If you were at the Rolling Stones' first major gig in five years at London's O2 Arena last night, you might have noticed the band glancing at the keyboards whenever they needed a cue. They were looking at Chuck Leavell, who's been playing with the band since 1982.
"It's nice to have a little responsibility and know they depend on me," Leavell tells Rolling Stone. Last spring, he was planning to tour with John Mayer when the guitarist scrapped his tour dates due to throat problems. Luckily, in July Leavell received an email from Mick Jagger, summoning him to Paris for rehearsals for the Stones' gigs in London, Brooklyn and Newark, New Jersey.
He's used to switching gears; in addition to playing with the Stones, Leavell played for several years beginning in 1972 with the Allman Brothers Band, and he formed the jazz-rock fusion band Sea Level in the Seventies. Leavell also co-founded the major environmental news outlet the Mother Nature Network, and he owns a 2,500-acre tree farm with his wife outside Macon, Georgia. We checked in with Leavell to discuss the Stones, recording with John Mayer and the keyboardist's own new LP, Back to the Woods.
Got Live If You Want It
To prepare for the Stones' blistering 23-song set in London, Leavell acted as musical director during the Paris rehearsals, sifting through their rich 400-plus song catalog while fielding suggestions from Jagger and the rest of the band. "I can't remember the last time Charlie Watts or Ronnie Wood have come up and offered [set list] suggestions," he says. "Mick and I talked about it on several occasions, really, in the early stages of the rehearsals, and I made up varied lists. I make up a list every day of what I think the band should be rehearsing, and then I also had a separate list that is songs that we have yet to try to play that I think may have merit. We have tried to look very hard at all of the various eras of the band's career and tried as best as possible to represent those eras. Fifty years is a long time, man!"
In Paris, there was plenty of loose jamming. "We kicked up a jam a little bit here and there. I get bored in between takes, you know, so I may start something and people may join in . . . Ronnie Wood is in such good shape. Charlie has been playing a good bit with his boogie outfit and some of his jazz stuff, Keith [Richards] has been playing with Steve Jordan a lot. As you probably know, they've had that thing over the past year where they get together a couple times a week, so he's built his chops back up, and you know Mick is singing his ass off. It's been about five years, so when you do finally get together and get in the same room and get behind the instruments and crank it up, man, it just reminds you how much we all love this stuff."
For fans heading to future shows, looking at last night's set list may provide some spoilers. "The bottom line is that, only having a limited number of shows, obviously we're not gonna go crazy with swapping around songs in the set list," says Leavell. "In other words, we don't want to go too too deep at this juncture."
Born and Raised
Mayer may have canceled his tour, but he's not done working. The guitarist invited Leavell and his band back to his Montana home this summer to work on new music. "It's kind of a barn-like structure, a nice big open room and a separate control room upstairs," says Leavell. "Before he went in for this second treatment he wanted to get everybody together, because the cat can sing. He just can't stand the stress of the tour with the condition of his vocal chords, so he had us all come out there. We broke in the studio. We were there for two weeks, laid down some new stuff that he's been writing, which is great."
Back to the Woods
Leavell recently released Back to the Woods, a stripped-down tribute to blues piano pioneers including Leroy Carr, Little Brother Montgomery and Otis Spann. "It was important to me [to do] this project to expose the piano as an important instrument in blues history," says Leavell. Highlights include a rollicking take on Charlie Spand's "I Got to Go Blues" (featuring Col. Bruce Hampton) and Carr's smoky heartbreak ballad "Evening Train." Leavell practiced 30 songs at his Georgia home; when it came time to record, he invited some friends. One session featured Mayer and Richards in the studio at the same time, trading licks on Spann's "Boots and Shoes."
"Keith has a tremendous amount of respect for John, because he is carrying on the tradition of being a great guitar player, you know, of contemporary form . . . That made the day amazing. John watching Keith was fantastic, and Keith's eyebrows raising up at John's playing – it was very special."