Ron Wood: Dishevelment Blues

For someone who has spent the past 30 years in the most famous rock ’n’ roll band of all time, Ronnie Wood really doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He never has. It’s probably the crowd he runs with.

In the mid-’60s, after a short stint with influential Pop-art rockers the Creation, of “Making Time” fame, Wood was drafted to play bass in the Jeff Beck Group, Beck’s post-Yardbirds solo outing. Along with an unknown singer named Rod Stewart, the group released Beck-ola and Truth—groundbreaking albums that blueprinted the English interpretation of Chicago blues, and made way for the coming of hard rock and heavy metal.

But it was in the early ’70s, when Ronnie and Rod joined Brit soul sensations the Small Faces, that Wood’s astounding guitar playing was first truly showcased. Abbreviating the band name to the Faces, the band released three powerhouse records—Long Player, A Nod is As Good as a Wink … To a Blind Horse, and Ooh La La. From the screaming, sleazy bar rock of “Stay With Me” and “You’re So Rude” to tender, fragile ballads like “If I’m On the Late Side” and “Debris,” penned by the great Ronnie Lane, the Faces could have an audience tearing out the seats one second and crying in their beers the next.

With a legendary, booze-soaked live show, the band was a rolling, five-year blowout, musically driven by Wood’s beautifully disheveled playing. Reversing the guitar trend of the early ’70s, Ronnie’s cranked, open-tuned guitar would blast out ear-shattering, overdriven rhythm, then clean up for sweet, melodic leads. With amazing slide playing, and slinky, tremolo-drenched shuffles, Wood’s playing with the Faces is a revelation: loose and grooving, always in the pocket, seemingly effortless. And when Wood closes the last Faces album with a vulnerable and heartfelt vocal performance on “Ooh La La”—his first on record, delivered while the band watched laughing from the control booth—the vulnerability of his voice and his swirling acoustic guitar lines perfectly underscore the regret in Ronnie Lane’s lyrics, becoming a fitting goodbye to the band. I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger, Wood sings. I wish that I knew what I know now when I was stronger.

After the Faces crumbled under the weight of Rod Stewart’s solo popularity in America, Wood contributed some beautiful acoustic and slide guitar to Stewart’s great early records, highlighting songs like “Gasoline Alley” and “Every Picture Tells a Story.” And then he got the call.

There’s no talking about Ron Wood without talking about the Rolling Stones. After all, the band has been his musical home since 1976. Called into the band by close friend Keith Richards, Wood replaced the dazzlingly fluid Mick Taylor. Wood came in blazing, adding a much-needed dose of humor and enthusiasm to the band, which was in a dark period of addiction, infighting, and minimal output. From the tough swagger of “Hand of Fate” to the dirty Chuck Berry boogie of “Star Star” and the stomping “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” Wood gave the Stones the full Faces treatment. By the time of the fast and ragged Some Girls, Wood was showcasing his full range of talents, from the soul slink of “Beast of Burden” to the lap steel sweetness of “Far Away Eyes.”

The surest way to discover a musical ignoramus—besides some idiotic impression of Bob Dylan’s singing—is when someone dismisses Wood as a pale imitation of Keith Richards. Those are rock ’n’ roll fighting words. For the past three decades, Wood and Richards have honed what they call the ancient art of weaving. Lead and rhythm parts spiral in and out of each other, as the two guitarists swerve and slide through the songs—delicately connected, creating and releasing tension, gracefully sliding through the melody and dancing around the rhythm.

It doesn’t happen because they are so similar—it happens because they are so different, and they can meet on the shared ground of the music they love. Richards is all Chuck Berry stomp and Muddy Waters sparseness. When the open-G chords chime from his guitar, it is clear that Richards is going back to Robert Johnson, going deep into the blues and early rock ’n’ roll that he has championed his whole life. Ronnie comes in, swinging, from the other end of American music—with sweet, slippery Memphis soul doublestops that recall Steve Cropper, Cornell Dupree, and Bobby Womack. Together, they meet at their shared love of Studio One Jamaican rhythm and crying, honky tonk ballads. Then they steep it all in some of the most incredible rock ’n’ roll songs ever written. And while the Stones may never have realized, the way Rod Stewart seemed to, just what a treasure they have found with Wood, they wouldn’t be the Stones without him.

Ronnie has recently gotten a little glimmer of the spotlight with the release of the new two-disc compilation Ronnie Wood Anthology: The Essential Crossexion. Wood’s work is broken down in two sections. The first disc compiles the best songs from his loose, good-natured solo albums of the early 70s, and the second disc is a career retrospective of his work in some of the best bands ever. The set goes all the way back to Wood’s first band, the Birds, and up to his fiery guitar workouts on “Black Limousine” from Tattoo You. It is an endearing portrait of an incredible career, as Wood’s ragged-but-right guitar playing and scratchy, earnest vocals tell the whole rowdy, weary story of his never-ending party.

-Ari Surdoval

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