Chuck Leavell is never exactly idle.
As one of rock’s most prolific sidemen – his resume includes heavy-hitters ranging from Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones to the Allman Brothers to more recent stars such as John Mayer and Train – the keyboardist/pianist is seemingly always touring or recording.
Occasionally he even gets to scoop up an award, as he did in February, joining the Allman Brothers in receiving a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.
Earlier this year he released a solo record, “Back to the Woods: A Tribute to the Pioneers of Blues Piano,” and on Friday will join his former Capricorn Records labelmates at Chastain Park Amphitheatre for the “Capricorn Experience,” a multi-act show that includes the Randall Bramblett Band, Wet Willie, Cowboy, Col. Bruce Hampton and Paul Hornsby.
On Thursday afternoon, Leavell was getting ready to head off to rehearsal with Cowboy, but first took some time to discuss the ever-persistent rumors of a Rolling Stones tour, his work with John Mayer, how things are with his Mother Nature Network and what, exactly, he has in common with Betty White.
Leavell is always chatty and charming in person, and in case you’re wondering why he’s wearing sunglasses inside of a Starbucks, he hasn’t been infected with Rock Star Disease. A few weeks ago while mowing the grass on his tree farm outside of Macon, a pine cone ricocheted and nailed him in the eye. It isn’t a pretty sight, so to speak, but Leavell promises it’s healing.
We’ll let him tell you the rest.
Q. You spent some time with the Rolling Stones recently…
A. We had our first rehearsal in May. It was the first time we’d been in the same room together in five years. It was just fantastic. I cannot say enough about it. It was just the core band – six of us – and the exercise was basically, we haven’t done this in awhile so let’s see if we still remember. Mick [Jagger] had called me and said, listen, how about putting together a list of 20 or 30 songs that would be good for us to do.
Q. For what reason, exactly?
A. Well, you know, I think mainly to test the waters and see how everybody was, the health of everyone. And the answer is, everyone was healthy, happy, energetic.
Q. So what is the status of a tour?
A. They have not made any announcements, so there’s no official news to report. They [rumored Brooklyn dates] will remain rumors until the band confirms, but we recently had sessions in Paris and worked on two great songs. One, Keith [Richards] brought in called ‘One More Shot.” It’s really cool, great guitar riff. And Mick has one called ‘Doom and Gloom.’ The song sounds a lot different than the title. The theme is that he’s talking to a girl saying all I hear from you is doom and gloom – let’s go party, let’s go dance. It’s an up-tempo tune. They’ll be on the 50th anniversary set coming in November.
Q. Do you think they’re thinking of doing a full tour or just a couple of major market shows?
A. As far as what’s left of this year, I can’t see that it would be very much. But I do think the possibility exists that the band would want to tour again, so I think the answer is yes. Having spent time in rehearsal and the studio recently, there’s nothing but smiles and backslaps and hugs going down. It reminds you of how passionate we all are about doing this and how much you miss it when it’s gone.
And 50 years? It’s such an incredible landmark, isn’t it? I’ve seen Keith talk about how long can the band stay together and basically his answer is that we’re in uncharted waters now. You’ve seen what the blues and jazz guys can do, but rock ‘n’ roll only came around in the ‘50s, so there is no precedent. We are the precedent! All we know is that as long as the band can write good songs and perform them well…and right now, is everyone’s health there? Absolutely.
Q. Even Keith? There had been talk that he might not have the dexterity to do another full tour.
A. Based on the recent experience I’ve seen, I would say Keith would have no problem [going on tour]. I’m waiting for the call. I’m on standby and will remain so.
Q. You play on John Mayer’s current album [“Born and Raised”]. Were you supposed to go on tour with him before his voice problems occurred?
A. Yes, there was a tour planned. He had gone through treatment for the granuloma. The docs all said he was fine. The tour got reinstated, so we all gathered in L.A. The production crew, the band, and started working. The first two days everything was great, he sang like a bird. The third day he started experiencing a little trouble. The fourth day he saw a doctor and they pulled the plug. We were all disappointed, but of course it was worse on John.
Q. Any idea what the status is now?
A. He’s just gone into treatment again, about 10 days ago. He’s seeing a high-level doctor out of UCLA, so it’s a wait and see at this point.
Q. Tell me about Friday’s Chastain show. How did this come together?
A. Terry Reeves, who manages Cowboy and works with Randall [Bramblett], put it together, brought it to a promoter who thought it sounded interesting. It’s basically to celebrate Capricorn Records, which we all know was a little while back, but it was a magic, golden era for all of us. Not just the Allman Brothers, but Wet Willie and Sea Level did very well, Bruce Hampton had records out on Capricorn. So I thought this was worth exploring and figured we’d make it a light night and go back in time for a little while.
Q. Are you all playing separate sets or will there be some sharing?
A. There will be some interaction, but we can’t all play with each other with everyone’s set. There will be some structure and separation, but some interaction.
Q. Do you think it’s something you’d want to bring on the road?
A. I think it’s something we could do more often, but I’m not sure of taking it on the road for 30-40 shows, but something you could place in the right cities, in the right venues and do more often.
Q. So who out there do you still want to work with?
A. I quite like Adele. I love her voice and I like the songs – I think they’re well-written and recorded. As for other established artists, I was able to be on a show with Sting once. I was in the band backing up a number of artists and he was one of them. I enjoyed that experience; he’s a musical genius, great songwriter. And The Who. If Pete Townshend would invite me I’d be there. Pete’s guitar tech is a close friend of mine, but so far I’ve not been invited. [Leans toward recorder] Pete! Read this! Call me!
Q. What’s going on with the Mother Nature Network?
A. We are working on something that is premature to announce, but will happen in the next 30-60 days that I think will be very significant. But in the meantime, the traffic continues to grow. Our team is so good at presenting the information and changing the website and we continue to uncover stones here and there.
In an election year you would think the environment would be discussed more than it has been. I understand there are strategic reasons for that, but at the same time I think someone needs to stand up and say something about it. Maybe once the election is over we can get back into it. I think that the [viewer] numbers that we’re getting continue to let people know that this is an issue. People do care about it – they care about it deeply.
Q. You turned 60 this year. How was that experience?
A. Can I tell you about my birthday? I played the New Orleans Jazz Fest with my band, but here’s the rest of the story. When I turned 40, I played in New Orleans with Eric Clapton and after the performance at Tulane, my wife put together this amazing after-show party on the rooftop of the hotel. We had Eric and the band and it was amazing.
I went back to New Orleans on my 50th just because I love the city and we were with friends –no work – I went and heard Astral Project and New Orleans zydeco and now I’m back on my 60th with my band playing in the blues tent. After the show, we had the party again at Arnaud’s, and my friend Steve Ferrone, who played drums with Clapton and was with me on my 40th, was playing [at Jazz Fest] with Tom Petty! So Steve came with some of the other guys in the band. How can you beat that? And the next day I got on a plane to start rehearsals with the Rolling Stones. Not a bad way to kick in to this phase of life.
Q. That is not a bad way to celebrate any birthday.
A. One other thing that happened in February was that I received only the second honorary forest ranger award from U.S. Forest Service. They had the ceremony at the Georgian Terrace in the ballroom there, the chief came down, there were about 200 forest service employees. It was a tremendous honor for me.
Q. Who was the first recipient?
A. Betty White got it before me! I’m honored to have my name alongside hers. They give you this absolutely beautiful hat, the original from back in the ‘30s. They just don’t make those anymore.
Chuck Leavell performs Friday with the “Capricorn Experience,” which includes the Randall Bramblett Band, Wet Willie, Cowboy, Col. Bruce Hampton and Paul Hornsby. 7:30 p.m. at Chastain Park Amphitheatre. This is a non-table setup (no coolers or carry-ins allowed). $30-$37.50. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene