Calligraphy for the devil
Ronnie Wood reveals how his “emotional” illustrated setlists help turn every Rolling Stones show into an event
“The setlist is part of our motivation. It means it’s not just another gig”
BACKstAGE at a Rolling stones concert, among the bottles of mineral water, cigarette cartons, flowers and guitar cases, you will always find an easel, canvas and set of magic markers. these are the property of Ronnie Wood, who spends 20 minutes drawing and decorating a setlist for every show.
“It became part of my ritual after rehearsal, noting the key of the song, the title and then recording how many times we’d played it,” says Wood over the phone from his studio in Barcelona. “Had we had difficulties with it and played it more than once to work it over?
“I started to make all these little notes and it became a habit, and quite a nice one. the boys then got interested. At first they were all, ‘What are you doing this for?’, but now Keith will come and draw a little man made out of musical notes. Or he’ll draw a knob, just like Rod used to.”
For Wood, his illustrated setlists – which have just been collected in a limited-edition book – act as a musical map to the concert ahead and a poignant diary of past tours. “I’ll note when people like Bobby Keys or Mick taylor dropped by, and that makes it an emotional thing, because there are friends that are no longer with us,” he says. “sometimes I’ll note if somebody has died, like John Baldry, James Brown or BB King – these are historic moments.”
Following his time at Ealing Art school, Wood is a practised signwriter, and the setlists have lovely calligraphy, using a variety of fonts, sizes and colours. songs are sometimes embellished – a devil for “sympathy…”, two charging stallions for “Wild Horses” – while locations are commemorated in the form of a rugby ball for twickenham, a shamrock for Croke Park or a blazing sun for Coachella. the stones tongue features in several incarnations, while for shows in 2017, Wood’s twin toddlers Alice and Gracie added their distinctive and endearing scrawl.
“On gig day my time is taken almost entirely with the music, so it’s about having to stick with the basic tools of the markers,” explains Wood. “I didn’t want to get too arty but I wanted it to be pleasant to look at. It has a visual appeal, and seeing them together brings back lovely memories for me as a musician. People treat the setlist with awe. It’s a real keepsake and it’s different for every show.”
Wood says that the setlists often show the difference between a rehearsal and a gig night. “In rehearsal we are much more prone to breaking out into a jazz groove or an impromptu blues riff. there’s a more relaxed feel. so there’s one here in toronto where we did “Harlem shuffle”, “Night time Is the Right time”, “Going to A Go-Go”, “Lonely Avenue”, “Mr Pitiful”, alongside “time Is On My side” or “Hot stuff” or “tumbling Dice” or “Bitch”. We might not have played those songs together on stage, or at all, for many months.”
the custom began in 2005, when Wood’s roadie Pierre suggested he use a canvas and easel. He says he wishes he’d kept this sort of record since the 1970s, although he laughs at the idea of that happening when he was performing with the “dishevelled” Faces. But now the setlists are firmly part of the process that ensure the stones stay fresh after five decades on the road.
“We need the motivation, and the setlist is part of that. It means it’s not just another gig. We couldn’t do that – it has to be an event for every gig.”
Ronnie Wood’s book, The Rolling Stones Set Lists, is available from Genesis Publications at ronniewoodsetlists. com