What Goes Into A Rolling Stones Tour (Un-edited)
What goes into a Rolling Stones tour? This is a question that’s probably older than most of you reading this article, and the answers depend entirely on who’s answering the question. To the casual fan, they’re a band that has always been around, that stops in their neck of the woods every once in a while and plays all the radio staples they’ve heard thousands of times on “classic rock” radio. To the hardcore fans, they are literally, “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band”, a term coined by Sam Cutler in 1969, that they have tried to live up to for fifty years. To the people who live in the cities they play in, they’re a bounty of employment opportunity, lifting local economies briefly. To the more permanent members of the “company”, the promoter, the staging/lighting/sound companies they are probably the best employer/client they have ever had. To writers, they are at the top of the list, and can be both a blessing and a curse to write about, because, almost everything that can be written about them has already been written, or has it?
Trying to write about The Stones can be extremely simple or painstakingly hard, depending on the angle one chooses. There are so many moving parts to this phenomenon that trying to boil it down to a few pages can be like choosing which one of your children to save in a fire. You can’t choose. And beware of your critics. The Rolling Stones literally have an army of fans armed with facts, figures, and so much information it would stagger the casual fan. It is a machine that has been running since July 12, 1962, and really shows no signs of slowing down, even as the band members approach their 80’s.
The Stones really invented the modern touring machine that we know today, they were the first band to hang the sound system, liberating the entire stage as a kind of playing field. This isn’t your grandfather’s road crew, consisting of a handful of roadies and the odd electrician. The Stones employ an army of people to pull off a show, and the list of their occupations sounds like a city’s department of public works. There are structural engineers, audio technicians, lighting people, stage designers, stage assemblers, logistics crews, security, freight crews, pilots, guitar techs, drum techs, their own ticketing company, hair, wardrobe, makeup, accountants, lawyers, and apparently three cardiologists.
Why the Stones tour almost endlessly is as much a mystery as to how Mick Jagger, mere weeks after heart valve replacement, can run up and down a stage for over two hours. Not only are Jagger’s physical capabilities a mystery, there’s something afoot with the band themselves, they seem lit up and tighter than they’ve been since the Steel Wheels tour. Perhaps the rest of the band is on the McDiet or the Mick diet. After what has become the best six words in the English language, “Ladies and Gentleman, The Rolling Stones”, Keith bounds out onto the stage, followed by Ronnie, and finally Mick Jagger, weapons blazing. They seem to start every show, and this tour, like a locomotive just leaving a station, powerful and full of resolve with a great deal of noise and fanfare. And just like a locomotive, a head of steam is built, and the train is speeding through the landscape.
This past tour started in the same place that the band’s roots started, Chicago Illinois. On the first of two dates there, there was palpable electricity in the air, along with the threat of rain. Everyone wondered at this point, Will Mick be more cautious? Will the band be any slower? Are there really doctors standing by in case Mick pushes himself too hard? The Stones have nothing to prove to anyone at this point, and Mick is going to do just that. Not one to reflect back, it’s as though nothing happened. I fully expected the roar of the crowd to lift him up, to compel Mick to stop because he’s being drowned out by love and affection, much the way Keith is at times. Mick was having none of it as usual, he lets his actions and the band’s actions do the talking. Pow, Mick is at the end of the catwalk. Boom, he’s running across the stage.
How does this corporation function though? Casting aside how the band itself works (or doesn’t) leaves the touring machine. Some of the band members themselves seem to be at a loss, or are they all reading from the same playbook? It’s hard to tell at times, and after interviewing many members of the “backline” I’m not sure I know myself. There are clues everywhere, mostly garnered by the “Stones Mafia”, a collection of insiders, record company people, friends of the band, and people who know people who know someone. Some of the information is traded publicly, sometimes it’s private. One of the biggest components of the Rolling Stones corporation is the fan, and there isn’t a band around who can compare with this, the rabid fandom that has surrounded them for more than fifty years.
The Stones mafia has taken a few different forms over the years, finally morphing into its current state, a kind of “dark web” of fandom. The “Stones Mafia” has members all over the globe, speaking in tongues, and their currency is knowledge. Knowledge of what all the different people involved in a tour or recordings are doing, where they’re doing it, and when it’s being done. Very few people have the whole picture, but the information passes from person to person until a handful of people know when the next tour or record is coming. Some say that Mick Jagger himself lurks in the background, never revealing himself, but reading much of what is written, keeping himself abreast of the pulse of the fans. There are other notables that openly have cruised this information, and have even revealed themselves. Pete Townsend is one of them, as is Chuck Berry’s son.
A listing of the typical questions looks something like this:
-Where are they going to tour next?
-Why aren’t they going to play in my city or country?
-Why do they play the USA more often than anywhere else?
-Why are ticket prices so high?
-Why do they continue to tour at their age?
-Who chooses the songs they play in concert?
-How do those song choices get made?
-Why doesn’t the band do an extended version of Slave or Dance Part I?
-What’s the interaction between the core four and the rest like?
-How does the band prepare for an upcoming tour?
-Is the song vote bullshit?
-Why do they practice so many songs at rehearsals, and play none of them?
-When is the next tour?
-How do they prepare for a tour?
-Are they all reading from a playbook when dealing with the press?
-Where is this rumored record the band has been working on since 2015?
-What’s life like on the road?
-What’s it like working in the band?
Mick, Keith, Ronnie, and Charlie (The Core Four) are pretty tight-lipped about most of this, and to get a glimpse of what makes the band tick on the road you need to speak with the other guys. They’re freer with their information, easier to access, and seem to generally enjoy the whole press process, not making it seem like it’s an onerous task. Talking to some band members, you’d almost think you were talking to a person you’ve known as a friend. They may perform on the biggest stage in the world with the world’s greatest rock and roll band, but they don’t act like it. Offstage, they are as down-to-earth and friendly as can be. Both Darryl Jones and Bernard Fowler have invited me into their hotel rooms to chat on a couple of occasions during a tour. Chuck Leavell spoke with me in between takes during filming of his TV series.
A Rolling Stones tour almost always starts out in the same place, in a nondescript building in London, in early December. We know it’s early December because of Keith Richard’s birthday, December 18, which he always likes to spend in the Turks and Caicos with his immediate and extended family. Mick likes to take off for Mustique around the same time, so the yearly meeting must be held prior to the holiday season. Ronnie and Charlie are the least mobile of the core band, whereas Mick and Keith have to continually stay on the move, they have to due to tax reasons. Any stay of ninety days or longer in any one place will classify them as residents, and then they will have to pay exorbitant taxes. Why isn’t this the case with Ronnie and Charlie? Publishing rights. Mick and Keith own the publishing rights to anything written after 1971. What about the catalogue prior to then? How can The Stones not own their own music? Alan Klein, the force that was central to the breakup of The Beatles, was involved with The Stones prior to The Beatles, and frankly, he screwed the band royally, tying up ownership and royalties in a labyrinth of shell companies and legal documents that The Stones have never been able to extricate themselves from.
Typically, the decision as to where the band will tour is made between four to six months prior to the actual tour, with the announcement from the band coming between three and four months prior to the opening date. As of the writing of this article in early 2020, months after the last tour ended in August of 2019, the band is rumored again to be touring the United States in the summer of this year.
Probably the biggest glimpse into what goes on comes not from the musicians themselves, but from the businessmen and women who make the tour happen. There are a short list of them; Joyce Smith - Manager, Fran Curtis - Publicist, Jane Rose - Keith’s personal manager, and John Meglen, president of Concerts West, and the tour promoter for every Rolling Stones tour since earning the band away from Mike Cohl in 2012. Did Meglen “steal” the Stones away from Cohl? Some have suggested so, because Meglen started out working for Cohl as part of Concert Productions International. As Meglen puts it, “It wasn't that we got them away from Michael Cohl, it was just that Michael no longer had a deal with them. We were very persistent and just kept saying, Hey, we're here, we're here, we're here. The opportunity came, and, they said, ‘You got the money?’ And we said we did, and they said, ‘Okay, let's go do it!’ Michael's time period with them was over. I'm glad they made the move. I think they made a smart move.”
My conversation with Meglen was extremely revealing, so much so that the whole thing had to be vetted. In Meglen’s words, “Anything with the Rolling Stones is so incredibly sensitive on press and all that.” We started off talking about the logistics of the last tour, but the conversation quickly shifted to the biggest complaints that both casual and hardcore fans have, ticket pricing, and all the other aforementioned questions.
Goldmine: Tell me what the last tour was like from your perspective. How did Mick Jagger’s heart surgery affect the tour?
John Meglen: Man, it was every day we had something on this one, from our side. We had two heart procedures. Okay. Cause you had Mick's, right? But then nobody knows that my partner Paul and I, we were flying from Jacksonville up to Philly and he got an irregular heartbeat. We had to go put him in the hospital in Philly and get him shocked to get his heart back. Liz, our production accountant slipped in the hotel on a puddle of water on the floor and shattered her left shoulder. In Seattle, Lonnie, our promoter production rep was walking on a floor in the stadium in Seattle on a really high glossed floor with a drippy pipe above, blew out both bones in his lower right leg. Broken! We had to reschedule the whole tour. Then we rescheduled New Orleans into the Superdome, but then because of that hurricane had to move that show back a day. And literally that was done one or two days before the show. And then we get to where we think we're finally getting to the home stretch to Miami and then we have another hurricane coming at us. We had to move the show up a day. And everybody showed up!!!
IL: You managed to fulfill every day.
JM: It was like every day was different; I call it the Murphy's Law tour or something like that. He was following us everywhere, you know. But at the same time, there were other situations like with the weather, where we were in places like Jacksonville or in Philadelphia where it just looked like we were going to get absolutely killed or in Chicago, just, you know, hot, thunderstorms, all of that. And for some reason, whenever those guys would hit the stage, it would just clear up, right?
IL: Of course, it all works out because Keith waves his rain stick around.
JM: And then it cleared up at every show, until the Encore in Miami and Mick starts Gimme Shelter, and it just unleashes and pours like cats and dogs for the last two songs. I don't know if anybody caught it, but the opening line of the Miami show was, I was born in a crossfire hurricane.
IL: Yeah. It was noticed actually.
JM: There was a little tongue in cheek in there too, that you sit there and you'd go, Oh my God. I remember Mick coming off stage and I looked at him and it's pouring down like that, and I just looked and said, "How appropriate...” and he just busted out laughing. You would get up everyday and go, okay, what is it today? You know? And it was just one of those things. It'd be like, you heard about Lonnie? No, what happened, where is he? He's in the hospital, but you know, whatever. The entire tour was like that. But, we pulled off 17 shows and set literally the all time gross record in every city we went to for an individual headlining concert. No one's even come close.
IL: I think the next closest is Ed Sheeran, but I think he does three times the amount of dates?
JM: So we go into Mile High stadium and we asked, "What's the record?" And they said, well, Taylor Swift beat U2's record last year. U2 had done 6.4 million and then Taylor came in at 6.6 million. We did 13.5 or 13.3, whatever we reported. I mean, if we reported these things, then they're real. But part of all of that on the ticketing front is I think we've also been the masters of, you know, people said, "Wait a minute, how'd you get these grosses so high?" And my answer is, "They're are always that high." You know, we just weren't seeing it on the business side. People are selling their tickets on Stubhub and stuff like that. They were the ones getting that gross, but that gross was always there.
IL: And what changed that?
JM: Tickets went online. You have control over them. Remember when they used to give you a hotel metal hotel key with the room number on it?
IL: Sure. Timothy B. Schmit from The Eagles sure does. He kept every key from every single hotel room he stayed in while touring.
JM: Yeah. Well you could have gone and sold that for that night. You could have, but you can't anymore, right? I mean, you can sell somebody your key, but you know what I'm saying? The Internet or more specifically, digital changed all that.
IL: I thought it was you who really changed all that. I thought you had a vision.
JM: Oh no, I'm not that smart. To me it was just obvious, the money's all there, we're just not getting it. I remember Paul Simon in 1990 when Joe Rascoff called, who was Paul's business manager at the time. We did the first American Express front of the line thing, and then Joe and I would walk out every night before the show and we both walked down around the first 25 rows on the floor. And we'd walk by and ask people how much they paid for their tickets. We could only find one out of ten that paid face value, you know? They all got their tickets from somebody else and paid more. I thought, "If I knew you wanted to pay five hundred bucks to see Paul Simon, I would gladly have collected it.
IL: So you started doing that?
JM: No, I've never sold a ticket for more than it's printed on the ticket ever. I'd never sold a ticket in the secondary market in my life. I just priced my tickets to market value. What I sell the tickets for is printed on the tickets. I don't give you a ticket that says $100 and charge you $500, but that's what a lot of people are doing.
IL: How do you determine market value for something like The Rolling Stones?
JM: You just look at the past, then try and take a smart guess at the future. At the end of the day, isn't that all it is? You do market research, you do research on pricing. You do research on what other people are charging, how they're doing things. It's so easy to gather that information today.
IL: It's easy, easy to gather, but how do you compare a band like The Rolling Stones to Taylor Swift or something similar? It's a totally different audience.
JM: I don't really compare The Stones to Taylor Swift. I'll compare The Stones to what McCartney's doing out there or what the Eagles are doing out there, I will look at what those people are doing. I'll look at what the new hot pop acts are doing, I'll look at them and that, but you know, horses for horses here, I think it's more important to look at who your audience is. And also what's important is whom the artist wants to extend into their audience. You know what I mean? A better example for me than The Rolling Stones on ticket pricing and getting the new audiences is when I look at my Celine Dion tours and I realize half the audience is 26 year old girls, and I'm like, why? And I have to remember that. How many people want to bring their 26 year olds to a Rolling Stones concert? You do have a big portion of them that do want to come on their own and all that, but there is more of a wanting to turn them on to it, I remember this from Pink Floyd. So you've just got to sit there and think about all of this and look at all the data and then go, "I think we should be here." It's all live today anyway, it's not like we pick ticket prices. The prices change the second they go on sale.
IL: How exactly does that happen?
JM: Like hotel rooms or flights. The systems exist now. There's programs that Ticketmaster has called Pricemaster that does that. It comes and tells you. It says, "See that row of seats that are unsold? Well if you drop the price by $25 they'll all sell in the next hour. But if you raise the price $50 they'll all sell in the next week." You know, they have stuff like that already.
IL: Interesting. I always wondered about that. It seems like the tickets get out there and then, the good seats are gone. But if you keep hitting the site up, tickets just keep appearing. It’s happened to me going online to buy Stones tickets.
JM: Well, it depends on what programs they have operating at the time. If you go to AXS, which is AEG's ticketing system, all of them use an interactive seating map. So you scroll around and look in sections and see what's available. Now you're starting to see different colors. One's a resale ticket; one's a print ticket.
IL: Why do so many people beat up on Ticketmaster especially? I don’t hear a lot of complaints about AXS, but Ticketmaster seems to draw the ire of the ticket buyers more than anyone.
JM: Ticketmaster is not the big bad enemy. The origin of that was Fred Rosen decided to make them the enemy on behalf of everybody else, and they've maintained that, but in North America, they're the best ticketing system out there by far, they really improved their ticketing system. But AXS will catch up to that because operating systems can eventually get as good as the other one. It's more about what's going on in the marketplace for ticketing. And what's happening is that the primary and the secondary ticket markets are slowly merging into one, and the reason that's happening is because we're closing the ticket, which means we now know where it is all the time.
It’s like a hotel room or a plane ticket and it's not hard to do. It used to be really hard when you had a whole bunch of seats in the stadium and you had a physical ticket for each one of them. Now you have a final entry point. You've got to have the proper barcode or whatever it is to get you in. So everything in front of that now is totally controllable. And it's really now down to what are the business rules you want to make? That's all it is. Ticketmaster has been living for years and years with these secondary markets. The biggest one to them has been Stubhub. Everybody hated Ticketmaster, and the industry hated Stubhub. So the public hates Ticketmaster today and now loves Stubhub. It's really bizarre when you think about it.
People beat the shit out of Ticketmaster, who's the primary filler and yell that, "I can't get a good ticket and blah blah blah", but they love the way Stubhub treats them. You shouldn't be pissed off at Stubhub either because all they're doing is providing a marketplace, Stubhub themselves do not own any tickets. You own the ticket, you're selling the tickets to somebody else and you're selling it on their platform. So Ticketmaster goes and creates TM Plus, which is just their Stubhub. That's all it is. And why can't they have a Stubhub? And so all it does is get people in the industry more pissed off because now they're saying, "Well now you're reselling the tickets I just sold while I still have unsold tickets to sell." And that's the whole paradox. So all of that stuff today is bullshit because it doesn't matter anymore. It just doesn't matter. You can sell your ticket however you want to today, for whatever you want to sell it for. Period. You can allow it to be traded, you can allow it not to be traded, and you can make people show up with their ID. You know all the inconveniences that go with it, "Oh, I bought two tickets for my friend, now I can't give them to them? I have to go myself?" You don't want all that shit, right? All of that is nothing more than operational issues. The bottom line is the business rules are up to you to decide, meaning whoever ultimately gets to make that decision is you, and you can do it any way you want.
IL: I’ve heard so many frustrating stories from Stones fans. People constantly complain that as soon as tickets go on sale, they appear on the secondary market. Are you telling me that large blocks of tickets don't go directly to the secondary market? They always go through the the ticket buyer, and then back to the secondary market? It seems to a lot of people that large blocks of tickets appear on the secondary market as soon as the official sale starts.
JM: Have there been times where people did that? Bob Roux and Tony DiCioccio just got busted for taking blocks of tickets off of Ticketmaster and putting them on Stubhub. So have people done it? Yeah, I think they're dumb the way they did it. And I don't get why they needed to do it. I think they're a little behind the times on it to be honest with you. I mean, you want to charge more for your tickets? Charge more for your tickets. You want greater distribution? Open up your distribution. But what I don't do is go take $100 tickets off of Ticketmaster and go put 'em on Stubhub for $500. If I have $500 tickets, I want them available in as many places as I can.
IL: Makes sense.
JM: But, the building may have signed a contract with Ticketmaster that doesn't allow me to do that, that's a business rule. It's not a technology issue, it's nothing more than that, technology is no longer the issue.
IL: It doesn't seem to be.
JM: It's not, it's distribution.
IL: Well, the whole technology aspects of buying and selling tickets can work in your favor when you're just an average ticket-buying person. I've had tickets to shows and because of one reason or another made the decision to not attend, right up until a few hours before show time, and through the magic of Ticketmaster or Stubhub was able to re-sell them. I wasn't out to scalp them, I actually took a loss most of the time.
JM: There's guys down sitting in the Barcaloungers in Alabama right now, or in Beijing or New York City and they're quick, and they know how to get in there and get tickets. Or they go and buy tickets on the second day. They'll go buy something off of Stubhub and then post it on the ticket network. See, back to my point when I was saying you've got two seats over on one side that are sold for $250. The exact same two seats on the other side are on resale for $500. That sounds crazy, but it's not because those $500 tickets are also sitting on 20 other different sites. They might be sitting on one site at $400, they might be sitting on another site for $750 and they might be sitting on another site for $1500. And if they can sell them on any of those marketplaces, it's just a question on what their margins are. So that's what they've all figured out. And there are guys making an entire living doing that out of their homes today.
IL: Buying and reselling tickets?
JM: Yeah, they're day traders.
IL: Just like stocks....
JM: Right, exactly.
IL: And in the end, you know the stadium is still filled with fans. So I guess it doesn't really matter, right?
JM: When a company files an IPO, they issue X number of shares to the public, right? No more shares, that's what they're issuing. Same thing with us. I’ve got 10,000 seats. What are they worth? Today they're worth X. Tomorrow they're worth Y; they're always worth something different. It's sold out, tickets are $75, there's some guy who didn't get a ticket. His kid wants to go and he doesn't care what he's got to pay. What's he going to do? The end of the line. He's going to get his kid a ticket. We need to be smart enough to understand that we should be ready for that guy.
IL: And how do you do that?
JM: Dynamically price my seats. I may not, it depends on the show. There was something that I coined a while ago that they thought I was always in favor of, which was called flow ticketing. It depends, depends on what you're doing. The thing to remember, at least for me, is that there's no status quo. My people know that every time we work with an artist and do a tour, we start right from the very beginning and go, "Okay, who is this? Who's their audience? What should we be doing here?" It's not like, "Okay, we got one, put it in the system." But, you know, it's just a live business. Our business is a NOW business, you know, you've set things up and you've got people watching over and doing their gigs and then something comes up and you've got to take a left. That's all it is, we're not really smart guys. We only add and subtract, multiply and divide.
IL: I think you're underselling yourself.
At this point, John and I had to take a break; the conversations with him understandably were conducted over a period of a few weeks, as you can imagine his time is limited. I did want to ask him about another topic that fans spend a lot of time discussing online; The Lucky Dip, a process that exists where fans that have bought “nosebleed” or otherwise obstructed seats can show up at the box office to pick up these tickets, and completely at random they’ve been upgraded to the front of the stage. Some people play this system like a slot machine, buying up as many pairs of lucky dip tickets as possible in the hope that it will still be cheaper than a pit ticket, the holy grail of Stones tickets. There is also a question about the pit, and it’s not a common one, but I’ve heard rumors, rumors to the effect that if the promoter can’t sell all those pit tickets, at show time they start dumping them, just in order to pack the pit. I personally have run into people at the shows who mysteriously had their tickets upgraded to the pit, for absolutely no reason other than the shirt they were wearing.
IL: So, one last question for you. How does the Lucky Dip work? Doesn't it affect box office numbers?
JM: Paul Gongaware came up with that idea. What we do is we take the last couple of rows up in the top of the building, maybe three or four rows, whatever it may be. Those are our really cheap seats. I forget how much we sell lucky dip for, but it's really cheap. We always know we're going to have production kills, things like the need for camera positions, sightlines, all that type of stuff. The fact is when you open up that many production holds, it can be a thousand seats or so when you get your production loaded in. You're not necessarily going to sell those at the last minute because everybody thinks the show is sold out.
So what we do is we take like a hundred seats from the pit, we take these other good seats that end up being from production kills, and we mix them all together, right? And then you put them in envelopes. So when people show up, they get an envelope. Most of them are going to end up in the nosebleeds, right? With the cheap seats. But some of them are going to end up in the pit and some of them are going to end up down there. So what it does, it allows us to make sure the house is completely full. It's a good way to clean up those seats at a cheap price. But it's really cool because a lot of people end up getting great seats. That's all it is. You know, it's nothing more than that. There’s no scam, nothing like that involved. It's just lucky dip. You may get lucky and end up in the pit. You may end up in a row in front of a mixer that we didn't think we could sell. It's really a cool program. I love it.
IL: I don't think there's any perception that this is some sort of scam, I was just curious how it affects box office numbers.
JM: We're not getting as much money as you probably could for those seats, but you're accomplishing something you need to accomplish, which is you don't want little holes of empty seats sitting out there. It also gives you a really cheap ticket price for a lot of people. And because we were such big fans of big IMAG, you know, large screens and all of that, those seats ended up being great seats. But the point is, it's really cool because it could be a couple that can only afford to sit up in the nosebleeds and they get lucky in their envelope and they get two seats in the pit. It's a good way to kind of make sure the house is full, but you're doing it in a cool way. At the end of the day, a couple hundred people bought nosebleeds and they're going to end up with great seats.
IL: I've met and talked to a lot of people in the pit that have lucky dipped in there and some people will buy eight pairs of tickets and just play it like a slot machine.
JM: That's funny. I haven't even thought about that, but you're right, people could do that. I noticed that. There's some guys that buy lucky dip all the time, you know, our regulars that go to every show and there's a couple of them, that as soon as they see me, they're coming up and going, "Can I get a pit wristband? Can I get it?" You know, every once while I'll give them a pit wristband, just because they're regulars and they're always hanging out and they're good fans.
IL: I've actually seen people, and I won't mention any names, but there are people in the pits that do this kind of thing. They're handing out wristbands seemingly at random. I don't know what the criteria are, but they're sure making a lot of dreams come true.
JM: It is important that that pit is full. So if it doesn't look really full to us right before the show, yeah. I've got some guys running around with some wristbands and they'll go and find people that look like they're really jumping up and down. Excited people, good-looking girls, good-looking guys, and all that kind of stuff. We'll hand them wristbands and they'll go up into the pit. But we do that because I want to make sure that pit is full.
When we did Desert Trip, and that stage was so damn wide, I was sitting there going, "Great, but Mick runs all the way down to the ends of the stage. He's gonna get all the way down there to the end and there's going to be nothing but empty space in front of him for fifty feet, we don't want that. The other guys didn't mind because they don't move. That show was a terrible vibe on stage anyway. Any time you're like in a big flat open space like that, the crowd noise just goes away. You don't feel anything on stage. It's like the deadest show in the world.
The Set List
A Rolling Stones set list typically looks something like this: The opening song can vary from show to show, but it’s usually down to three songs; Street Fighting Man, Jumping Jack Flash, and Start Me Up. After that, the next four songs can vary, and this is basically where the “variety” of the set list occurs. Those four songs can be almost anything. Sometimes it will be a more current song, like You Got Me Rocking or Out of Control, the latter of which is a fan favorite in South America. This is followed by the “song vote”, a portion of the show where fans are invited to vote for one of four songs. Mid-way through the show, Mick introduces the band, leaving Keith Richards for last, allowing the show to segue into the Keith Richards’ mini-set, which consists of two songs that were sung by Richards originally. After that comes what diehard fans describe as “the warhorse parade”, songs that are pretty much carved in stone. More times than not, the show ends with Satisfaction, followed the big bow and then a display of pyrotechnics.
Now, go back and read that paragraph again. It sounds innocuous enough, doesn’t it? Within that paragraph is an encapsulation of every diehard fan’s gripe about the set list. These fans are known as “set list whiners”, diehards who go to show after show after show, to essentially see the same thing, and then complain about it. How long have they been around? Since the second show the band ever played back in 1962. The first show the band ever played was on July 12, 1962. The very next night when they played, people complained in print about them not playing the same songs they played the night before. And fans haven’t stopped complaining since. Before they became a “legacy act”, it was the typical model of record a new album and tour to promote said album, with some of the old songs thrown in. Nowadays, they stick to the aforementioned model.
To sum it up, the diehard fans continue to follow the band from city to city, while actively complaining about the repetitive nature of the set list. They refer to the radio staples that the band plays as “warhorses”, songs like Satisfaction, Start Me Up, Miss You, and pretty much the Stones hits that the casual fans know. They hope against all odds that the band is going to cough up the deep tracks, like Slave, Fingerprint File, Dance Pt. 1, or Star Star.
Here’s what some of the band members had to say regarding the set lists:
IL: I read the interview that you did in Forbes magazine where you talk about 60% of the set list or songs that you've got to play. The diehard fans call them the warhorses, the classic songs that are carved in stone, the ones you have to play. You said that these songs represent about sixty percent of the set list. I hate to quote people on what they've said, because interviews are also a very organic thing, but it seems like if you've got forty percent of a set list to play with, there's a lot of room in there for a lot of the songs that the diehards want to hear. I see a lot of Stones shows, and it doesn't seem like forty percent of any set list is up for grabs. And I'm sure you've seen this online where you've got the die hard fans bitching about the songs that they want to hear, and then you've got all the people that are the casual fans that don't want to hear those songs, they want to hear the “warhorses”.
CL: Sure. And that's going to be a constant issue no matter what. You're never going to please all the people all the time; it's just not going to happen. So you have to kind of accept that and go for the best balance you can. You know, there are other issues too. The length of the show, personally I'd like to see that length extended, but you know, I have to do what my bosses tell me to do. If we had time for an extra two, three, four, five songs, it would be a lot easier to please those hard cores. But you know, I'm under what I'm told to do in terms of the length of the set. So with that said, I think we did It's Only Rock and Roll once on this tour.
We had to pull something to get something a little bit different from time to time, but look, you're going to have some people upset if you don't do Jumping Jack Flash, Start Me Up, Satisfaction, or You Can't Always Get What You Want. I mean, those are iconic songs, not just from The Rolling Stones but also from rock and roll history. It's very difficult for me to make a guess as to what percentage of the fans are coming to see The Rolling Stones for the first time or perhaps second. But that's how I would gamble to say that that's a large percentage of the people that walk in the door, you know really difficult to put a number on that. But the point being that those songs are very important to those folks. You know, they played the records, they listened to those songs. They stream them now. You know, they hear 'em on XM or Sirius radio and those are in large part the songs that they come and pay a rather large amount of money to hear. So I think it's really important that we play those songs.
IL: Sure, those are FM staples. I know you've got to play them, it just seems a lot of people don't agree. It's the hardcore fans. I don't know if you ever go online and read some of these forums where people are discussing this topic. IORR.org comes to mind.
CL: I used to more than I do now, but I did enough to know what the situation is and you know, I hear them. But again, if we could do a two and a half hour set, a lot of that could change, but we're not going to be doing that because that's not what they want to do. So you know, you gotta work with what you've got.
IL: Sure. I know there are some people that want you to do Slave and stretch that out to a 20-minute jam.
CL: Hey listen, I would love to do Can't You Hear Me Knocking more often, but that eats up two songs and we have done it, as you well know. But again, you know, you just gotta go with what parameters you are given. I do anyway. So when I draft up these set lists, that's what I have to play by.
IL: What do you think about the “set list whiners”, the people who complain that the band continues to play the same old set list, show after show after show?
BF: There are certain songs they have to do. You know that some of those songs, they HAVE TO PLAY! They have to play them every time they play, they have to. And that doesn’t leave a lot of room for the abstract or unpopular. They know they need to have the majority of fans leave that show and feel like they’ve SEEN them, you know?
IL: I guess you’re sort of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. All told, the hardcore fans wish that the band would bust out Monkey Man, Slave, and all the jam songs. They constantly complain about the “warhorse” songs, yet they still go to all the shows.
BF: Well, maybe they should keep complaining….
IL: Why? Is the band going to take notice? Do they go online and read all this complaining?
BF: Oh, they hear it. They’ll hear it. Believe me, hell yeah!
IL: What do you make of all the super fans complaining about the set list? The fact that the shows have had the same set list for years?
TR: These shows are filled with people who haven't seen The Stones in twenty years, and they're paying five hundred dollars for a ticket, and they want to hear Brown Sugar, You Can't Always Get What You Want, Satisfaction, and Gimme Shelter. They want to hear those hits. Sure, the band could play twenty songs that only the real die-hard fans want to hear. Both the band and the fans would love it if they did a whole night of that, but the majority of people in a huge stadium are not those hard-core fans. It sounds like you're one of those hard-core fans, so you should remember the tour where we did a stadium, an arena, and a small club. We didn't do it in every city, but we did it in a few of them, and we did a ton of stuff that we hadn't done before. That was a very unique tour. I don't know if we'll do one again like that, but never say never...
IL: Does the band ever take into account what the super fans are saying on certain “fan forums”? I know that there are certain songs that the band has to play, and that doesn’t leave room for much variance.
KD: I don’t know that the band ever takes anything away from fan forums; a lot of it is about which songs Mick and Keith want to play. And it’s true, there are certain songs that have to be played or else the majority of the fans will feel cheated.
THE SONG VOTE
During every Stones show, there is an “audience participation” song called the song vote. In the days that precede any given show, fans are invited to go online, and vote for one of four songs chosen by the band, and the song with the most votes gets played in that spot. There are large numbers of super fans that doubt the integrity of the song vote, claiming it’s fixed, pre-determined, or completely false. For evidence, some point to the fact that Ron Wood paints a set list of every single show on a canvas, an hour or so before the show takes place, and the song vote choice is already painted on it, yet the band says that they don’t know which song is going to win the vote until the moment they reveal the results of the vote onstage. It’s almost like a rock and roll version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
I wanted to know the mechanics of how the song vote takes place, whether or not it is indeed fixed, and why they do it.
IL: Let's talk about the song vote. Sometimes it seems like the song vote is dead on, exactly what you expect, and other times it's like, where did that come from?
CL: Yeah, we're sometimes surprised, I'm probably batting about 70% on what my guess is that the fans would vote for. But you know, there's 30% of the time that I get really surprised and Mick feels the same way, you know? And we try to, I mean, listen, we play by the rules on that, you know, whatever the fans vote on, that's what we play. Sometimes it's tempting to cheat on it, but we don't do that. I would like to see an even broader spectrum of songs under that. There are other issues that you have to deal with. Like for instance, ballads. You know, Mick doesn't like to do too many ballads. We usually only do one per gig. In the past there have been times when we would talk about doing a little ballad section. So maybe you do Angie and Wild Horses together. Or maybe you do Sweet Virginia and Let It Bleed, which is more of a medium tempo song and then do a ballad along with it. But again, it is an issue if the band only wants to play X amount of minutes a night. That leaves you having to make some choices.
IL: I bet it does. Harlem Shuffle was played once on this tour, that song hadn't been performed live since the Urban Jungle tour in 1990.
CL: Yeah, I think so, and that was a vote song as I recall. And yeah, you just never know. I think it's been up for vote before and had not made the cut, but you know, that is a fun part of the set, I must say. And I enjoy having a nice list of things to choose from to make suggestions for that spot.
IL: Does the band ever control which songs make it into the choices for song vote?
CL: I mean, sometimes one of the guys says, "No, I don't really want to do this," or "Don't put it up." And again, I have to live and work by what my employers want to do. But listen, we have a lot of fun working on those things together.
IL: It seems in concert that the band knows exactly which song is going to be picked for the song vote. Is the song vote real?
BF: Keep complaining, that’s what I say….
IL: I’m going to bet that the song that gets picked tomorrow night (Chicago, June 25 2019) is either Monkey Man or Harlem Shuffle (Note: The song picked was indeed Monkey Man). I always think it’s kind of a preset thing, like the band already knows which song they’re going to play. I’m going to point to the fact that there are so many guitar changes made between Keith and Ronnie, and they’re always ready to go with a specific guitar for a specific song.
BF: Well, I’m not privy to that, I just know when they say, “OK, well, tonight’s this song,” and I sometimes think, “Oh man, I wish that wasn’t the song! I wish we were playing another song.” You know, again, that list of songs to choose from has got to be limited. It’s got to, you have to limit it, you just have to. There’s no way some of the things that people wish we were playing could all be played, where would you stop?
IL: Sure, ninety percent of the audience would sit there wondering, “What the hell is this?” because they have never heard it on the radio.
BF: Absolutely right.
Why include anything about band rehearsals in an article? Why would anyone be interested in band rehearsals? Because with The Rolling Stones, information about when, where, and what they rehearse are passed along between the super fans on fan forums. No matter which city the band rehearses in, there will be spies there, stationed out on the street, as close as possible to the rehearsals space, listening in. Typically, over the last thirty years, the band has held rehearsals in Toronto, London, Paris, and Los Angeles. The 2013 and 2015 tours were rehearsed in Los Angeles, and I was one of the “spies” there. I didn’t report on entire set lists, but I did stick around long enough to record them doing Get Off My Cloud.
Super fans are extremely protective about the location of the rehearsals, and they never reveal it in public, much to the chagrin of all the readers on the public forums. What they do however is report on which songs the band rehearses, which comes back around to all the set list whiners. Typically you’ll hear that the band has rehearsed some deep track that hardcore fans have been waiting their whole lives to hear, only to be deflated by the usual set list, wondering why they didn’t play what they rehearsed. Some insist that the band is teasing fans by doing this. And, on a few rare occasions, the band has actually invited the rehearsal spies inside, to watch them run through a few numbers. Talk about an intimate show! Imagine going to a Stones show with an audience of six…
IL: Let’s talk about the rehearsals. When you’re in rehearsal, and I’ve actually been at a couple of them, it’s a pretty deep list of songs that gets rehearsed. You play some songs that the diehard fans would lose their shit to hear live, like Fingerprint File or Slave. You guys rehearse these songs, the “spies” report on it, and then the band never plays them live. Do you guys do this just to loosen up, or to piss off the stalkers?
BF: No, it’s just to see how they work, whether the band likes it enough or agrees to do it. You know, we go through those songs just in case we need to play them, there’s a long list of songs to choose from.
IL: Tell me about the rehearsals, because that seems to be a wide topic of discussion amongst the hardcore fans. You guys rehearse a huge litany of songs, but pretty much end up playing the same set list, with a few random songs thrown into the mix, plus the song vote. I was at the rehearsals in 2013 and 2015 and I heard the band playing some of their very early hits, yet we never heard these at the shows.
TR: Well, the rehearsals are just a time for everyone to get ready for the tour and they sometimes choose songs they haven't done in a long time. Like She's a Rainbow or Harlem Shuffle. I don't think we've played Harlem Shuffle since the early eighties. It's just like, "Hey, let's try this." I think we only did it once on this tour, in New York. Sometimes we'll go through sixty songs in rehearsal, and then maybe whittle it down to about forty songs, and then each night we take about twenty. And then they throw some of the ones that we did at rehearsal, again, like the Harlem Shuffle. We rehearse how we got it ready, let's do that during the sound check that day, and let's put it in at night. There's such a huge catalog of songs to choose from. It's their band and it's their choice what material they want to do, and we're just there to do it.
IL: Rehearsals typically happen a few weeks prior to the tour, what can you tell me about rehearsals? What’s the atmosphere like there?
KD: The rehearsals are my favorite part of the entire thing; I get the chance to hear songs that never get played live. The catalogue is vast, and what the band is doing is “trying the songs on” like pieces of clothing, to see what fits and what doesn’t.
IL: But for the most part, the set list is kind of carved in stone, with maybe a bit of wiggle room around the song vote, and them throwing in a rare gem here and there, so why do them?
KD: Kind of for the enjoyment of the people in the room. The atmosphere is completely different, there’s no pressure from the fans, or press, or anybody. It’s the only time the band gets to completely be at ease.
CL: Rehearsals are a lot about preparation for the next show, drafting a set list, doing some research to see what the set list was, the prior time we played any given city and maybe even the time before that. It also involves looking at song choices for what we call "the vote song", or there's a "by request" song we put up for every show. So, go through the choices for that and we'll submit that for approval. And, then of course, you know, the, the role of musical director is something that has morphed over time, probably starting back in, 1989 with the Steel Wheels tour when we had a rather extensive rehearsal period and it wasn't just me. But everyone felt like we should explore the body of work and come up with a longer list of songs to choose from to bring to the stage.
Prior to that tour, most of the time the set list was assigned from the beginning of the tour to the end of the tour. I certainly wanted to encourage everyone to have a broader view of the choices. At that point in time, during the Steel Wheels rehearsals, I began to take serious notes listing all the songs that we did rehearse, what were the arrangements? Did we have horns on it? What were the horn parts? What were the background vocals? Did we change the arrangement for any reason? How did it feel during the rehearsals? Did it feel like something that could be good to bring to the stage? And through the years I built on those notes.
So every time we had a rehearsal for a tour or any little spontaneous things that might have gone on, I started keeping notes about those issues. And so as time went on, I became the person to go to with the questions concerning the arrangements or those types of issues. And that led to me drafting the day-to-day rehearsal songs. And then, you know, that leads to actually doing a bit of conducting on stage for certain songs. If there's any question that the guys have about when the solo comes or when the bridge is coming or if we have a modulation in a song. I set the tempos as well for a lot of the songs that we do on stage. So, it's a multifaceted role. And basically I just see it as doing my best to keep everybody on track and to make everybody as comfortable as possible, both during the rehearsals and during the concert.
IL: How do you keep track of all this? When you started this in the Steel Wheels days, I'm imagining it was all done by hand. How do you do it now?
CL: Well, it is still done by hand. I have these two rather encyclopedic notebooks of all the notes that I've taken starting back with Steel Wheels and I've probably got, I would think somewhere around 250 or so songs. And these notes are all alphabetized. So the first volume is A to M, and then the second volume is everything after that. And they're all in clear plastic sheets, all arranged nicely. So if I need to refer to them I certainly can during rehearsals or if we're doing a sound check or whatever the case may be. So you know, that's what's been the process and it's a role that I really enjoy.
PREPARING FOR A TOUR
Because a Stones tour is literally a moving city, there are many things that go into preparing for a tour, from physical regimens, to acoustics and lighting, to itineraries. Schedules are blown to bits; plans are made, changed, and made again.
IL: What kind of preparations do you have to do before you go out on the road?
CL: You know, I believe in the old adage of "The Five P's", Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. I live by that and will always, no matter whether it's The Stones or somebody else. I start a regimen of practicing every day for a period of time before going on tour, or before even rehearsal starts, to make sure that I'm confident in what I'm doing and confident in my abilities. And other than that, it's a matter of listening, going back. And I do have the database in printed form, and in my computer, of all The Rolling Stones songs. These days, it's pretty easy to research what on any given tour, what you've been doing for the most part. And so, you know, I'll look at all of that. Sometimes passing emails to the guys and saying, "Look, do you have any thoughts before we go into rehearsal about songs you think you'd like to try out? And by the way, here's my thoughts." So there is some preparation done before we get together and get into the room to start the process.
IL: What kind of preparations do you have to do before you go out on the road?
DJ: I prepare for an upcoming tour by getting into as good a physical shape as I can though I admit, some tours I do better than others. I enjoy weightlifting and mitt work, which is what you sometimes see in the dressing rooms of boxers prior to a fight or during their training sessions. The trainer has pads on his hands and the boxer, or in my case, non-boxer throws combinations of punches that the trainer “catches" on the mitts. Perfect for me because it allows me to develop boxing technique without those pesky potential concussions from being repeatedly punched in the head. Walking up a steep hill or a series of stairs is another one of the things I do to get in shape.
DJ: Musically, I listen to any new material they may have decided to add to the set. I might work a little with Mick on bass tones. He seems to like more aggressive sounds. A little overdrive or distortion. Sometimes other effects depending on what the song needs. Mostly preparing just involves running the tunes and trying things. We follow song forms but no one’s parts are written in stone. It is, after all, rock and roll.
TR: If we've been touring for three months or whatever or total three months with the rehearsal and everything else, everyone's been away from home. And so it's kind of a sad day and also havoc as we know that all the tours are fun and everyone gets along well and we have a great time performing. And you know over the years you get to know the fans well and they come to a lot of the gigs and so the last concert is always a little bit of a sad kind of moment because you kind of think well everyone wants to go home for a while to get some rest but then it's kind of like well hopefully we'll do it again. Just based on the fact that this tour that happened with Mick getting sick, it shows you the fragility of life. He was practicing and started feeling weird and it turned out to be a bad valve in his heart. On another one of the tours, Keith hit his head. There are just all these things beyond just the logistics and the fact that you've got to stay healthy to tour.
CHOOSING THE LOCATIONS
One sport that the super fans like to play online is the “which countries and cities will the band play in on the next tour?” If you ever browse the fan forums, this is part blood sport, and part data analysis. Fans will go to such lengths as tracking the booked acts in the cities they think the band is going to play in. If all of a sudden an unrelated performer cancels a date in a big stadium, they will point to this as evidence that The Stones have bumped them. Once the fans get past the prediction phase, they move into the stage where they argue in favor of their particular city. There are many theories such as, “They have a deal with the NFL”, or “They only play in AEG owned stadiums.” The biggest insight into this came from promoter John Meglen. As for the other members of the band, perhaps only Mick and Keith really know where they’re going to play, and I’m willing to bet that the market data produced by the promoter is the biggest single factor influencing those decisions.
IL: Who or what determines which cities they're going to play in or which countries? How does that happen?
JM: We're constantly doing research. You look at where you've been. So for an artist, the old school used to be, they would go in and cut a record, right? And they would put the record out and then they would go tour with that. Now, people put out individual songs, they don't need to necessarily put out albums, but eventually an artist figures out, "Hey, this is the time period I'm going to go tour." Then you figure out is it an indoor tour, is it an outdoor tour? If it's an outdoor tour, then obviously the weather is your biggest factor. You'll go down South of the equator in the winter here and you'll be up here when it's nice.
So, that's why you'll see South America and Australia always in our winter months. So the weather plays into it. Then, when were you in those places the last time? In a perfect world, you like to have three or four years between the times you go back to cities. That's not necessarily true in the pop business, but in the rock business, that was kind of standard. Country music, they tend to over saturate a little. Pop music, when it's really, really hot, you put as much on sale as you possibly can and you keep adding shows because the tickets are selling because the artist is hot at the moment.
IL: I don't believe there is a country in the world where The Stones would play and they wouldn't just sell out.
JM: Well, we always say that, but nothing is perfect in our world. I usually say that every tour you do, no matter who it is, there's always going to be a couple of dogs in it. You never know why something weird happens. Look how long it has taken the market of Manchester in the UK to recover after the Ariana Grande shooting incident. Manchester used to be the biggest market in the UK, after London. Suddenly, it took a really heavy hit in attendance for a couple of years because of that incident. A lot of times there's so many factors, sometimes the only time that these artists can work can put you in a bad situation on timing, or you need to get on sale before Christmas, you're trying to feed other people on sale that have similar types of audiences. So you know, it's a live game going on all the time.
IL: So it's pretty much all really a logistics and analytics game. A lot of people have this perception that Mick Jagger is sitting there going, "We haven't played in Japan for years, let's play there."
JM: Noooo, for instance in Japan, probably the toughest market to get avails, avails meaning dates that you can get in and play. All the domed stadiums, which are great buildings over in Japan, they're booked every day of the year it seems. You want to get dates at the Tokyo Dome; you've got to start working on that a year in advance. That building is probably one of the toughest buildings to get into in the world, just simply because the baseball team plays in there. We're constantly working around sporting events more than anything else. You know, if you're playing in the fall and you're playing baseball stadiums, all these teams are sitting there holding playoff holds. But we know at the end of the day that 75% or 80% of them are not making the playoffs, but until they really know they're not making the playoffs, they can't officially give you the dates. I mean, we had to move the Stones show forward a day, I think on the 50 and Counting tour in LA because it was the basketball or hockey playoffs.
IL: Yeah. I remember that. That was Basketball.
JM: Yeah. That was crazy, and the worst thing you can do is move shows forward.
IL: Why is that?
JM: There's going to be some people that didn't hear, and they're gonna show up the next day and go, "Uh, what do you mean it was last night?" We had to do that with The Stones in Miami because the hurricane at that time was coming right at us. I mean, luckily it turned, but at that time, we had to make the call. If that thing had kept going at the speed it was going, it would have hit Miami right when we were doing the show.
IL: Not to mention all the people that are flying in from all over the world. With The Stones, they'll fly in from all over the world.
JM: Who wants to go to Florida in August? But a lot of people did. A lot of Canadians were coming to have this show in Florida. I had so many people I talked to that said, "Oh, I don't know if I should fly or cut out that show.” It was crazy!
IL: As to where the band plays, I've heard differing versions of how the cities get chosen. I've heard that Mick and Keith are involved, or that it's purely a management decision. How much of that do you think is a management decision?
TR: I think the band is probably present. First off, I've never been in one of those meetings because that's their band. I would imagine that the promoters, the management, and the band get together, the band meaning Mick, Keith, Charlie, and Ronnie, and they have a meeting like saying, "Hey, this just ended it was a great tour. We did well. What do you think about spring or summer here or there? What's your take? Does that sound interesting?" The time we went to South America was an incredible tour, going through places they hadn't been. Peru, Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil. I think it was one of their most interesting tours because it was just unusual venues. And then of course the one in Brazil on the beach in Rio. They don't even know how many people were there; I've heard more than half a million people.
Another popular game with the hard-core fans is predicting when the tour will happen. Information leaks out from time to time, there are people that work for individual stadiums, lighting companies, staging companies, and even the backline members. Typically, the backline guys find out about a tour roughly six months before it happens.
IL: The band must know that there's another leg coming up months in advance, how do you find out about an impending tour?
TR: Well, we just had a great tour and usually it ends on a positive note and we don't want to start planning immediately. But you know at some point they have to decide to think about this. What should we do and where should we do it? Europe? Asia? Australia? You know, it's one of those strategic things that that have to be decided by Mick and Keith, the management, and the promoters. And there's a lot of things that go into place and then if the tour can happen and then how many concerts and how long of a period. You know, there's all the finer details that we as musicians aren't privy to until we're told, "Hey it looks like we're gonna tour from this time to this time, so if you can keep yourself open that would be good." And then we sort of look ahead thinking, “OK well I'll keep my calendar open for three months.”
Right now I can't tell you what that is. Here we are in September 2019 and I don't know if it's going to be January or next April or next summer. It could be anything but we don't know. Right now the thing is, we just decompress, go home, spend time with family and then start doing other things. Most of us do our own gigs. So we start touring and gigging and recording and doing our own stuff in the downtime. And that's the low down at the end of tour. It's always a happy day to go home to the family but I 'm always like, oh shoot I wonder when that's going to happen again, It's super fun stuff.
When the tour is announced, we all get a flight itinerary, with details of which cities we're going to, what the dates are, and which hotels we'll be in. Once we're on the road, they put a sheet of paper under the door every night, telling us what time we need to be at the airport, whether we have the next day off, what time our bags need to be ready by, what time we need to be at the venue for a sound check. We're herded around, as we should be.
IL: How far in advance do you hear about an upcoming tour?
CL: If The Stones call up and say, "Let's go!" You know what the answer would be.
IL: I've spoken to almost everybody in the band with the exception of Mick, Keith, Ronnie, and Charlie, everybody says the same thing. You must know something about the next tour. You know, it's out there from some pretty reliable sources that there's a tour happening in March or April.
CL: We never take that seriously until the actual call comes. We hear rumors as well. There are a lot of those rumors, as you well know that just don't pan out. So we believe that when we get the call.
IL: I know they start the negotiations or the process of putting the tours together a year before it happens. You must know something at this point.
CL: Listen; there are multiple options that they're dealing with. It could be South America; it could be back to Japan and Asia. I'm sure the States could also possibly be an option. They start way out, but it gets culled down until a decision is made. And believe me, I can tell you right now, I don't think any decision has been made about anything at the present. Here's the hint, they usually wait as long as they possibly can to make that decision. That's been the modus operandi for some time.
IL: So how far in advance do you typically get that call?
CL: Oh, it depends, maybe anywhere from four to six months in advance.
IL: How were you informed of the US portion of the No Filter tour, and how far in advance?
KD: We always find out about the tours roughly six months prior to them happening.
IL: How far in advance do you hear about a new tour?
BF: I’ll be honest with you. For a lot of years, it was not a lot of notice. I think we get more notice now, more than ever, which is something we side guys had to mention we’d hear about. There was a time when we always heard about a tour from the fans before we heard it from “the office”, and we would all call each other and say, “You hear anything official about a tour? The fans are talking about it.” This was incredible, and nine times out of ten, those fans were right! It’s like, damn, you know? So that’s changed a bit. So, to answer your question, at the end of the last leg of this tour, they did tell us to keep things open at certain dates. We did, and I think the day that I was supposed to leave I got a call that said, “Hey, don’t get on that plane!”
IL: Was that because of Mick’s heart surgery?
BF: Yeah. I remember I was on the road touring Europe with Nickel Bag. The tour had just ended and I walked into the house. The phone rang and Keith was on the other end of the phone, growling, “Where the hell are you?” I told him I’d just gotten off the road and he told me “Get your ass here!” Where? I replied. That’s happened two or three times, I always remembered that. His timing was perfect. I would wonder, how did he know that I was home every time…?
DEALING WITH THE PRESS
The very first time I ever interviewed a member of the band was in London in 2018 with Darryl Jones. He had invited me over to his hotel to chat, and I could not have been more pleased. Most interviews these days take place over the phone, and to conduct an in-person interview is pretty rare. When I was on my way over by cab, I got a phone call from Darryl, asking me if we could do the interview a bit later. The reason; I had to be “vetted” by the press officer. A short time later, he called back and gave me the green light, but that started me wondering just how much information each person is allowed to divulge.
IL: What about dealing with the press? I know there’s a press office that travels with the band. When I interviewed Darryl last year when you were in London, I had to be vetted first, just before the interview. Do they give you a list of topics that are off limits? Do you get any sort of briefing?
BF: We used to get a lot of that back in the early days, but I’ve been around long enough to know what to talk about and what not to talk about. I already made that mistake once, and I’m not about to make it again!
IL: What happened?
BF: The very first time I spoke to the press was when I did an interview in the U.K. I had no idea how brutal the press there could be and I said something that the reporters totally flipped around. Next thing, I get a call from Mick, and he was pissed off. Well, upset maybe, I don’t know how pissed off he was. He asked, “Why did you say that?” I told him what had happened and that the press had completely twisted around my comments and he said, “Bernard, you’ve got to be very careful talking to the press, they will twist around almost everything you say.” So as far as topics that are off limits, you just know those things, nobody needs to tell you what not to say.
IL: Well, when you read an interview with Mick, Ronnie, Charlie, or Keith, it's almost always the same answers, as though they're reading from a playbook. They seem to always say the same thing. Interviewing you however is nothing like that. You've had numerous projects outside of the band, and you don't give off the impression that any topic is off limits.
BF: The reason they seem to say the same thing regardless of what the question is because it's hard to come up with something new. What do you? What do you ask? What would you ask someone like Mick or Keith? Try and find a question that Mick Jagger or Keith Richards haven’t been asked before.
IL: What about dealing with the press, people like me? Has there ever been any sort of briefing, like for instance, don't talk about this, this is okay to talk about? Are there any limits?
TR: I think everyone's pretty aware of like, we're not going to say something ridiculous, there's no reason for us to do so. It's such a good gig and they treat us so well. If there is some press, sometimes there are restrictions, like don't take pictures of summer rehearsals or whatever, just common sense stuff really, no major restrictions.
IL: You’re pretty new to the band. Is there any sort of briefing that takes place that advises you what topics not to talk about with the press?
KD: No, it’s more a thing of respecting everyone’s space. Mick is always busy, he comes in hot, he comes out hot, and he’s always got a ton of things going on at the same time. When I joined, I had dinner with each of the core four members individually, just to kind of get to know them.
A discussion of The Rolling Stones inevitably includes something about their combined age, how long they’ve been touring, why they keep doing it. I’ve seen more concert reviews than I care to remember that start with something like, “With a combined age of…” Let’s face it, The Rolling Stones are without precedent, and who cares what age they are? As long as they keep playing and everyone keeps going, it just doesn’t matter. Ask any member of the band, and you’ll get something similar yet stronger, and rightfully so.
IL: What’s the secret to the longevity and the tightness of the band these days? It seems over the years that the group just keeps getting tighter and tighter.
CL: The band these days has really hit a consistency and I love that. I think it's largely because we haven't been taking long periods of time off. We take months off, but since 2012 we've pretty much toured every year. When it becomes difficult is when you don't tour for two or three years or whatever it might be. That requires a lot of remembering and getting back into the groove of things. When you do it every year, there's a consistency involved. And I think that's really helped the presentation of these recent tours.
IL: Mick and Keith are in their seventies, and you’re about to hit sixty. Just seeing what they’re capable of at their age, does it make you feel younger?
BF: It never really crosses my mind. I’ve probably thought about it but I just don’t deal with that. I think if you think about that too much, you just get there a lot quicker. That thought can also change what you do musically, it can take away some of your energies and make you mellow. I still love a loud guitar! Music keeps you young forever!
TR: I'm seeing these guys who are in their mid to late seventies staying healthy, still playing at a high level, and having integrity. I think the biggest thing is if they thought that they weren't doing it well they would stop. I don't think you're going to see Mick sitting on a bench in Vegas singing ballads, but you know, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe when he's ninety he'll do that, but he can do whatever he wants because he can still do what he does. He can still sing his ass off, fronting and dancing and jumping and entertaining, he's being Mick. He can still be Mick Jagger very well. And I think as long as he can do that and Ronnie, Keith, and Charlie can still play well, they haven't lost their ability to deliver, as long as that can happen then I think they should do it. It's not even selfishly thinking because I want to gig, it's just the fact that I hope when I'm seventy five or eighty that I'm doing my gigs and my thing.
IL: What do you attribute the longevity to?
TR: I'd like to think music keeps you very young. I think that's the biggest thing. Music is a youthful thing. It creates a certain energy. Bobby Keys is an example. He was playing on the gigs and he was sick and I was looking at him like, "I don't know how he's going to play a gig." And sure enough right before he'd get up on stage and he'd blow, and nobody knew that he was sick because he's so excited. But he was definitely sick backstage and I'd look at him and say, "Bobby, man you don't have to do this gig, and he'd say, "I'm doing it!" And he was like, "I did it." Until his last dying breath, he wanted to play.
IL: Keith Richards once famously said of The Rolling Stones, "Come out and see us, one of us might die on stage."
TR: Well hopefully when you go you can be surrounded by your loved ones. And the last day that we're here we don't know when that's going to be. They say that the best way to make God laugh is to tell him what you're doing tomorrow. It could be when you're sixty or ninety, it can be when you're a hundred and four, whenever that is, and you just hopefully die gracefully. But you want to be able to do what you do. That's the main thing, we love what we're doing and we want to share that kind of feeling and people feel that. That's why I think all these fans are there, because they sense that the band is not dialing it in.
IL: I was in Chicago for the tour opener and Mick ran by. He was running the catwalk. He drops the mic, turns and looks right at us, and yells, "Fuck Yeah!" Anybody who witnessed that would know right then and there what his motivation is, and it isn't money or vanity. You knew right there that he LOVES what he does.
TR: Can you imagine being Mick? Walking in front of 60,000 people and especially at that gig. This is after he had this heart surgery. It's like he's healthy and he's able to do this, the doctor is giving the thumbs up. He's out there like, "I'm alive man I'm here doing this shit!!!" Knowing that six weeks prior he was under the scalpel?? Before going into that operation, of course it seemed like he should be okay, but anything can happen. We only hope that they stay healthy and we can keep doing it. People often ask if they're going to retire, why would they retire?
IL: People have been asking that question since the 1970s.
TR: Yeah. And I think the biggest question I hear is, "They have so much money why would they need to tour?" It's not that they need money, all musicians in any genre whatever it is, you got into it because you love playing music. That doesn't go away. It's not like all of a sudden just because you're 70, 75, 80, years old think, "I've done this and..." There's so many jazz greats that played into their 90s and even their hundreds and they just do it because they have to do it, it's part of who they are. And I think it's The Stones’ identity. Why would you not want to get on stage and play for people who love it?
IL: Perhaps people who ask why The Stones don't retire just don't get it. They're musicians and they love to play; they'll play for three people. It's just it's in their DNA.
TR: Exactly. As teenagers getting into it, you don't think about being stars or making tons of money, you just think, "I have to do this, this is what inspires me." You're influenced by the greats that came before you and you try to become one of those guys, you want to become like them. Like Muddy Waters or for me, Coltrane or Wayne Shorter or Charlie Parker. I'm still trying to play up to their standards. It'll take my whole life and I'll never reach that level, but I'm trying.
And to think that a lot of people still question why the band continues to perform, saying, "Don't they have enough money? Why do they need to tour and charge such high prices?" They don't realize that they are providing a great deal more to people than they're taking out of it.
I don't even know what Mick and Keith are making but whatever it is, I hope the fans aren't thinking about the fact that Mick and Keith are making X amount of dollars, hopefully they just realize they're seeing us having a good time and enjoying ourselves, and the audience therefore is also enjoying it. And I think that they don't need the money so it's not about that. They could stop now because all their kids and grandkids would be cool forever.
One of the most esoteric yet fascinating things to dissect about the band are the dynamics of interaction that take place on stage. There are subtle cues, lighting cues, scripts projected onto monitors, and stage directions being fed into in-ear monitors. This isn’t a show from the 1970’s, the entire thing is choreographed, but even with that amount of control, there’s still a human element to a show. As Music Director, Chuck Leavell had some unique insights.
IL: You mentioned that on the stage you do a lot of the cueing, is that an organic thing that you're just playing and they follow you or are there visual cues?
CL: Visual cues. And I try to be very discreet about it, you know, I don't want to be trying to wave my arms too much. I mean, sometimes that is required to give the ending of the song or, certain places may require a little bit more attention than others, but I'll try to keep it very discreet. Even sometimes just eye contact, small motions of the hand, small signals, that kind of thing.
IL: That must be why a Stones show is so slick.
CL: Well, I don't know about that.
IL: What’s funny is a lot of the hardcore people that are up in the front; they love to see the mistakes.
CL: Well it's true. And those things are going to be inevitable. And that's part of the charm of The Stones.
IL: Yeah, it is. It confirms that they aren’t just dialing it in.
CL: And we all love it too. We get a laugh out of it, you know, I will say that that has been a lesson learned for me as a professional, that and other musical situations I would have been in in the past before I ever worked with The Stones. I would tend to get upset if someone plays the wrong part or somebody screwed up on stage and, you know, doing that with The Stones and realizing that's just kind of part of the dynamics from time to time. It doesn't happen at every gig, it might happen, once every ten gigs or so. But it's kind of helped me to laugh at myself and others. Hey, it's only rock and roll, but it’s helped my attitude immensely to have that lesson learned.
IL: I was there in Chicago for the second show, with the whole Paint It Black thing. It was a false start.
CL: We all had a funny moment trying to wave Keith down and he was like, "Well, what are they doing?" He had launched into Midnight Rambler and the rest of the band was starting Paint It Black. That was fantastic!
IL: When it comes to the dynamics of playing keyboards, do you weave any of the parts with Matt Clifford? Kind of the way Keith and Ronnie do?
CL: Well, I'm more of the organic player and I'm going to be playing the "meat and potatoes" for the most part, meaning piano and Hammond Organ and maybe a Wurlitzer. And with Matt he's very good at orchestrations. So anything like strings on Angie, or maybe a sitar sound on Paint It Black or any sounds like that, that enhance or that might be on the record with a Mellotron for instance, on She's a Rainbow or, we haven't done 2000 Light Years From Home in a long time. But Matt handled the Mellotron part on that. So you know, those are the issues that he and I look at. There might be certain songs where in the past when Matt wasn't with us, as I would do both piano and organ at the same time. But now, with him there, I can choose one or the other and let him handle the other side of it. So we work really well together. Matt's a close friend. He's very close to Mick as well. And of course, you know, he spends a lot more time with Mick, as they both live in London, at least some of the time. It's pretty easy and comfortable for he and I to work things out.
IL: Do you and Karl play off of each other kind of in the same way that Keith and Ronnie do, what they call "The ancient art of weaving?” Do you ever weave saxophones parts?
TR: We do. Because we're right next to each other physically we're close, but also we hear each other from our monitors so we try to play as a section in a way, and then Matt on keyboards also is playing a lot of stuff with us. So it's kind of the three of us is this horn/keyboard section. Matt Clifford has these sounds that kind of emulate chords that bring up the two Saxes, so it sounds almost like a full section. After playing together for so long, we kind of know what the other's going to do and how we're going to approach it. If there's some new tune we haven't done in a while, it's just a matter of having the sensibility of playing with each other. So it's a different kind of weaving. And then if he or I do gigs on the side, either his or mine, then we get a chance to play and that's when we do more of what you're talking about.
IL: How much of what you do is improvised?
TR: There are certain songs that originally had horn parts in them, like songs from Sticky Fingers or whatever, and we have to play as close to the original as possible. Then there are some songs that didn't necessarily have parts that maybe we add parts to, depending on the song, like Monkey Man.
IL: If Matt Clifford is more closely integrated with you and Karl, is Chuck Leavell more integrated with other people in the band? Is that the reason that there are two different keyboard players?
TR: Matt sort of bridges the rhythm section because he's got two or three keyboards on his rack, and he can play piano sounds, he can make organ sounds, like a Fender Rhodes, he can make string sounds or make it sound like a low brass or a trumpet. So he kind of does a lot of different sounds. So there's times he's playing with Chuck and while Chuck's playing an organ sound, he'll play a piano sound or vice versa. Or if Karl and I are playing a horn part, he'll join us and play a horn part. What Matt does is an integral part of the band; it's a bridge between the horns and the rhythm section.
IL: Has anything changed for you since Bobby Keys departed?
TR: I've played hundreds of gigs with this guy, standing next to him and I really liked Bobby a lot. He was a very unique individual and I miss him a lot, he was just such a great character. His sound was very identifiable and he created a certain thing. He just did. It was like, "That's Bobby Keys!" The way he played and his solos were a part of the song. It really became like another verse or something. Unfortunately, Bobby got sick and died. Karl Denson came on and Karl's a great guy and a great musician and yes, he's very different. You know you're not going to replace Bobby; you bring in a good person. And Karl has fit in really well.
IL: How hard was it to step into Bobby’s shoes?
KD: Well, as far as playing his parts, it wasn’t that hard. That’s not to say that Bobby was easily replaced, and I was given a certain amount of freedom in how I play those parts. Nobody has ever complained that I’m not playing anything right. It’s very sad that Bobby passed away; he seemed like the life of the party. When anyone in the band mentions Bobby, it’s always with a laugh or a chuckle; everybody remembers the good times they had with him.