From Alabama to Colombia: Moves Like Jagger

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Keith Richards, wearing his best earring, sits at the bar. Time may, indeed, be on his side. At 72, the world’s most famous rhythm guitarist wears a silver crown of curls, but looks healthy, vital. I think, for some reason, of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, returned from a long adventure, now at peace.

I am at the Four Seasons Casa Medina Hotel in Bogotá with my fiancée, Adela, to sip cocktails with Chuck Leavell and Rose Lane, his lovely, graceful wife. Like me, Chuck hails from Alabama. Unlike me, Chuck has played in more than 1,000 shows with Keith Richards and the other Rolling Stones. The anguished chording on “Angie”? Chuck Leavell. The manic, driving keyboards on “Sympathy for the Devil”? Chuck. He embellishes the entire Stones repertoire. He even drafts the set list for every Stones concert.

After a warm talk and cold drinks, Chuck invites Adela and me to meet “the guitar player in our band.” Keith Richards sees us approach. His eyes narrow. His thought balloon could be a flashing neon sign: Oh devilshit! Here’s two more anonymous fans to meet…

Chuck Leavell steps up. “This is a friend, Charles McNair,” he tells Keith. “He’s a guitar player.” It’s sort of true. I know three chords. I bawl out Hank Williams songs on the porch after a bottle of Jack gets half empty.

But, what if Keith Richards asks how many Stones tunes I play? What if he pulls out a guitar and hands it over to me and wants to see my three chords? And what if—what if—Keith asks me to walk onstage the next night in front of 47,000 Colombian fanatics and cut loose in concert with the Stones?

In fact, Keith doesn’t say anything. Not a word. So I blurt out the first thing I think: “Be careful. You might be peacefully living your life somewhere and then one day meet a beautiful Colombian eye doctor, and the next thing you know you live in Bogota. That’s what happened to me.”

Keith gives Dra. Adela Castro an appraising up-and-down. He turns back to me. “I see why you moved,” he says.

In 2009, between Stones tours, Chuck Leavell co-founded Mother Nature Network, an online social responsibility organization where he’s Director of Environmental Affairs.

Chuck keeps a high profile in the green space. He and Rose Lane grow pine trees—lots of them—on their 2,500-acre country place south of Macon, Georgia, and he has forged a reputation beyond the music world as a smart, committed advocate for environmental responsibility.

Last April, MNN daringly sponsored several in-house bands of various periodicals (Esquire, Vanity Fair, New Yorker, etc.) and various levels of talent as entertainment for the White House Speechwriter’s Banquet in Washington, D.C.

I’m a member in good standing of one group, Cousin Billy. The band comprises Renaissance Man (music producer, entertainment lawyer, writer/critic, art collector) Mark Baker, and talented journalists Tom Junod and Bo Emerson. Plus me. Junod’s connection as a writer-at-large for Esquire got us invited to Washington.

At the D.C. event, Chuck played keyboards to my right, joining Cousin Billy for a Stones tune, “Back Street Girl”. It was the coolest moment by far in my three-chord musical career.

The piano man and I stayed in touch. Folks from Alabama share bonds of home and history. When I learned the Stones would appear in Bogotá, Chuck and I plotted to meet.

Before the March 11 show, a stomach bug raced through the Stones’ camp. (Before you read further, do NOT … I repeat, do NOT … imagine Keith Richards with diarrhea.)

Many of the party stuck close to the Four Seasons, every room rented for days by the Stones and their 65-person retinue. (The band housed another 65 crew members elsewhere in Bogotá, and it took 60-plus additional local bogotanos to put together the concert at Nemesio Camacho El Campín Stadium.)

The Stones employ 90 trucks to carry the América Latina Olé Tour 2016 show—ninety 18-wheelers hauling mountains of gear from stop one in Santiago to nine more Latin cities in all. The highlight will surely be a historic free show in Havana on March 25, only days after President Obama speaks in the Cuban capital.

Think of it as the real opening of Cuba. Commodore Perry went to Japan. Nixon went to China. Obama, then Sir Mick and the boys, went to Havana.

The band is on an adventure just as surely as those who mob its South American shows. In Bogotá, Mick Jagger wandered the streets of Candelaria, the colonial old town high over the modern cityscape. Ron Wood tipped off Chuck and Rose Lane, a talented artist, to the Botero Museum, a collection of European masters placed among sculptures of blasphemously oversized humans forged by Fernando Botero, Colombia’s most famous artist.

Colombians spotted Stones in eateries and shops in the fashionable Zona G of Bogotá near their hotel. Stones songs spilled from car stereos. One radio station dedicated an entire concert-day afternoon to Stones radio talk.

The city needed distraction. Only hours before the Stones played, an apocalyptic lightning storm shot down white pitchforks that knocked out power. For a while, it looked like the torrential rain and wind might even jeopardize the sold-out event. (The Stones earned $6 million, according to Semana magazine. Some fans paid 1.139 million pesos, or about $400 U.S., for a ticket. The average monthly salary for Colombians falls short of $1,000 U.S.)

Never fear. It takes more than a little rolling thunder to stop The Rolling Stones.

By chance, Adela and I know a person the Stones actually did ask to walk onstage with them.

Daniel Felipe Cortés sings in the chorus of Javeriana University. Daniel and his mom, Marisol, visit Dra. Adela Castro for eye care.

I happened by Adela’s ophthalmology office one afternoon as Daniel finished a check-up. He surprised me.

“Our choir is singing at The Rolling Stones concert,” he said. “We auditioned, and we got the gig. They said we were the best choir that ever auditioned for one of their shows.”

The Stones famously use a choir in the intro to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Daniel’s group specializes in sacred music, but obviously they showed enough versatility to nail an audition and win a place on a wet stage with rock gods one March night.

The day after the Stones show, El Tiempo, the newspaper of record in Colombia, interviewed Cortés. The talented youngster writes and performs songs himself. (He knows more than three chords.) His evening onstage with the Stones and their special cameo guest, Juanes, the hugest Colombian pop star not named Shakira, left him … well, stoned.

“It has truly been the best experience in my life,” Daniel texted. “Meeting the Stones and realizing what outstanding and humble human beings they are was shocking for me. I feel very grateful for this opportunity.”

I’m proud to say the same. Thanks, Chuck and Rose Lane. Thanks, Keith. Thanks Rolling Stones. It’s true, that you can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes, you just might find … you get even more.

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.