ATLANTIC CITY -- With The Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary tour seemingly delayed until 2013, the closest thing area fans are likely to see to a live Stones show for the first time in six years was a quarter of the band in a solo show --rhythm guitarist Ron Wood and friends Saturday in the Grand ballroom at Atlantic City’s new Golden Nugget casino resort.
But Wood, playing his first-ever appearance as a front man in the United States, gave a show that was far better than just a fourth of a Stones concert.
But it was how he played them that made the show: In a 16-song, 90-minute show, he was fun, loose, animated and confident for a guy who rarely plays the front man. And yet his band was amazingly tight and talented for playing only a one-off show. (Wood is not touring; he’s in the middle of a promotional junket for his new “Faces, Time and Places” art exhibit.)
Of course, it helped that that band was made up of stellar and Stones-connected players.
While none of his band mates showed up, he had longtime Stones keyboardist and musical director Chuck Leavell, vocalist Bernard Fowler, who also has worked with the Stones, drummer Steve Jordan from Keith Richards's side band X-pensive Winos and bassist Willie Weeks , who played with George Harrison, Billy Joel and others.
The band was a crack unit: blaring blues one minute, honky-tonk or gospel another, and straight up rock ‘n’ roll.
But Wood was, indeed, the front man, ripping riffs that reminded how important he has been to the Stones for the 37 years he’s played with the group. And he played with both fervor and frivolity – often dancing as he did, and raising his arms and pumping his fists as applause rained down on him after songs.
And he showed he’s not a bad singer. While his voice is obviously limited, it often was wonderfully expressive, and perfectly fit several songs. Especially his droll delivery on “Thing About You” from his latest solo offering, 2010’s “I Feel Like Playing.”
“Welcome everybody. We’re going to make some music tonight,” he said as he came onstage in a black suit, white shirt unbuttoned, looking and acting far younger than his years (he turns 65 in June).
He opened with “Am I Groovin’ You” from his debut solo 1974 disc “I’ve Got My Own Album to Do,” displaying not only his hot and very bluesy guitar licks, but hot harmonica, as well.
He followed that with “Cindy Incidentally,” among four Faces songs he did. He sang on just one of those, “Ooh La La” (more about that later), and similarly sang on none of the three Stones songs he did – even though two were lesser-known songs, and all three were co-written by him.
Instead, he let Fowler handle vocals as he fired riffs that, at least on “Cindy Incidentally,” that were not unlike Keith Richards’. Later, on his solo song “Flying,” he started with warm finger picking and built to hot riffing. He played reggae riffs (and also danced to the funky rhythm) on “Sweetness is My Weakness,” and he played expressive gospel licks – for which he got a spontaneous cheer from the crowd – on his “I Gotta See.”
He also played solid slide guitar, for the first time five songs, when he said, “I have to give you a little bit of Rolling Stones,” and played “Black Limo.”
His Faces offerings were favorites, and with good reason. On “I’m Losing You” (which he introduced with a clever, “It’s a really nice room. You like this room? I just feel like I’m losing you.) he ended with a blistering run of notes that drew big cheers.
And “Ooh La La” was simply great: Fun and bouncy, he sang with nasally glee and had the crowd sing along. “That sounds better than us,” he said.
But several of his solo songs were standouts, as well. “Spoonful,” from “I Feel Like Playing,” on which he also sang, started with scratchy guitar as the hot organ swelled and the beat kicked in. He danced a funky jig, then rained down searing sparks of riffs Hendrix-style.
But perhaps the best of the show was the Bob Dylan-penned “Seven Days” from Wood’s excellent 1979 solo disc “Gimme Some Neck.”
“You ready to rock and roll?” he asked the crowd, taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves. “Here’s a song I stole off Bob Dylan. Or he gave to me.”
In a rough, gravelly voice, he perfectly captures the song’s anguish and longing, ending with fitful vocals as he jerked from the mic and shook his head.
For the blues standard “Statesboro Blues,” Leavell took over vocals (he also plays the song with the Allmans) as Wood creep across stage playing slide. He then came to the edge of the stage to play and smiled and saluted. He, too, was obviously enjoying the show.
Wood closed the main part of the set with two Stones songs.
The iconic “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)” was rollicking and fun, another highlight, as Fowler sang it with Mick Jagger’s spirit and Wood fired familiar licks.
And they closed with The Stones’ “Dance,” stretched to seven minutes with band introductions. “Do you know who you got up here playing tonight? Really?” Fowler asked the crowd, which cheered back in response.
The two-song encore opened with the standard “Worried Life Blues,” a straight-up blues song on which Wood not only sang with the voice of an old blues man, but reared back his head and played like on, too. He also added hot harmonica.
And they closed with Faces’ “Stay With Me,” Wood picking intricate riffs as Fowler captured Road Stewart’s spirit in his singing, then switching to slide for the finish as the band played hot and hell-bound.
The show not only pleased Wood, but the audience, most of whom seemed to be of Woods’ generation. One guy of advanced age near the back of the hall stood on his chair most of the night, wildly gesturing.
It seemed the show was to everyone’s “Satisfaction.”