Ron Wood Sticks His Neck Out

Stones guitarist releases his third solo album and prepares a star-studded tour

Ron Wood performs at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York on May 7th, 1979.
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
May 31, 1979

A squall of typhonic guitars blares through the walls of a Culver City soundstage, as if in retort to the blustery wind that's been slamming around this bare movie lot for the last hour or so. Inside, Ron Wood is guiding Keith Richards through the chord changes to "Come to Realise," one of Wood's catchier odes to sexual possession. Gradually, almost mincingly, Richards alters his phrasing — yanking up hard on the offbeat, then suspending crucial beats in the "Tumbling Dice"-like chorus — until Wood follows suit with a bemused grin, parroting the movements of Keith's lithe hands.

From that point on, it becomes a classic display of the two Rolling Stones guitarists' near-telepathic affinity: Woody careens through the song, playing smoothly crafted, clarion leads and rhythms, while Richards complements him with funky rhythmic embellishments and terse leads. Yet somewhere Wood's and Richards' styles merge, until it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Actually, this rock & roll communion is merely the two guitarists' way of killing some spare time as they rehearse for their most provocative venture yet: a Rolling Stones-proportion tour of America, minus the rest of the Rolling Stones. It's a one-shot blitz designed foremost to promote Wood's raucous new album, Gimme Some Neck, and at present, the band — which calls itself the New Barbarians and which made its debut at Richards' April 22nd benefit shows for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind — includes former Small Faces pianist Ian McLagan, Meters drummer Joseph "Zigabo" Modeliste, saxophonist Bobby Keyes and former Return to Forever bassist Stanley Clarke.

Beyond that, though, Wood — who's never led his own tour before and doesn't seem overly enthralled with the idea of being alone in the spotlight — has also invited Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, David Bowie, Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart (who has his own tour to do) to appear separately or jointly at several of the shows. Suddenly, the post-Woodstock fantasy about the leading rock stars all materializing on the same stage seems like it may become a reality. In fact, only Jeff Beck has flatly refused to play.

Ron Wood: Rolling Stones Are Born, Not Made

Of course, whether any of the others actually turn up is another matter. But the list of Wood's friends speaks well for his standing in the British-cum-Malibu rock community. "I'd especially hoped that Neil Young would join us," Wood tells me. "After all, he's the one who named us the New Barbarians. But I think his film and new baby have weighed a lot heavier on him than he expected. Last I heard, he still wants to turn up for a few shows. I think even Mick — who'd said he was going to do some filming while we toured — is considering joining us for as many gigs as possible.

"Actually, it would be nice if ticket buyers see it as a Rolling Stones tour," Wood chortles, and then deadpans: "No, I shouldn't say that, not with people like Stanley Clarke helping out. I don't want to misrepresent it, and I don't want people coming in the hope of hearing Mick. I'm doing most of the singing, and if it's a disaster, then let it fall on me. Actually, I wasn't thinking of touring at all, but Gimme Some Neck came out so well that I thought it was the right time. I just need a little reassurance; then I'll throw my energies back into the Stones and that'll be it."

At one a.m., Clarke, who's just completed a twelve-hour mixing session for his own album, strides into the rehearsal, toting his custom-made Alembic bass like a featherweight tennis racket. Immediately, the band assembles for a run-through of the still-evolving repertoire, with Wood and Richards sharing a double-headed microphone in the center of a stage painted in blood-red swirls.

As the band members work their way through a sprinkling of songs from Wood's three solo albums, plus a couple of reggae and South African tunes, it becomes apparent that this unit is even more rhythm-obsessed than the Stones. In some songs, like the funky blues "Am I Groovin' You," the whole focus and texture of the rhythm section inverts, with Wood and Richards preserving a thrumming version of the basic pulse while Modeliste and Clarke overlay it with a fervid melodic-percussive dialogue.

Modeliste was suggested to Wood by Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who had been impressed by his ability to play both a no-frills backbeat and a galloping lead bass; Clarke joined the band after he and Wood met at a London club and expressed mutual admiration for each other's work.

"It's funny," says Clarke, "but some people have said, 'Stanley, you're a jazz artist. How can you do this?' Jazz may be more progressive, but in some ways this music is less restrictive. This band may not be quite as tight, say, as Return to Forever, but then in rock & roll and rhythm & blues, music is secondary to emotion. In that respect, this is some serious shit we're playing."

In a way, the biggest charge of this event for me is seeing Keith Richards and Stanley Clarke in the same band. Not only does Clarke stand a head taller than Richards — or anyone else in the band, for that matter — but he cut his teeth on the music of Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus and Scott LaFaro, while Keith learned from the songs of Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Chuck Berry. What's being created here hardly qualifies as "fusion" music, but it does seem at moments — like during Clarke's and Richards' funky contrapuntal dialogue in "Infekshun" — that two forks of the same blues-based tradition have been forged in some mighty floodwaters. Richards himself, dressed in a Rastafarian T-shirt and dancing to his own rhythms like a giddy eel, looks more electrified than I've ever seen him onstage.

It's a little rough being objective with a coliseum-size sound system raging away twenty feet in front of my face, but it seems to me that this band, even without any extra stellar bonuses, might be the liveliest thing to happen to rock & roll since, well, punk.

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