Two of the Rolling Stones' longtime sidemen have given a behind the scenes look to how the band constructs the show. Chuck Leavell, an Allman Brothers Band alumnus, joined the Stones for the 1982 European leg behind Tattoo You, and vocalist Bernard Fowler came into the band's orbit during sessions for Mick Jagger's 1985 solo debut, She's The Boss, before hitting the road for Jagger's one and only solo tour, a 19-date 1988 Australasian trek.
Chuck Leavell explained to Goldmine that as much as he and the band would love to go deep during the show's setlist — the majority of the crowd is eager to hear the hits: “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. Y'know, there are other issues, too. The length of the show; If we had an extra two, three, four, five songs, it would be a lot easier to please those hard-cores. But you know, I’m under what I’m told to do in terms of the length of the set.”
He went on to say, “I mean, those are iconic songs, not just from the Rolling Stones but also from rock n' roll history.
Bernard Fowler agreed, saying, “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, y'know?”
Fowler was pressed as to whether the Stones save the songs the die-hards are drooling for — specifically such soundcheck favorites as 1974's “Fingerprint File” and 1981's “Slave” — as way to tease fans camped outside the venue: “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.
Chuck Leavell maintains the Stones are operating these days at a peak — and the more they gig — the better band they sound: “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.”
Bernard Fowler has remained a constant in the studio and on the road with the Rolling Stones for 35 years. He told us that the secret for his longevity with the band, is that he never played into the “are you a 'Mick camp' or 'Keith camp' guy”: “A lot of people make the mistake — or made the mistake — of taking a side. I even had somebody yell at me in catering: 'Who you think you are?! You're either with him or you're with him. Nobody is with them both!' And I said, 'That's your problem. I'm here for both of them.' Y'know, I'd go to Keith's room, we'd play dominoes all night, y'know? And chat and listen to music. And the next day, y'know, I'm talking to Mick and we're going out and hangin' out in a club. So, I never played that 'side' game. I was here for the Rolling Stones.”
Keith Richards remains puzzled how a band that started in 1962 is still gaining new and younger fans: “I don't know how we crossed the (laughs) generation gaps. I can only presume that it's good music and everybody's had a good feeling when they hear it when they grow up with it. There's the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat — and then there's the Rolling Stones. And I guess we're just part of the furniture, y'know?”