Garden of good and Leavell

Rolling Stones' Macon-based keyboardist sows the seeds of rock

The morning after a bomb threat interrupted the Rolling Stones' Charlottesville, Va., show, Macon-based keyboardist and environmentalist Chuck Leavell took a moment to talk about the band's latest album, A Bigger Bang.

Mick Jagger said recently in an interview that forgetting the name of the city on stage is one of his nightmares. Do you have any recurring nightmares about playing with the Stones, or playing live in general?

We've had tons of things go wrong over the years with this band, from the power going out, to some unnamed musicians forgetting the arrangements to songs from time to time, to turning the beat around in a tune. The Stones are sort of notorious for that sort of thing and it really adds a certain charm to the whole mix. More than once Mick has come up to me and asked me what the opening line is to a tune. I used to get upset when things like that happened in other bands I've been in.

And the Stones keep on making albums. Was there a new approach for the raw A Bigger Bang?

Instead of going into a studio somewhere, like we've done since I've been in the band — over 20 years now — they decided to work at Mick's home in the south of France. Much like how Exile on Main Street was recorded at a place that Keith [Richards] had leased in another area in the south of France. Mick and Keith started writing together in phases quite a while before the real recording began. Just the two of them, Mick often playing drums and Keith playing bass, both playing guitars and keys, fooling around with skeletal ideas and making sketches of them on tape.

What is the vibe when a new song pops up in the live set?

So far, we've played it relatively safe by playing the ones that have received some advance radio play and for the most part are the fast tunes that rock: "Rough Justice" and "Oh No, Not You Again." The exception to the fast songs is "Back of My Hand," the blues number. We've been putting it in the slot where we usually do a ballad, and it's worked well.

Where are the Stones now, in the grand scheme of things?

On top of the heap in terms of live bands, absolutely. The challenge now is to keep it fresh, keep trying to bring in different songs, keep trying to improve the ones we play every night. When we play something like "Satisfaction," "Brown Sugar" or any of the other songs that we play almost every night, I do my best to find some small way to make it different. It might just be a little thing: a voicing, a change of the left-hand figure, trying to compliment one of the other players when I hear them do something interesting. But it helps me quite a lot to keep pushing the envelope.

As a high-profile, literate and environmentally conscious pop culture figure, have you thought about going into politics?

My mother always told me that the greatest achievement in life is to make a positive difference in our world with the gifts we've been given. Having a grandchild on the way makes me think a lot about the future. I was asked before this tour to run for a seat in our state congress. I think that if I didn't have this tour on the plate, I would have accepted. But there could be other positions that might come up, perhaps even for federal office.

Is playing Atlanta different than other cities? Can you feel the "hometown vibe"?

Oh, you bet, man! It's always a homecoming for me, it's almost like "Chuck night." It was that way when I played the old Omni with Clapton, too. Or sitting in with the Allmans in Atlanta, or whoever. It's always a total groove.