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Cover Story: Ronnie Wood

| November 1, 2010

Stomp And Circumstance

You want Ronnie Wood to be that kind of rock star: holed up in a stark white mansion, drifting aimlessly from room to room at 2 p.m. in a bathrobe and satin pajama bottoms spilling a glass of wine and yelling through the house to the wife he’s had for two weeks who’s inexplicably in a black nightie and stockings and fuzzy slippers and carrying a toy dog while frantically calling any friends who might be able to swing by with some drugs. He never looks like more than a guest in this motel castle though you can’t think of anyone else who would buy some of the things inside, like an iguana and a diamond-crusted box that sprouts not tissues, but pound notes and dollar bills.

Because, from an outsider’s perspective, Ron Wood achieved none of what he has, but came upon it by luck.

Make no mistake: there is a lot of luck involved. He even dedicates “Lucky Man,” on his new album I Feel Like Playing (Eagle Rock), to it. The world knows Woody either because a) he played bass in the Jeff Beck Group, b) played guitar in the Faces, or c) replaced guitarist Mick Taylor in The Rolling Stones. All three of those outfits are charter members of British Rock Royalty yet to a degree, Wood receives no credit for any of it. Beck, Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards – those are legends. What does Wood even do?

Quite a bit actually, though, for now, drugs are out. Make that “controlled substances.” This particular afternoon he’s mainlining caffeine. “I’m on coffee and Red Bull right now. It’s an unexplained feeling, that caffeine. One of those, ‘Why did I get this far in?'” he laughs. “It’s gotten into my neck, all down one side.”

Despite anyone’s reservations about that kind of dosage for a 60-year-old man, Wood needs some extra energy to get through this year’s program. The Stones might be at rest for the time being, but aside from I Feel Like Playing his paintings had their first opening at an American museum gallery in September and in October he collaborated with the cast of “Stomp!” – the percussion-heavy Broadway offshoot – for a London theatre residency playing songs like Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful.”

“I’m touring with some different amalgamations,” he says, “the ‘Stomp’ cast with the drums and the rhythmic approach to getting the batteria, like they have in Brazil with the real fundamental rhythmic things? When you get ‘Stomp’ involved with a rock ‘n’ roll outfit, you get a different presentation. I started rehearsing, and thought it would be incredible to percussively lend this toward some of the approaches I was going for on the album. Lots of guitar players love to play with percussion, especially en masse. There’s eight different guys and girls in ‘Stomp’ and they all play this weaving percussion. So to have a drummer like Andy Newmark playing with these percussionists and have a guitar playing on top – Jeff Beck was so excited. He said, ‘Oh, man. You don’t need to change chords! Just play a riff!'”

Wood’s habit of throwing names like Beck and Newmark around gives credence to that aloof stereotype. His first solo record, after all, was called I’ve Got My Own Album To Do and billed itself as a gritty jam with whoever he could find in the studio – those musicians just happened to be superstars. Anyone who’s seen ’60s relics in concert recently (like Donovan) has heard anecdotes of “I was sitting with The Beatles” this and “Bob Dylan once said to me” that, but with Wood this is no bygone era – it was his life, is his life, and will continue to be so. Unlike the cross-promotional orgy permeating every level of modern rap, rock, and country, Slash really was in the studio next door to where Wood was recording and Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea really did just stop by. And because they like Wood so much, they didn’t mind when he’d put them to work.

“[There’s] no trouble,” he says about assembling such a cast. “Just natural vibes in the air. People going, ‘Hey, I’m in the studio next door; I’ll come and help you out.’ Or I’d say, ‘Come on, Slash. You know what I want. Get in here! Play!’ And that’s what I’d do, and I’d say, ‘That’s exactly what I wanted. Thank you!'” The friendly neighborhood James Brown? “Ha! Yeah, every time they drop a note it’s $100. No, I’m a good band leader because most of them mind read. They seem to know what I want and do it – I don’t have to do any slavedriving. I bumped into Kris Kristofferson when I had [the idea for] ‘Why You Wanna Go And Do A Thing Like That For?’ and said, ‘Come on, Kris! Write me some verses!’ And he said [deepening his voice], ‘You’re serious, right? Come back tomorrow and I’ll have two verses for you.'”

The fact that Stonesy blues rock is in Wood’s blood couldn’t be more fitting for this kind of setup. But where each passing Stones album trades more on formula and paints them as a band in contract only, Wood’s albums draw strength from the fact nothing’s riding on them. Case in point: The new reggae cut “Sweetness My Weakness” – based, incidentally, on a common interjection by producer/Stones-friend Bernard Fowler – defies physics. It should collapse because the guitars pull the rhythm forward, but somehow Wood and Slash’s interplay balances the beat.

“That amazes me, too,” Wood chuckles. “Every time I hear it I think, ‘How the hell is this song sticking together?’ ‘Cause none of us are really playing reggae. It’s a magic there that only comes with a spontaneous approach. I could have gone back in and gotten more in-depth and examined what we were playing. But that’s not good. You lose the spontaneity.”

Wood elaborates, “In the younger days, the mystery was in the chase. You’re running around in circles, wasting all your energy. Now to just sit back and watch things materialize and get comfortable with it – it’s so much more of a satisfying feeling.”

— Steve Forstneger

For the full interview, grab the November edition of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.

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