British guitarist Ronnie Wood has never been as famous as his more technically flamboyant contemporaries like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, nor has his name transcended the marquees held by the bands that have had him as a member. His playing, nimble with the grace of a two-pint buzz, and voice, located somewhere in the shallow chasm of graveled indifference between Keith Richards and Bob Dylan, have always been committed to the service of the song and not the dictates of a hungry ego.
Perhaps this is the reason why it’s been easier to recognize Wood’s presence—happy-go-lucky face, sprightly stage-parading, forever bearing that fabled English mullet—as an integrated element of the Rolling Stones with whom he’s been a member since 1976, rather than his mountainous topography of guitar riffs over the years. Wood was hired by the Stones to do just that, to assimilate as a critical cog in the blockbuster machine, to spin sympathetic webs of sound with Richards’s guitar instead of overpower it. (Mick Taylor, the extraordinary guitarist Wood replaced, did the exact opposite and had a short tenure with the band as a result.) Wood had perfected his deep-cover commando style in the Faces, quite possibly the best meat-and-potatoes bar band the rock ‘n’ roll world will ever see, playing in tight union with the rhythm section and as a quick-witted foil to Rod Stewart’s rugged voice. In the land of the rock quartet, the guitarist may be king, but Wood never put much stock in performing from a royal pedestal.
Anthology: The Essential Crossexion, the first-ever collection of Wood’s solo and group recordings, aims to pedestal-ize Wood, or at the very least draw attention to the more overlooked accomplishments of his career. The Anthology‘s first disc features highlights from Wood’s solo career, beginning with tracks from his 1974 debut I’ve Got My Own Album to Do (the pub-reggae strut “I Can Feel the Fire”; “Cancel Everything”, with its elegantly wilted, Keef-aided chorus; and “Far East Man”, co-written with George Harrison) and ending with a newly recorded, unreleased collaboration with Stewart, “You Strum and I’ll Sing”, which Wood calls “the precedent for things to come” for his next record. In between is ample evidence of Wood’s competence as a songwriter of surprising tenderness in both lite-rock ballads (“If You Don’t Want My Love”, from 1975’s Now Look) and uptempo grooves (“Josephine”, written for his wife, from 1992’s Slide on This), as well as his ability to deliver covers with conviction (George Clinton’s “Testify” and Bob Dylan’s “Seven Days”, the latter taken from his performance with Booker T. & the MGs for the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration).
The second disc compiles tracks from Wood’s various bands over the last four decades. The first song he ever wrote, a stiff-riffed Bo Diddley-jonesin’ rocker called “You’re on My Mind”, was recorded by his first band, the Birds (not to be confused with the more well-known Byrds) in the mid-‘60s. It’s included along with three other Birds songs (including a Diddley cover, “You Don’t Love Me”), and two he cut while a member of the Creation, which he joined well after its now-infamous “Making Time” single was released and the band was on its last legs. Both bands are examples of relatively anonymous mid-‘60s Brit blues-rock, very similar to an outfit like the Yardbirds, which remains known more for its lineage than the music it created. Jeff Beck was one of the Yardbirds’ many transitory guitarists, and Wood, along with Stewart, joined Beck’s eponymous group for two albums, Truth (1968) and Beck-Ola (1969). Wood switched to bass for the group to make room for Beck’s gregarious fretwork, and his command of rhythmic tethering shines through on covers of Willie Dixon’s “I Ain’t Superstitious” and Leiber / Stoller’s “Jailhouse Rock”.
Stewart and Wood left the Jeff Beck Group at the start of the 70s to join the Small Faces, which they renamed, simply, the Faces, and selections from that group are clearly the second disc’s best. While the selection of Faces tracks is relatively safe—“Flying”, “Miss Judy’s Farm”, “Too Bad”, “Stay With Me”, and “Ooh La La”, along with Stewart solo-tracks-in-name “Gasoline Alley”, “Maggie May”, and “Every Picture Tells a Story”—it’s also a perfectly succinct encapsulation of the band’s hard-rocking, fun-living strengths. Listen to Wood’s interplay with Stewart’s vocal on a knuckle-crunching track like “Too Bad”, how he answers exclamations like “What an insult!” and “Sweaty girls!” with those winking slides on the guitar. In “Maggie May”, one of those songs murdered long ago by classic-rock radio, Wood turns in a tasteful, reserved solo loaded with body and melody; and for “Every Picture”, his 12-string bucks around in the left channel, in some kind of intuitive harmony with Stewart’s voice.
The Stones, the band to which Wood has devoted the majority of his career, gets two slightly obscure nods at the Anthology‘s end: “Everything Is Turning to Gold”, an outtake originally released on the Sucking in the Seventies compilation, and “Black Limousine” from Tattoo You (both 1981). For 20 years running, the Stones have been where Wood’s notoriety lies, so it’s refreshing to see a career-spanning collection do more than reinforce what everyone already knows. Surely there’s something in Anthology that will surprise almost any listener; if nothing else, it’s a great place to get to know more about someone who’s a lot more complex than you may have ever expected.