Charlie Watts is Honored during the Rolling Stones’ tour
With only the drum track to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” reverberating through the stadium, four video panels lit up with Charlie Watts images. The opening tribute to the recently deceased Rolling Stones mainstay, sometimes smiling, sometimes stoic, but always playing drums with his idiosyncratic touch, smoothly set the tone for the next two-plus hours of one of rock’s grandest catalogs.
Mick Jagger, the band’s indefatigable leader, acknowledged the band’s loss two songs into the set on the second date of the band’s “No Filter” tour, which resumed Sept. 26 in St. Louis after a 16-month pandemic delay.
With guitarists Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood by his side, Jagger reminded the nearly full Bank of America Stadium that this was The Rolling Stones’ first tour in 59 years without Watts. Watts died on August 24 at the age of 80 in a London hospital.
“It was great to see those Charlie images in the video,” Jagger said. “It always brings back memories of the shows we did together… I’m sure many of you have memories of your own.”
He dedicated the show to Watts’ memory as the band launched into “Tumbling Dice,” as Watts would have preferred.
Chuck Leavell, The Rolling Stones’ musical director and primary keyboardist since the mid-’80s, spoke about the emotional return earlier this week via Zoom from his Charlotte hotel room (the band is abiding by COVID-19 protocols, though Jagger documented his visit to a local dive bar Wednesday night on social media).
“We think about him every minute of every day,” Leavell said. “Charlie Watts would never want to be the reason this band stopped. (Mick and Keith) are doing great under the circumstances. We miss (Charlie), but it’s exciting for all of us to finally do this. I can’t tell you how good it felt in St. Louis to finally get back on that stage. And Ronnie is in great shape – clean and sober for a long time now and physically strong. I think rock ‘n’ roll helps keep you young.”
A few weeks before Watts’ death, which Leavell described as “absolutely was a surprise” the drummer bowed out of the tour to recover from an undisclosed medical procedure. Given his years in the Stones’ orbit, ace sticksman Steve Jordan, whose resume includes stints with Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, John Mayer, and Richards’ side project, the X-Pensive Winos, allowed for a seamless transition.
“Steve is doing a magnificent job. He’s worked so hard,” Leavell said. “He’s honoring Charlie’s parts but being his own man at the same time.”
Indeed, at Thursday’s Charlotte show, Jordan combined Watts’ signature swing – and his unusual way of playing by not hitting the high hat and snare at the same time – with his own muscular approach. Jordan’s groove with bassist Darryl Jones on “Miss You” was sinisterly funky, while an exceptionally taut “Start Me Up” benefited from Jordan’s guidance.
His presence has also allowed the band to change its set list, including the addition of “19th Nervous Breakdown,” which is being performed live for the first time in 16 years.
Leavell, as The Rolling Stones’ musical director, had a special rapport with Watts, especially during live performances. His absence has been felt.
“I gave him a lot of direction during every show to signal changes from parts of songs or endings, so I’m used to looking that way and I still do it. It’s in my DNA to make those motions,” Leavell explained. “On a personal level, it’s affected me to look over and he’s not there.”
Throughout the Charlotte show, which was consistently packed with classics and Jagger’s exhausting moves (remember that heart valve replacement surgery in 2019? Yeah, that’s no problem for this dynamo), the band exuded renewed vigor.
Wood, who had cancer last year, and Richards, who wore a canary yellow knit cap pulled over his head, looked like mischievous schoolboys having a good time.