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Sideman's holiday

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When Ronnie Wood appeared onstage at the Vic on November 27--elfin, his long black hair spiked straight up, wearing a gold shirt and red silk vest, grinning expansively--the perennial sideman was finally front and center. But even while leading his own band, the Rolling Stones guitarist again proved that the best results are often born of collaboration.

Wood's music recalls his long list of influences and cohorts: Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Rod Stewart, and Keith Richards, to name a few. Though he's usually halfway down the credits list, Wood has made a sizable contribution to British rock and roll, arguably the world's best rock and roll. And Wood is a walking representative of the American blues as bred into its bastard offspring rock and roll.

Over the years he has spiced some of British rock's choicest cuts--the Faces' "Stay With Me," Rod Stewart's "Every Picture Tells a Story," the Stones' "Beast of Burden" and "Terrifying," plus dozens of others. "Stay With Me" summed up rock and roll in the early 70s: youth, health, freedom, libido, and rebellion in the age of electric guitars, fast cars, jet planes, and the atomic bomb. Wood's rowdy slide guitar fueled the song like gasoline. He and his band finished the Vic set with it, laying down a blistering version. It's a song that's still imitated in mainstream and alternative pop--by the Black Crowes with their recycling of Faces and Stones grooves, by the Replacements with their All Shook Down, which borders on an homage to Stewart and Wood with its sparse production and acoustic power chording.

Wood's first solo tour supports his only solo album in more than a decade, Slide on This. (It's the fifth solo record of his career, but only one of the others--1979's Gimme Some Neck--remains in print.) The snickering schoolboy humor of his new title is further confirmation that the permanent adolescent Keith Richards never had a guitar sidekick who suited him better. Just as he does when playing with Richards, Wood respects the value of pauses within the bar, gaps of silence that allow his guitar quips and yelps to stand out. When he plays with the Stones his licks blend with Richards's riffs to create a remarkable guitar whole. Richards grunts out distorted chords, and Wood lays over bursts of sparkling Fender phrasing, clean bright harmonies above a dirty, jagged rhythm. Wood's appreciation for subtlety has enriched the texture of the Stones sound in the 17 years since he joined the band, a longer period than the combined stays of Brian Jones and Mick Taylor. Wood became a permanent member after being one of three guest guitarists on the 1976 Black and Blue.

While Taylor was a first-rate guitarist--contributing handsomely to some of the Stones' best records, including Sticky Fingers and the epochal Exile on Main Street--he was a little too elegant for the hard-edged Richards. Taylor sometimes overpowered the mix with his jazz-spiced, tiered melodic constructions and lengthy solos ("Time Waits for No One," from It's Only Rock 'n Roll, comes to mind). Wood, a scruffy younger-brother figure, complements Richards without stealing his fire.

Wood's writing contributions to the Stones have been limited to a handful of collaborations with Jagger and Richards, most notably "Dance" from Emotional Rescue and "Black Limousine" from Tattoo You, which was also included in the Vic set, along with "It's Only Rock 'n Roll," a Jagger-Richards number. With Slide on This Wood presents a package of his own material and a few covers, but he's still relying on a collaborator--Bernard Fowler, a New Yorker who added background vocals to the Stones' Steel Wheels album and world tour. He teamed with Wood to write the music and lyrics for Slide on This, and the two also produced and arranged the record. Fowler is to Wood what drummer-songwriter-vocalist-producer Steve Jordan has been to Richards on his solo outings. Like Richards, Wood is too practical to try it alone. Collaboration, or at least partnership, has been central to the astonishing success and longevity of the Stones, who will celebrate their 30th anniversary in '93.

Fowler's resume includes guest spots with an unlikely range of players: Philip Glass, Motorhead, Herbie Hancock, Duran Duran. He sings background and lead on a large portion of Slide on This, but Wood is the record's primary vocalist. His voice, unrefined and raspy, somewhat similar to Dylan's, works well enough in his funky rock and soul numbers. Fowler is credited on the liner notes as Wood's vocal coach.

The album is loaded with guest appearances: U2 guitarist the Edge, Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott, ex-Faces keyboardist Ian McLagen, former Allman Brothers' keyboardist Chuck Leavell (who like McLagen often plays with the Stones, particularly since the death a few years ago of their keyboardist Ian Stewart), Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, Hothouse Flowers, and the venerable Charlie Watts. Wood's touring band brings together other musicians who usually inhabit the background: bassist Shawn Soloman, Bonnie Raitt guitarist Johnny Lee Schell, Hinterland drummer Wayne Sheehy.

Slide on This begins with a burst of Wood's slide guitar--the inspiration for the album's title, the CD sleeve claims--followed by a bluesy synthesizer rhythm. The song "Somebody Else (Give Me Up)" can be regarded as Wood's acknowledgment of his importance as a sideman: "Caution baby / Handle me with care / If you don't want me / Somebody else might." The Edge's shimmering guitar surfaces in the tune's final bars.

Three of the album's best tracks jump with Watts's tight, dry signature snare: "Ain't Rock 'n Roll," "Knock Your Teeth Out," and "Show Me." On "Ain't Rock 'n Roll," Wood and the Edge crank out a fuzzy wah-wah guitar rhythm to Watts's snapping beat, while Fowler sings an urgent lead. Wood steps to the mike near the song's end to belt out, "Sex, drugs and rock and roll / It's all the same to you / Girls dancin' on the table / Doin' the hoochie coo."

Wood hasn't changed much since his drunken hell-raising days with Rod Stewart and the Faces. He's always been something of a mischievous clown, if sometimes a romantic one. "Josephine," Wood's proclamation of love for his wife, is unfortunately a bit of a crude clunker: "Don't need no headache from no one night stand / I'd rather use my baby's right hand." Leave it to a Stone to follow a love song with a tune like "Knock Your Teeth Out": "It's all over now / You look real neat / What I want to know is / How you going to eat? / I'm gonna knock your teeth out."

Those lines may turn off many people (Wood and the Stones remain a boys' night out), yet "Knock Your Teeth Out" is a fine, fun tune with an uncommonly infectious guitar line, Watts's swinging snare, and plenty of hooks, bridges, and boogie-woogie. And of course when Wood sings "I'll be starting at the front / And thrashing down your jaw / As each filling starts missing / I'm diggin' it more and more," we're not supposed to take it seriously, right? Wood also injects a bit of the picaresque into his reflective ballad "Always Wanted More": "You've got everything that I own / My love and my heart. . . . 'Cause you're a problem and I know the solution / Where's my gun?"

But like his fellow Stones, Wood knows how to balance the act, tempering his mischief with a dash of poignancy: On the album's final track, the tender acoustic number "Breathe on Me," Wood acknowledges his bad behavior and seeks forgiveness: "Been known to say the wrong things in my time / Stumble when I was in my prime. . . . Open your mouth and breathe on me / I need your sensitivity." And on the soulful "I Fear for Your Future," his teenage daughters, Lize and Leah, add sweet-voiced harmony to the tune's closing measures. Wood sings, "Nobody came to save me / Who's gonna save you? / Something is weighing heavy on my mind / And it's all about you."

Wood has said that "I Fear for Your Future" speaks as much about his environmental concerns as his fatherly love, which may be why the CD comes in a cardboard box instead of a plastic jewel case. A 28-page booklet included in the handsome, elaborate box has lyrics printed over Wood's own drawings as well as photos by his wife. The words to "I Fear for Your Future" run over a picture of Lize and Leah wearing headphones while recording their part.

A spirit of friendship, family, and collaboration pervades the record and its package. The opening liner notes describe Wood's formative years--"at the tender age of nine, playing a washboard with his brothers in a skiffle band"--and go on to mention a few of the bands and musicians Wood has jammed with: Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Prince, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy. The notes then affectionately explain his partnership with Fowler. Portraits drawn or painted by Wood are placed on pages opposite songs that feature or describe the subjects--the Edge next to the lyrics for "It Ain't Rock 'n Roll," Wood's wife alongside the words for "Josephine," Charlie Watts next to "Show Me." A studio blackboard on the back page lists the songs and guests in chalk. "Songs by Dad and Bernard" is written near the bottom in a girlish script.

Hothouse Flowers play on the album's second to last track, "Like It," a raucous rocker with a distinct Faces sound. In the lyrics Wood again hints at his role as the underappreciated background rascal, only this time he's trying to prove his worth: "I might creep up on ya / You wouldn't be able to shake me. . . . But you just might get to like it / You just might get to like it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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