'We think about him every minute of every day': Charlie Watts remembered in Rolling Stones tour
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - With only the drum track to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” reverberating through the stadium, four video panels lit up with images of Charlie Watts. Sometimes smiling, sometimes stoic, but always playing drums with his idiosyncratic touch, the opening tribute to the recently deceased Rolling Stones mainstay smoothly set the tone for the next two-plus hours of one of rock’s grandest catalogs.
On the second date of the band’s “No Filter” tour, which resumed Sept. 26 in St. Louis after a 16-month pandemic delay, indefatigable leader Mick Jagger acknowledged the band’s loss two songs into the set.
Flanked by guitarists Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, Jagger reminded the nearly full Bank of America Stadium that this was The Rolling Stones’ first tour without Watts in 59 years. Watts died at a London hospital on Aug. 24 at age 80.
“It was great to see those images of Charlie on the video,” Jagger said. “It always reminds us of the shows we did together…I’m sure lots of you have memories as well.”
He dedicated the show to Watts’ memory as the band rolled into “Tumbling Dice,” business as usual, the way Watts would have preferred.
Earlier this week, Chuck Leavell, musical director and primary keyboardist in The Rolling Stones since the mid-‘80s, talked via Zoom from his Charlotte hotel room (the band is abiding by COVID-19 protocols, though Jagger documented on social media his visit to a local dive bar Wednesday night), about the emotional return.
“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 prior to Watts’ death – which Leavell said “absolutely was a surprise” – the drummer bowed out of the tour to recuperate from an undisclosed medical procedure. 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 given his years in the Stones’ orbit.
“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 show in Charlotte, Jordan integrated Watts’ signature swing – and his unusual way of playing by not hitting the high hat and snare simultaneously – with his own muscular approach. His groove with bassist Darryl Jones during “Miss You” was so funky it was sinister, while an exceptionally taut “Start Me Up” benefited from Jordan’s guidance.
His presence has also allowed the band to transform its set list, so far adding “19th Nervous Breakdown,” which is being performed live for the first time in 16 years.
As The Rolling Stones' musical director, Leavell had a special rapport with Watts, particularly during live performances. His absence has been palpable.
“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 said. “On a personal level, it’s affected me to look over and he’s not there.”
Throughout the Charlotte show, reliably packed with classics and the exhaustive moves of 78-year-old Jagger (remember that heart valve replacement surgery in 2019? Yeah, not a problem for this dynamo), the band emanated a renewed vigor.
Wood – who endured a bout with cancer last year – and Richards, a canary yellow knit cap pulled over his head, were like mischievous schoolboys who were obviously having a blast.
The pair cheered on Leavell during his rollicking “Honky Tonk Women” keyboard solo, talked and laughed with each other during songs and reveled in the music. Wood uncorked a blazing solo during “You Can’t Always Gets What You Want,” while a cheery Richards frequently put a hand on Jagger’s shoulder, which the singer reciprocated with smiles.
Leavell noted that the week Watts died, “there were three topics in the news: Afghanistan, Hurricane Ida and Charlie Watts. And it was beautiful to see the way so much love was given to Charlie.”
Perhaps the loss of a core member coupled with the uncertainty of ever touring again (their last pre-pandemic “No Filter” date was in August 2019) has reintroduced a new level of appreciation and affection within the band.
There was certainly much fondness on display at the end of the show.
After the full lineup took its bows, Jagger, Richards and Wood linked arms on the catwalk as a photo of Watts, slightly smiling in his trademark suit and tie, loomed above, his spirit ingrained in this band’s legacy.