews, security, freight crews, pilots, guitar techs, drum techs, their own ticketing company, hair, wardrobe, makeup, accountants, lawyers and apparently three cardiologists.
Why the Stones tour frequently (endlessly!) is as much a mystery as to how Mick Jagger, mere weeks after heart valve replacement, can run up and down a stage for over two hours. Not only are Jagger’s physical capabilities a mystery, there’s something afoot with the band themselves; they seem lit up and tighter than they’ve been since the Steel Wheels tour. Perhaps, the rest of the band are on the McDiet or the Mick diet. After what has become the best six words in the English language, “Ladies and gentleman, The Rolling Stones,” Keith Richards bounds out onto the stage, followed by Ronnie Wood, drummer Charlie Watts and finally Jagger, weapons blazing. They seem to start every show during this current No Filter tour like a locomotive just leaving a station, powerful and full of resolve with a great deal of noise and fanfare. And just like a locomotive, a head of steam is built, and the train is speeding through the landscape.
The first leg of the No Filter tour started in the same place that the band’s blues roots started: Chicago. On the first of two dates there, there was palpable electricity in the air, along with the threat of rain. Everyone wondered at this point, will Mick be more cautious? Will the band be slower? Are there really doctors standing by in case Mick pushes himself too hard? The Stones have nothing to prove to anyone at this point, and Mick is going to do just that. Not one to reflect back, it’s as though nothing happened. I fully expected the roar of the crowd to lift Mick up, to compel him to stop because he’s being drowned out by love and affection, much the way Keith is at times. Mick was having none of it as usual; he lets his actions and the band’s actions do the talking. Pow! … Mick is at the end of the catwalk. Boom! … He’s running across the stage.
How does this corporation function, though? Casting aside how the band itself works (or doesn’t), this leaves the touring machine. Some of the band members themselves seem to be at a loss, or are they all reading from the same playbook? It’s hard to tell at times, and after interviewing many members of the “backline,” I’m not sure I know myself. There are clues everywhere, mostly garnered by the Stones Mafia, a collection of insiders, record company people, friends of the band and the people who know someone. Some of the information is traded publicly; sometimes it’s private. One of the biggest components of The Rolling Stones corporation is the fan, and it can be argued that there isn’t a band around who can compare with the rabid fandom that has surrounded them for more than 50 years.
The Stones Mafia has taken a few different forms over the years, finally morphing into its current state, a kind of “dark web” of fandom. The Stones Mafia has members all over the globe, speaking in tongues, and their currency is knowledge. Knowledge of what all the different people involved in a tour or recordings are doing, where they’re doing it and when it’s being done. Very few people have the whole picture, but the information passes from person to person until a handful of people know when the next tour or record is coming. Some say that Mick Jagger himself lurks in the background, never revealing himself, but reading much of what is written, keeping himself abreast of the pulse of the fans.
Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie (The Core Four) are pretty tight-lipped about most of this, and to get a glimpse of what makes the band tick on the road, you need to speak with the other guys. They’re freer with their information, easier to access, and seem to generally enjoy the whole press process, not making it seem like it’s an onerous task. Talking to some band members, you’d almost think you were talking to a person you’ve known as a friend. They may perform on the biggest stage in the world with the world’s greatest rock and roll band, but they don’t act like it. Offstage, they are as down-to-earth and friendly as can be. Both Darryl Jones and Bernard Fowler have invited me into their hotel rooms to chat on a couple of occasions during the tour. Chuck Leavell spoke with me between takes during the filming of his PBS TV series, America’s Forests With Chuck Leavell.
A Rolling Stones tour almost always starts out in the same place, in a nondescript building in London, in early December. We know it’s early December because of Keith’s birthday, December 18, which he always likes to spend in Turks and Caicos with his immediate and extended family. Mick likes to take off for Mustique around the same time, so the yearly meeting must be held prior to the holiday season. Typically, the decision as to where the band will tour is made between four to six months prior to the actual tour, with the announcement from the band coming between three and four months prior to the opening date.
PREPARING FOR A TOUR
Because a Stones tour is literally a moving city, there are many things that go into preparing for a tour, from physical regimens, to acoustics and lighting, to itineraries. Schedules are blown to bits; plans are made, changed, and made again.
GM: What kind of preparations do you have to do before you go out on the road?
CHUCK LEAVELL (pianist/keyboadist, musical director): You know, I believe in the old adage of “The Five P’s” — Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. I live by that and will always, no matter whether it’s The Stones or somebody else. I start a regimen of practicing every day for a period of time before going on tour, or before even rehearsal starts, to make sure that I’m confident in what I’m doing and confident in my abilities. And other than that, it’s a matter of listening, going back. And I do have the database in printed form, and in my computer, of all The Rolling Stones songs. These days, it’s pretty easy to research what's on any given tour, what you’ve been doing for the most part. And so, you know, I’ll look at all of that. Sometimes passing emails to the guys and saying, “Look, do you have any thoughts before we go into rehearsal about songs you think you’d like to try out? And by the way, here’s my thoughts.” So there is some preparation done before we get together and get into the room to start the process.
DARRYL JONES (bassist): I prepare for an upcoming tour by getting into as good a physical shape as I can; though I admit, some tours I do better than others. I enjoy weightlifting and mitt work, which is what you sometimes see in the dressing rooms of boxers prior to a fight or during their training sessions. The trainer has pads on his hands and the boxer, or in my case, non-boxer, throws combinations of punches that the trainer “catches” on the mitts. Perfect for me because it allows me to develop boxing technique without those pesky potential concussions from being repeatedly punched in the head. Walking up a steep hill or a series of stairs is another one of the things I do to get in shape.
Musically, I listen to any new material they may have decided to add to the set. I might work a little with Mick on bass tones. He seems to like more aggressive sounds. A little overdrive or distortion. Sometimes other effects depending on what the song needs. Mostly preparing just involves running the tunes and trying things. We follow song forms but no one’s parts are written in stone. It is, after all, rock and roll.
TIM RIES (saxophonist): If we’ve been touring for three months or whatever, or total three months with the rehearsal and everything else, everyone’s been away from home. And so it’s kind of a sad day and also havoc. We know that all the tours are fun and everyone gets along well and we have a great time performing. And, you know, over the years you get to know the fans well and they come to a lot of the gigs, and so the last concert is always a little bit of a sad kind of moment because you kind of think everyone wants to go home for a while to get some rest, but then it’s kind of like, well, hopefully we’ll do it again. Just based on the fact that this tour happened with Mick getting sick, it shows you the fragility of life. He was practicing and started feeling weird and it turned out to be a bad valve in his heart. On another one of the tours, Keith hit his head. There are just all these things beyond just the logistics and the fact that you’ve got to stay healthy to tour.
Why include anything about band rehearsals in an article? Why would anyone be interested in band rehearsals? Because with The Rolling Stones, information about when, where and what they rehearse are passed along between the super fans. No matter which city the band rehearses in, there will be spies there, stationed out on the street, as close as possible to the rehearsal space, listening in. Typically, over the past 30 years, the band has held rehearsals in Toronto, London, Paris and Los Angeles. The 2013 and 2015 tours were rehearsed in Los Angeles, and I was one of the “spies” there. I didn’t report on entire set lists, but I did stick around long enough to record them doing “Get Off Of My Cloud.”
Super fans are extremely protective about the location of the rehearsals, and they never reveal it in public, much to the chagrin of all the readers on public forums. What they do, however, is report on which songs the band rehearses, which comes back around to all the set list whiners. Typically, you’ll hear that the band have rehearsed some deep track that hardcore fans have been waiting their whole lives to hear, only to be deflated by the usual set list, wondering why the band didn’t play what they rehearsed. Some insist that the band are teasing fans by doing this. And, on a few rare occasions, the band have actually invited the rehearsal spies inside, to watch them run through a few numbers. Talk about an intimate show! Imagine going to a Stones show with only a handful of people in the audience.
GM: Let’s talk about the rehearsals. When you’re in rehearsal, and I’ve actually been at a couple of them, it’s a pretty deep list of songs that gets rehearsed. You play some songs that the diehard fans would lose their sh*t to hear live, like “Fingerprint File” or “Slave.” You guys rehearse these songs, the “spies” report on it and then the band never plays them live. Do you guys do this just to loosen up, or to piss off the stalkers?
BERNARD FOWLER (backing vocalist): No, it’s just to see how the songs work, whether the band likes it enough or agrees to do it. You know, we go through those songs just in case we need to play them; there’s a long list of songs to choose from.
GM: I was at the rehearsals in 2013 and 2015 and I heard the band playing some of their very early hits, yet we never hear these at the shows.
TIM RIES: Well, the rehearsals are just a time for everyone to get ready for the tour and they sometimes choose songs they haven’t done in a long time. Like “She’s a Rainbow” or “Harlem Shuffle.” I don’t think we’ve played “Harlem Shuffle” since the early ’80s. It’s just like, “Hey, let’s try this.” I think we only did it once on this tour, in New York. Sometimes we’ll go through 60 songs in rehearsal, and then maybe whittle it down to about 40 songs, and then each night we take about 20. And then they throw some of the ones that we did at rehearsal, again, like the “Harlem Shuffle.” We rehearse how we got it ready, let’s do that during the sound check that day, and let’s put it in at night. There’s such a huge catalog of songs to choose from. And it’s whatever it’s getting. It’s their band and it’s their choice what material they want to do, and we’re just there to do it.
GM: Rehearsals typically happen a few weeks prior to the tour. What can you tell me about a rehearsal's atmosphere?
KARL DENSON (saxophonist): The rehearsals are my favorite part of the entire thing; I get the chance to hear songs that never get played live. The catalog is vast, and what the band is doing is “trying the songs on” like pieces of clothing, to see what fits and what doesn’t.
GM: But for the most part, the set list is kind of carved in stone, with maybe a bit of wiggle room around the song vote, and them throwing in a rare gem here and there, so why do them?
KD: Kind of for the enjoyment of the people in the room. The atmosphere is completely different, there’s no pressure from the fans, or press, or anybody. It’s the only time the band gets to completely be at ease.
CHUCK LEAVELL: Rehearsals are a lot about preparation for the next show, drafting a set list, doing some research to see what the set list was the prior time we played any given city and maybe even the time before that. It also involves looking at song choices for what we call “the vote song,” or there’s a “by request” song we put up for every show. So, go through the choices for that, and we’ll submit that for approval. And then, of course, the role of musical director is something that has morphed over time, probably starting back in 1989 with the Steel Wheels tour; a week when we had a rather extensive rehearsal period, and it wasn’t just me. But everyone felt like we should explore the body of work and come up with a longer list of songs to choose from to bring to the stage.
Prior to that tour, most of the time the set list was assigned from the beginning of the tour to the end of the tour. I certainly wanted to encourage everyone to have a broader view of the choices. At that point in time, during the Steel Wheels rehearsals, I began to take serious notes listing all the songs that we did rehearse. What were the arrangements? Did we have horns on it? What were the horn parts? What were the background vocals? Did we change the arrangement for any reason? How did it feel during the rehearsals? Did it feel like something that could be good to bring to the stage? And through the years I built on those notes.
So every time we had a rehearsal for a tour or any little spontaneous things that might have gone on, I started keeping notes about those issues. And so as time went on, I became the person to go to with the questions concerning the arrangements or those types of issues. And that led to me drafting the day-to-day rehearsal songs. And then, you know, that leads to actually doing a bit of conducting on stage for certain songs. If there’s any question that the guys have about when the solo comes or when the bridge is coming or if we have a modulation in a song. I set the tempos as well for a lot of the songs that we do on stage. So it’s, it’s a multifaceted role. And basically I just see it as doing my best to keep everybody on track and to make everybody as comfortable as possible, both during the rehearsals and during the concert.
GM: How do you keep track of all this? When you started this in the Steel Wheels days, I’m imagining it was all done by hand. How do you do it now?
CL: Well, it is still done by hand. I have these two rather encyclopedic notebooks of all the notes that I’ve taken starting back with Steel Wheels and I’ve probably got, I would think somewhere around 250 or so songs. And these notes are all alphabetized. So the first volume is A to M, and then the second volume is everything after that. And they’re all in clear plastic sheets, all arranged nicely. So if I need to refer to them I certainly can during rehearsals or if we’re doing a sound check or whatever the case may be. So you know, that’s what’s been the process, and it’s a role that I really enjoy.
THE SET LIST
A Rolling Stones set list typically looks something like this: The opening song can vary from show to show, but it’s usually down to three songs — “Street Fighting Man,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Start Me Up.” After that, the next four songs can vary, and this is basically where the “variety” of the set list occurs. Those four songs can be almost anything. Sometimes it will be a more current song, like “Out of Control” or “Doom and Gloom,” the latter of which is a fan favorite in South America. This is followed by the “song vote,” a portion of the show where fans are invited to vote for one of four songs. After the song vote, Mick introduces the band, leaving Keith for last, allowing the show to segue into the Keith Richards mini-set, which consists of two songs that were sung by Keith originally. After that comes what diehard fans describe as “the warhorse parade,” songs that are pretty much carved in stone. More times than not, the show ends with “Satisfaction,” followed by a display of pyrotechnics and the big bow.
Within that paragraph is an encapsulation of every diehard fan’s gripe about the set list. These fans are known as “set list whiners,” diehards who go to show after show to essentially see the same thing, and then complain about it. How long have they been around? Since the second concert the band ever played back in 1962. The first show the band ever played was on July 12, 1962. The very next night when they played, people complained in print about them not playing the same songs they played the night before. And fans haven’t stopped complaining since. Up until 1989, it was a different model. Before then, it was the typical model of record a new album, tour and play songs from it, with some of the old songs thrown in. Nowadays, they stick to the aforementioned model.
To sum it up, the diehard fans continue to follow the band from city to city, while actively complaining about the repetitive nature of the set list. They refer to the radio staples that the band plays as “warhorses,” songs like “Satisfaction,” “Start Me Up,” “Miss You” and pretty much all the Stones hits that casual fans know. They hope against all odds that the band are going to cough up the deep tracks, like “Slave,” “Fingerprint File,” etc.
Here’s what some of the band members had to say regarding the set lists:
GM: I read the interview that you did in Forbes magazine where you talk about 60 percent of the set list or songs that you’ve got to play. The diehard fans call them the warhorses, the classic songs that are carved in stone, the ones you have to play. You’ve got 40 percent of a set list to play with, there’s a lot of room in there for a lot of the songs that the diehards want to hear. I see a lot of Stones shows, and it doesn’t seem like 40 percent of any set list is up for grabs. And I’m sure you’ve seen this online where you’ve got the diehard fans bitching about the songs that they want to hear, and then you’ve got all the people that are the casual fans who don’t want to hear those songs, they want to hear the “warhorses.”
CHUCK LEAVELL: Sure. And that’s going to be a constant issue no matter what. You’re never going to please all the people all the time; it’s just not going to happen. So you have to kind of accept that and go for the best balance you can. You know, there are other issues, too. The length of the show; personally, I’d like to see that length extended, but you know, I have to do what my bosses tell me to do. If we had an extra two, three, four, five songs, it would be a lot easier to please those hardcores. But you know, I’m under what I’m told to do in terms of the length of the set. So with that said, I think we did “It’s Only Rock and Roll” once on this tour.
We had to pull something to get something a little bit different from time to time, but look, you’re going to have some people upset if you don’t do “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Start Me Up,” “Satisfaction” or “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I mean, those are iconic songs, not just from The Rolling Stones but also from rock and roll history. It’s very difficult for me to make a guess as to what percentage of the fans are coming to see The Rolling Stones for the first time or perhaps second. But that’s how I would gamble to say that that’s a large percent of the people that walk in the door — you know, it’s really difficult to put a number on that. But the point being that those songs are very important to those folks. You know, they played the records, they listened to those songs. They stream them now. You know, they hear ’em on XMSirius radio and those are in large part of the songs that they come and pay a rather large amount of money to hear. So I think it’s really important that we play those songs.
GM: Sure, those are FM staples. I know you’ve got to play them. It just seems a lot of people don’t agree. It’s the hardcore fans. I don’t know if you ever go online and read some of these forums where people are discussing this topic. IORR.org comes to mind.
CL: I used to more than I do now, but I did enough to know what the situation is and, you know, I hear them. But again, if we could do a two-and-a-half-hour set, a lot of that could change, but we’re not going to be doing that because that’s not what they want to do. So you know, you gotta work with what you’ve got.
GM: Sure. I know there’s some people that want you to do “Slave” and stretch that out to a 20-minute jam.
CL: Hey listen, I would love to do “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” more often, but that eats up two songs and we have done it, as you well know. But again, you know, you just gotta go with what parameters you are given. I do anyway. So when I draft up these set lists, that’s what I have to play by.
BERNARD FOWLER: There are certain songs they have to do. You know, that some of those songs, they HAVE TO play! They have to play them every time they play, they have to. And that doesn’t leave a lot of room for the abstract or unpopular. They know they need to have the majority of fans leave that show and feel like they’ve SEEN them, you know?
GM: I guess you are sort of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. All told, the hardcore fans wish that the band would bust out “Monkey Man,” “Slave” and all the jam songs. They constantly complain about the “warhorse” songs, yet they still go to all the shows.
BF: Well, maybe they should keep complaining….
GM: Why? Is the band going to take notice? Do they go online and read all this complaining?
BF: Oh, they hear it. They’ll hear it. Believe me, hell yeah!
TIM RIES: These shows are filled with people who haven’t seen The Stones in 20 years, and they’re paying $500 for a ticket, and they want to hear “Brown Sugar,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Satisfaction” and “Gimme Shelter.” They want to hear those hits. Sure, the band could play 20 songs that only the real diehard fans want to hear. Both the band and the fans would love it if they did a whole night of that, but the majority of people in a huge stadium are not those hardcore fans. It sounds like you’re one of those hardcore fans, so you should remember the tour where we did a stadium, and arena and a small club. We didn’t do it in every city, but we did it in a few of them, and we did a ton of stuff that we hadn’t done before. That was a very unique tour. I don’t know if we’ll do one again like that, but never say never.
GM: Does the band ever take into account what the super fans are saying on certain “fan forums”?
KARL DENSON: I don’t know that the band ever takes anything away from fan forums; a lot of it is about which songs Mick and Keith want to play. And it’s true, there are certain songs that have to be played or else the majority of the fans will feel cheated.
THE SONG VOTE
During every Stones show, there is an audience participation song called the “song vote.” In the days that precede any given show, fans are invited to go online and vote for one of four songs chosen by the band, and the song with the most votes gets played in that spot. There are large numbers of super fans who doubt the honesty of the song vote, claiming it’s fixed, pre-determined or completely false. For evidence, some point to the fact that Ron Wood paints a set list of every single show on a canvas, an hour or so before the show takes place, and the song vote choice is already painted on it, yet the band says that they don’t know which song is going to win the vote until the moment they reveal the results of the vote onstage. It’s almost like a rock and roll version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
I wanted to know the mechanics of how the song vote takes place, whether or not it is indeed fixed, and why they do it.
GM: Let’s talk about the song vote. Sometimes it seems like the song vote is dead on, exactly what you expect, and other times it’s like, where did that come from?
CHUCK LEAVELL: Yeah, we’re sometimes surprised. I’m probably batting about 70 percent on what my guess is that the fans would vote for. But you know, there’s 30 percent of the time that I get really surprised and Mick feels the same way, you know? And we try to. I mean, listen, we play by the rules on that, you know, whatever the fans vote on, that’s what we play. Sometimes it’s tempting to cheat on it, but we don’t do that. I would like to see an even broader spectrum of songs under that. There are other issues that you have to deal with. Like for instance, ballads. You know, Mick doesn’t like to do too many ballads. We usually only do one per gig. In the past there has been times when we would talk about doing a little ballad section. So maybe you do “Angie” and “Wild Horses” together. Or maybe you do “Sweet Virginia” and “Let It Bleed,” which is more of a medium-tempo song and then do a ballad along with it. But again, it is an issue if the band only wants to play X amount of minutes a night. That leaves you having to make some choices.
GM: I bet it does. “Harlem Shuffle” was played once on this tour; that song hadn’t been performed live since the Urban Jungle tour in 1990.
CL: Yeah, I think so, and that was a vote song as I recall. And yeah, you just never know. I think it’s been up for vote before and had not made the cut, but you know, that is a fun part of the set, I must say. And I enjoy having a nice list of things to choose from to make suggestions for that spot.
GM: Does the band ever control which songs make it into the choices for song vote?
CL: I mean, sometimes one of the guys says, “No, I don’t really want to do this” or “Don’t put it up.” And again, I have to live and work by what my employers want to do. But listen, we have a lot of fun working on those things together.
GM: It seems in concert that the band know exactly which song's going to be picked for the song vote. Is the song vote real?
BERNARD FOWLER: Keep complaining, that’s what I say….
GM: I’m going to bet that the song that gets picked tomorrow night (Chicago 2) is either “Monkey Man” or “Harlem Shuffle.” (Note: The song picked was indeed “Monkey Man”) I always think it’s kind of a preset thing, like the band already know which song they’re going to play. I’m going to point to the fact that there are so many guitar changes made between Keith and Ronnie, and they’re always ready to go with a specific guitar for a specific song.
BF: Well, I’m not privy to that. I just know when they say, “OK, well, tonight’s this song,” and I sometimes think, “Oh man, I wish that wasn’t the song! I wish we were playing another song.” You know, again, that list of songs to choose from has got to be limited. It’s got to, you have to limit it, you just have to. There’s no way some of the things that people wish we were playing could all be played. Where would you stop?
GM: Sure, 90 percent of the audience would sit there wondering, “What the hell is this?” because they have never heard it on the radio.
BF: Absolutely right.
One of the most esoteric yet fascinating things to dissect about the band is the dynamics of interaction that take place on stage. There are subtle cues, lighting cues, scripts projected onto monitors, and stage directions being fed into in-ear monitors. This isn’t a show from the 1970s; the entire thing is choreographed, but even with that amount of control, there’s still a human element to a show. As music director, Chuck Leavell had some unique insights.
GM: You mentioned that on the stage you do a lot of the cueing, is that an organic thing that you’re just playing and they follow you, or are there visual cues?
CHUCK LEAVELL: Visual cues. And I try to be very discreet about it, you know. I don’t want to be trying to wave my arms too much. I mean, sometimes that is required to give the ending of the song, or certain places may require a little bit more attention than others, but I’ll try to keep it very discreet. Even sometimes, just eye contact, small motions of the hand, small signals of these reverse seafood grocer; you know, there’s sometimes pointing to whoever may be featured at any given moment, that kind of thing.
GM: That must be why a Stones show is so slick.
CL: Well, I don’t know about that.
GM: What’s funny is a lot of the people that are up in the front; they love to see the mistakes.
CL: Well, it’s true. And those things are going to be inevitable. And that’s part of the charm of The Stones.
GM: Yeah, it is. It gives one the sense that it’s not all pre-packaged.
CL: And we all love it, too. We get a laugh out of it, you know. I will say that that has been a lesson learned for me as a professional, that and other musical situations I would’ve been in the past before I ever worked with the Stones. You know, I would tend to get upset if someone plays the wrong part or somebody screwed up on stage and, you know, doing that with the Stones and realizing that’s just kind of part of the dynamics from time to time. It doesn’t happen every gig by the means, as you know, it might happen once every 10 gigs or something, or 12 or 15. But it’s kind of helped me to laugh at myself, to laugh at others and to not, you know … not, “Hey, it’s only rock and roll,” but it’s helped my attitude immensely to have that lesson learned.
GM: In Chicago for the tour opener, with the whole “Paint It, Black” thing, it was a false start.
CL: We all had a funny moment trying to wave Keith down and he was like, “Well, what are they doing?” He had launched into “Midnight Rambler” and the rest of the band was starting “Paint It, Black.” That was fantastic!
GM: When it comes to the dynamics of playing keyboards, do you weave any of the parts with (keyboardist) Matt Clifford? Kind of the way Keith and Ronnie do?
CL: Well, I’m more of the organic player and I’m going to be playing the “meat and potatoes” for the most part; meaning piano and Hammond Organ and maybe a Wurlitzer. And with Matt, he’s very good at orchestrations. So anything like strings on “Angie,” or maybe a sitar sound on “Paint It, Black” or any sounds like that; that enhance or that might be on the record with a Mellotron for instance, on “She’s a Rainbow” or … we haven’t done “2000 Light Years from Home” in a long time, but Matt handled the Mellotron part on that. So, you know, those are the issues that he and I look at. There might be certain songs where in the past when Matt wasn’t with us, as I would do both piano and organ at the same time. But now, with him there, I can choose one or the other and let him handle the other side of it. So we work really well together. Matt’s a close friend. He’s very close to Mick as well. And of course, you know, he spends a lot more time with Mick, as they both live in London, at least some of the time. It’s pretty easy and comfortable for he and I to work things out.
GM: Do you and Karl play off of each other kind of in the same way that Keith and Ronnie do, what they call “the ancient art of weaving of guitars”? Do you ever weave saxophones parts?
TIM RIES: We do. Because we’re right next to each other, physically we’re close, but also we hear each other from our monitors so we try to play as a section in a way. And then Matt on keyboards also is playing a lot of stuff with us. So it’s kind of the three of us is this horn/keyboard section. Matt Clifford has these sounds that kind of emulate chords that bring up to the two saxes, so it sounds almost like a full section. After playing together for so long, we kind of know what the other’s going to do and how we’re going to approach it. If there’s some new tune we haven’t done in a while, it’s just a matter of having the sensibility of playing with each other. So it’s a different kind of weaving. And then if he or I do gigs on the side, either his or mine, then we get a chance to play and that’s when we do more of what you’re talking about.
GM: How much of what you do is improvised?
TR: There are certain songs that originally had horn parts in them, like (songs) on Sticky Fingers or whatever, and we have to play as close to the original as possible. Then there are some songs that didn’t necessarily have parts that maybe we add parts to, depending on the song, like “Monkey Man.”
GM: If Matt Clifford is more closely integrated with you and Karl, is Chuck Leavell more integrated with other people in the band? Is that the reason that there are two different keyboard players?
TR: Matt sort of bridges the rhythm section because he’s got two or three keyboards on his rack, and he can play piano sounds. He can make organ sounds, like a Fender Rhodes. He can make string sounds or make it sound like a low brass or a trumpet. So he kind of does a lot of different sounds. So there’s times he’s playing with Chuck, and while Chuck’s playing an organ sound, he’ll play a piano sound, or vice versa. Or if Karl and I are playing a horn part, he’ll join us and play a horn part. What Matt does is an integral part of the band; it’s a bridge between the horns and the rhythm section.
GM: Has anything changed for you since Bobby Keys (saxophonist) departed?
TR: I’ve played hundreds of gigs with this guy, standing next to him and I really liked Bobby a lot. He was a very unique individual and I miss him a lot; he was just such a great character. His sound was very identifiable and he created a certain thing. He just did. It was like, “That’s Bobby Keys!” The way he played and his solos were a part of the song. It really became like another verse or something. Unfortunately, Bobby got sick and died. Karl Denson came on and Karl’s a great guy and a great musician and, yes, he’s very different. You know you’re not going to replace Bobby; you bring in a good person. And Karl has fit in really well.
GM: How hard was it to step into Bobby’s shoes?
KARL DENSON: Well, as far as playing his parts, it wasn’t that hard. That’s not to say that Bobby was easily replaced, and I was given a certain amount of freedom in how I play those parts. Nobody has ever complained that I’m not playing anything right. It’s very sad that Bobby passed away; he seemed like the life of the party. When anyone in the band mentions Bobby, it’s always with a laugh or a chuckle; everybody remembers the good times they had with him.
A discussion of The Rolling Stones inevitably includes something about their combined age, how long they’ve been touring, why they keep doing it. I’ve seen more concert reviews than I care to remember that start with something like, “With a combined age of…” Let’s face it, The Rolling Stones are without precedent, and who cares what age they are? As long as they keep playing and everyone keeps going, it just doesn’t matter. Ask any member of the band, and you’ll get something similar yet stronger, and rightfully so.
GM: What’s the secret to the longevity and the tightness of the band these days? It seems over the years that the group just keeps getting tighter and tighter.
CHUCK LEAVELL: The band these days has really hit a consistency and I love that. I think it’s largely because we haven’t been taking long periods of time off. I mean, you know, we take months off, but since 2012 we’ve pretty much toured every year. When it becomes difficult is when you don’t tour for two or three years or whatever it might be. You know, that requires a lot of remembering and getting back into the groove of things. But you know when you do it every year, there’s a consistency involved. And I think that’s really helped the presentation of these recent tours.
GM: Mick and Keith are in their 70s, and you’re about to hit 60. Just seeing what they’re capable of at their age, does it make you feel younger?
BERNARD FOWLER: It never really crosses my mind. I’ve probably thought about it, but I just don’t deal with that. I think if you think about that too much, you just get there a lot quicker. That thought can also change what you do musically, it can take away some of your energies and make you mellow. I still love a loud guitar! Music keeps you young forever.
TIM RIES: I’m seeing these guys who are in their mid-to- late 70s staying healthy, still playing at a high level and having integrity. I think the biggest thing is if they thought that they weren’t doing it well they would stop. I don’t think you’re going to see Mick sitting on a bench in Vegas singing ballads, but you know, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe when he’s 90 he’ll do that, but he can do whatever he wants because he can still do what he does. He can still sing his ass off, fronting and dancing and jumping and entertaining, he’s being Mick. He can still be Mick Jagger very well. And I think as long as he can do that and Ronnie, Keith and Charlie can still play well, they haven’t lost their ability to deliver; as long as that can happen then I think they should do it. It’s not even selfishly thinking because I want to gig, it’s just the fact that I hope when I’m 75 or 80 that I’m doing my gigs and my thing.
GM: What do you attribute the longevity to?
TR: I’d like I think music keeps you very young. I think that’s the biggest thing. Music is a youthful thing. It creates a certain energy. Earlier we spoke of Bobby Keys; he’s an example. He was playing on the gigs and he was sick and I was looking at him like, “I don’t know how he’s going to play a gig.” And sure enough, right before he’d get up on stage and he’d blow, and nobody knew that he was sick because he’s so excited. But he was definitely sick backstage and I’d look at him and say, “Bobby, man, you don’t have to do this gig,” and he’d say, “I’m doing it!” And he was like, “I did it.” Until his last dying breath, he wanted to play.
GM: Keith Richards once famously said of The Rolling Stones: “Come out and see us; one of us might die on stage.”
TR: Well, hopefully when you go you can be surrounded by your loved ones. And the last day that we’re here we don’t know when that’s going to be. They say that the best way to make God laugh is to tell him what you’re doing tomorrow. It could be when you’re 60 or 90, it can be when you’re a 104, whenever that is, and you just hopefully die gracefully. But you want to be able to do what you do. That’s the main thing: We love what we’re doing, and we want to share that kind of feeling and people feel that. That’s why I think all these fans are there, because they sense that the band is not dialing it in.
GM: I was in Chicago for the tour opener and Mick ran by. He was running the catwalk. He drops the mic, turns and looks right at us, and yells, “F**k yeah!” Anybody who witnessed that would know right then and there what his motivation is, and it isn’t money or vanity. You knew right there that he LOVES what he does.
TR: Can you imagine being Mick? Walking in front of 60,000 people and especially at that gig. This is after he had this heart surgery. It’s like he’s healthy and he’s able to do this, the doctor is giving the thumbs up. He’s out there like, “I’m alive, man. I’m here doing this sh*t!” Knowing that six weeks prior he was under the scalpel? Before going into that operation, of course it seemed like he should be OK, but anything can happen. We only hope that they stay healthy and we can keep doing it. People often ask if they’re going to retire. Why would they retire?
GM: People have been asking that question since the ’70s.
TR: Yeah. And I think the biggest question I hear is, “They have so much money, why would they need to tour?” It’s not that they need money, all musicians in any genre whatever it is, you got into it because you love playing music. That doesn’t go away. It’s not like all of a sudden just because you’re 70, 75, 80 years old think, “I’ve done this and...” There’s so many jazz greats that played into their 90s and even their 100s, and they just do it because they have to do it — it’s part of who they are. And I think it’s The Stones’ identity. Why would you not want to get on stage and play for people who love it?
GM: Perhaps, people who ask why the Stones don’t retire just don’t get it. They’re musicians and they love to play; they’ll play for three people. It’s just it’s in their DNA.
TR: Exactly. As teenagers getting into it, you don’t think about being stars or making tons of money, you just think, “I have to do this; this is what inspires me.” You’re influenced by the greats that came before you and you try to become one of those guys, you want to become like them. Like Muddy Waters, or for me, Coltrane or Wayne Shorter or Charlie Parker. I’m still trying to play up to their standards. It’ll take my whole life and I’ll never reach that level, but I’m trying.
And to think that a lot of people still question why the band continues to perform, saying, “Don’t they have enough money? Why do they need to tour and charge such high prices?” They don’t realize that they are providing a great deal more to people than they’re taking out of it.
I don’t even know what Mick and Keith are making, but whatever it is, I hope the fans aren’t thinking about the fact that Mick and Keith are making X amount of dollars. Hopefully they just realize they’re seeing us having a good time and enjoying ourselves, and the audience therefore is also enjoying it. And I think that they don’t need the money so it’s not about that. They could stop now because all their kids and grandkids would be cool forever.