In a revealing Local Spins interview, long-standing keyboardist Chuck Leavell talks about the thrill of playing with the iconic band, moving forward without Charlie Watts and the upcoming 60th anniversary.
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Longtime Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell calls it “not much short of a miracle” that the legendary band’s mammoth U.S. “No Filter” tour has happened at all.
After being unceremoniously shelved for a year due to the COVID pandemic, the rescheduled tour suffered an even bigger blow when beloved drummer Charlie Watts passed away just a month before the Stones were set to touch down in America. The Rolling Stones play Detroit’s Ford Field on Monday (Nov. 15).
“We knew he couldn’t make the tour, but we were told to expect he would recover and possibly even make an appearance towards the end,” Leavell told Local Spins.
“Then the worst of all things happened right at the beginning of our rehearsals, when he passed away. It was a gut punch: devastating. We took a couple of days to just take a breath, think about all the times we had with him, what he meant to all of us, and just grieve together and individually.”
Leavell called it “a huge challenge” to assemble the tour after the COVID cancellation and Watts’ death, “but miracles do occur, and between our promoters, Concerts West/AEG, they got it done.”
And, he added: “Charlie would never want to be the reason the band would stop. We all knew that, so we just had to suck it in and start rehearsing with (drummer) Steve (Jordan) and all of us. The music very much helped to heal us, and kept us all engaged mentally and on our toes.”
Leavell, 69, has been a mainstay in The Rolling Stones lineup since the early 1980s, serving as musical director on tour and providing his keyboard wizardry on the band’s studio albums. So returning to the stage with the likes of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood after a long hiatus has been electrifying.
“My friend, this is the Rolling Stones. Every moment of every show is a thrill,” said Leavell, who’s also made his mark with the Allman Brothers Band, various solo projects and collaborations, and as a leading conservationist and Georgia tree farmer.
“I never get tired of playing any one of the hundreds of songs we go through in rehearsal, and even the icons that are in the set every night. Looking over at all the guys, passing lots of smiles and grins between us is such an honor and a joy. One never wants it to end. We know it can’t go on forever, so we cherish every moment.”
DRUMMER STEVE JORDAN’S CARE ‘TO HONOR’ WATTS ON KEY SONGS
Tickets, $66-$446, for the Ford Field concert are available online at rollingstones.com/tour. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. Monday (Nov. 15).
Officially kicking off Sept. 26 in St. Louis, the 13-date stadium tour finishes up Nov. 20 in Austin, and Leavell said drummer Jordan has been an ideal replacement for the irreplaceable Watts.
“Steve is a monster on the drums. And as you know, he’s sort of been a part of the family through his work with Keith. He pretty much knew the book coming in, and he worked his ass off every day at rehearsals. He recorded everything we did on his iPhone and would listen back at night after rehearsals,” Leavell explained.
“Look: His style is different from Charlie’s, so inevitably it will be different in the resulting sound of the band. He has a more aggressive style, hard-driving. But he is very careful to honor certain parts that are integral to certain songs, and honors Charlie in that regard.”
Leavell continues to assemble the nightly set lists, with four or five songs changing from city to city while recognizing “there are certain songs that are going to be there every night.”
“I propose the songs to Mick, and for the most part, he signs off on the choices. But sometimes, he comes back to me with comments and alternate suggestions. I always look back at what we played in any given city the last time we were there, so not to repeat too much.”
Actually, Michigan fans might be in an ideal position, catching the veteran band near the end of its tour.
“It has been a great joy for all of us so far,” Leavell insisted, “and it gets better the more we do it.”
CONSERVATION PROJECTS, FILMS AND MORE FOR ‘THE TREE MAN’
Of course, when he’s not touring or recording with the Rolling Stones, Leavell — who owns a tree farm with his wife, Rose Lane White, near Macon, Ga. — has his hands in innumerable projects, documentaries and conservation-related work.
Despite the pandemic, 2020 saw the release of the documentary, “Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man” from director Allen Farst, a film which explores Leavell’s dual careers as a respected environmentalist and Southern forestry expert as well as a revered sideman and session musician.
“We had hoped for a proper theater release for it, but with COVID, that just wasn’t going to work,” he said. “So, we went ahead and released via streaming on most platforms like Apple TV+, Amazon Prime and others. It has done quite well for us and continues to get interest and have legs.”
He also hosts “America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell,” a PBS series that examines “how vital forest habitats are to the well-being and economic health of communities across the country.” Nine episodes have been completed, and seven already have aired.
“So, all in all, I managed quite well through the worst part of the pandemic,” conceded Leavell, who has earned past awards as tree farmer of the year.
Beyond that, Leavell also oversees his treehugger.com website and plans to film a show titled, “A Night of Georgia Music,” next March with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, violinist Robert McDuffie and a full orchestra.
“I’ll also continue to do some session work and hopefully get started on some new things of my own at (Macon’s) Capricorn Studios,” he added. “Looking forward to all of that and more.”
And despite the band’s advancing years – Jagger is 78, Richards is 77 – Leavell said the Rolling Stones are eyeing the possibility of touring again in 2022.
“We’ll see what happens after this. Next year is the 60th anniversary of the band,” Leavell said.
“We don’t know if the cards will fall together for us to go out again, but I believe the general feeling is that we all still love it and would like to if reasonable and possible.”
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