the flog

Man on the Inside

Bernard Fowler reflects on life with The Rolling Stones

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I first saw Bernard Fowler on stage when A Bowie Celebration: The David Bowie Alumni Tour passed through the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall earlier this year. Though the rock-and-soul vocalist was but one of several singers on the bill, he opened the set alongside Bowie’s longtime pianist, Mike Garson. The two New Yorkers paid homage to the Thin White Duke with a stripped-down version of one of Bowie’s deepest album cuts, “Bring Me the Disco King.” Another guest singer, Living Colour’s Corey Glover, would hit some impressive high notes later in the set but, for my money, Fowler’s early display of gravitas was the evening’s high-water mark.

Months later, I caught up with Fowler in a telephone conversation. Turns out, he met Bowie a few times. They were introduced by their mutual friend Mick. Incidentally, Bernard Fowler is on the road again and currently touring as a backing vocalist for said Mick and his rock band, The Rolling Stones. You might have heard of them. The British guitar group rose to fame in the mid-1960s as working-class London’s answer to Liverpool’s Fab Four, The Beatles.

Fowler came into the picture two decades later, when Jagger was in New York cutting a solo album. Producer Bill Laswell brought Fowler in to provide vocal harmonies. They hit it off. Fowler has been recording with Jagger and touring with The Stones ever since. The band’s No Filter Tour rolls into Northeast Florida this week. The Glimmer Twins and pals were originally scheduled for April, but the tour was postponed when Jagger underwent heart surgery.

By the time I spoke with Fowler, in early July, the tour was a couple of weeks into its rescheduled run and all was going well. “The boys are in great shape,” he said. “They’re playing beautifully. Mick is kicking ass and taking no prisoners. He’s not showing one bit of surgery strain. If anything, he’s gotten stronger.”

The strutting frontman’s recent, high-profile health intervention has led the music press to speculate that No Filter might be The Stones’ last major world tour. Not so, said Fowler.

“They’ve never said this will be the last tour,” Fowler mused. “And to be honest, I don’t think it is going to be the last. I don’t know for sure. I’ve not heard anything, but I think they’ll keep going as long as there’s something in the tank. And there is still something in the tank.”

Fowler’s working relationship with Jagger and The Stones stretches back more than 30 years. How does he keep it fresh?

“By giving them space,” Fowler answered, bluntly. “They’re doing their thing and, when I’m not working with them, I’m doing my thing. I’m not always in Rolling Stones world. That’s what keeps it fresh.”

That’s also Fowler’s formula for developing his own material. His latest solo album, Inside Out, was released in April. It took him years to complete, but that’s not a bad thing.

“I was busy doing other stuff,” Fowler explained. “I was on the road or doing sessions, so I would work on [Inside Out] when time allowed. After touring, I would go to the studio and pick up where I left off. I think that served me really well. I wasn’t just focused and wrapped up in that recording. It gave my mind some space to breath.”

The nine-song set draws on Fowler’s experience with The Rolling Stones. To wit, the sideman has rearranged and rerecorded several Jagger/Richards tunes his way. The centerpiece is a Gil Scott-Heron-inspired reading of The Stones’ 1968 opus, “Sympathy for the Devil,” but Fowler also dwells on an unlikely chapter in the band’s discography: Undercover. Four Inside Out tracks come from The Rolling Stones’ 1983 album, which is not generally regarded as their finest hour. After the No Filter tour wraps, Fowler hopes to plan his own Inside Out tour and start recording a follow-up.

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