For over three decades, Bernard Fowler has backed arguably the biggest rock ‘n roll band in the world. The experience served as a stepping stone toward his new release Inside Out, a reimagining of the music of the Rolling Stones. Fowler has performed on several recordings and toured with the Stones since 1989.
Inside Out was released April 19, just a day before Fowler was originally scheduled to embark on the No Filter Tour with the Stones which was delayed by Mick Jagger’s heart surgery. Fowler and the Rolling Stones stop in Jacksonville with the No Filter Tour Friday at TIAA Bank Field where he will perform the music that inspired this project. The Revivalists will open the show.
Releasing new music into the stratosphere is a vulnerable experience for an artist as the fruits of their labor are exposed to the world for the first time. Fowler found himself struggling with the duality of situation when he learned that the tour was postponed while Stones frontman Mick Jagger underwent heart surgery.
“I was disappointed because for me and the rest of us extra players, it sets us back because when you have a cancellation like that, you can’t all of a sudden book your own dates. You need more advanced time to book stuff properly. My plan was to do some dates while I was on the road with the Stones. When we’re not with the Stones, obviously we have to work,” says Fowler.
“But I was more concerned with Mick at the time and how he was doing and going to be. But the reaction to the record has been so positive and it’s been so well-received. I’m just over the moon about it. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I said to myself ‘people with love it or people with hate it’. There won’t be a middle ground and that’s exactly what’s happened. There is more love so I’m really happy about this new project.”
It’s unfair to categorize Inside Out as an album of Rolling Stones covers. That would imply a familiarity that simply doesn’t exist on this record. Fowler mined the depths of the Stones’ catalog to rediscover many of the hidden gems that landed on the final cut and turned them inside out. Pouring through the vast songbook, he listened for songs with meaningful lyrics and reimagined the material in such a way that seems to change the molecular integrity of the song structure, effectively altering what and how we hear it.
“I went into the catalog, but what I took out and what I ended up using is just a flesh wound of what’s in it. I went in looking for lyrical content. The rhythm was something else that came later. The lyrics were the most important thing,” notes Fowler. “I was talking to someone the other day, and they said, ‘I’m a Rolling Stones fan, but when I heard this record, I never really knew what they were talking about,’ and that’s a response I expect to get from a lot of people.”
Fowler says the band is playing with a renewed energy as the No Filter Tour picks up where it left off. The first time they gathered to play together post-surgery felt “normal,” he says, “everyone was happy to be together’ and grateful to start it up one more time. It’s a testament to the dedication of the Rolling Stones to do what they set out to do. No one is happier about it than the musicians who find themselves in the enviable position of performing the music of legends night after night.
“We, like everybody else, were really happy. First, happy that he was okay and he came through his procure obviously with flying colors. I think he was out of the hospital two days after the procedure. It is incredible and that can happen for any of us if we take care of ourselves as he does. He’s a fine-tuned instrument,” says Fowler. “Nobody does it better.”
Performing with the Rolling Stones left its own unique imprint on Fowler. Warming up during rehearsals for the Stones’ 2015 Zip Code Tour, he found himself engaged in a sort of call and response with musical director and keyboardist Chuck Leavell. When Leavell called out a song title, Fowler answered by reciting the songs in a poetic rhythm. Changing the lyrical cadence added a new layer to the material that caught the ear of everyone in the band. Even Mick Jagger was moved by how completely the rhythm affected the overall mood of his music.
Says Fowler in the album’s liner notes, “For the next few days it became a thing. On maybe the third or fourth day, Mick walks over to me and says, “Bernard, I’ve heard Rolling Stones songs played in many different ways, but I’ve never heard it like this before.” To which I replied, “When the tour is over, I’m gonna cut this.” His reply, “You should.”
That’s when the notion of a record began to take shape, but it wasn’t the first time Fowler had approached the music from this angle. “I had been toying around with the idea for a long time, but I hadn’t really gotten started. It was a thought in my head to do a record like this. I got to actually perform in that style on the stage at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame doing a tribute to the Rolling Stones. Chuck D was part of the all-star band that Steve Jordan had put together. I think he missed his first flight, so I took the opportunity to perform ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ in that way. So that was the beginning,” says Fowler.
“Then at the  soundcheck I just happened to be standing behind my congas playing when Chuck yelled out a song, and I just started doing it. The response from all the musicians on stage was like, ‘Wow man, that’s pretty cool.’ It was another nudge to get things started. Mick saying something about it, and Keith [was] saying something. I knew I had to do it.”
As an artist, Fowler channeled his surroundings into art. He felt the pulse growing up in the Queensbridge Projects. That willingness to look and listen contributed to the birth of Inside Out. “I’m sure of it. As an artist, as a person, everything that you hear and everything you experience will influence you somehow later. I heard a lot of music growing up. I was an open kid, I was open to hearing, listening and appreciating a lot of things that I heard. Not just in the neighborhood where I grew up, but on the radio stations,” recalls Fowler. “Growing up listening to Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets and a number of others, I think I was able to call on that to make those performances on the record.”
In its entirety, Inside Out is at once timeless and timely. Listening back on the recordings, Fowler was struck by the unintended relevance of the message in many of the songs. The history of the then and now is reflected in tracks like ‘Sister Morphine’ or ‘Dancing with Mr. D’ which could easily be a reference to the current opioid crisis.
“That thought didn’t come until later. I was listening back, and I’m reading, and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is so now,’ but when I was doing it, I was just thinking about getting the right groove and the right lyrics and right performance,” he says. “I didn’t think about how relevant it was to now and the times that we live until I really sat there and listened to it. We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes, and here we are, making the same ones over again. I didn’t even think about it, yet here it is, in your face.”
The rivers he crossed to bring Inside Out to life had some unexpected twists and turns, but in the album’s liner notes, Fowler says he’d do it all again even knowing what lay ahead. Working with zero budget, he called on the kindness of the studios and the myriad of talented musicians who freely gave of themselves to support the project, including Ray Parker Jr., long-time Stones bassist Darryl Jones, former Miles Davis drummer/producer Vince Wilburn, Jr., guitarist George Evans and pop/r&b session heavyweight Michael Bearden on piano, drummer Clayton Cameron and beloved David Bowie pianist Mike Garson, with whom he just wrapped the Bowie Celebration Tour.
The end result couldn’t have been more amazing if Fowler had scripted it himself. In many ways, Inside Out is the record he was destined to make. “I just kept pressing forward. One of the challenges was hoping that the people I wanted to participate in the record were available, and I was lucky in that sense that they all were available. I had to ask them all for favors: ‘I’m working on this project, please come and play with me.’ And no one said no. They all came. I think the biggest challenge was working with no budget. I did this all on my own,” he says.
Even as he planned to sample Miles Davis trumpet licks on ‘Sister Morphine,’ it turned out that Keyon Harrold, who performed all of the trumpet work for the acclaimed biopic Miles Ahead starring Don Cheadle, was willing to perform live. “Everyone else I’d known for a while. The only person I’d just met through the recording of this project was Keyon, the trumpet player,” Fowler says. When he mentioned using some of Mile’s samples, Wilburn wouldn’t have it.
“He said, ‘No, why don’t I just call Keyon?’ I said, ‘That’s even better.’ He called him up, and he said sure. We talked about the Stones, and he went into the studio, opened his trumpet case and went to work. I said, ‘No warm up?’ I thought that was amazing. Two takes and it was done,” states Fowler. “If it wasn’t for the musicians to come and play and the studios that were open to me, I could not have done this project. I owe it all to my friends. My friends were the ones that made this project possible. There was no pitch. I was starting from the ground [up]. I knew what I wanted. You don’t have to pitch your friends. All you have to do is ask, and if they can do it, they will. And they did.”
As Fowler prepares to take the stage with the band he’s called his friends for nearly 30 years, he’s at peace knowing that if this is the last tour they will share, there’s been no stone left unturned. They’ve all showed up and more than done what they set out to do. Turns out, you can always get what you want.