Whats puzzling you is the nature of his game.
What's puzzling you is the nature of his game. Rhyme & Reason Records

Bernard Fowler, "Sympathy for the Devil" (Rhyme & Reason)

As a backing vocalist for the Rolling Stones over the last 31 years, Bernard Fowler knows the legendary British rock group's songs better than almost everybody alive right now. So, there's nobody better to cut an album of Stones covers and rearrange them in ways that render them almost wholly other. If you think Bob Dylan takes liberties with his old fan favorites, wait till you hear what Fowler does with tunes such as "Dancing with Mr. D," "Sister Morphine," and "Undercover of the Night" on his forthcoming album, Inside Out (street date: April 19).

It takes, uh, some major stones to mess with cherished classics, but Fowler's earned the respect of the Glimmer Twins with his unconventional covers. Fowler recounts in the press release, "I played a taste for Keith [Richards], and he looked at me and said, 'Damn, Fowler, you went deep...'" Mick Jagger observed, "Bernard, I've heard Rolling Stones songs played in many different ways, but I've never heard it like this before."

Inside Out's dominant mode is stripped-down, coiled funk, with Fowler not so much singing as declaiming with Last Poets-style defiance. "Must Be Hell," for example, consists simply of sax, congas, and shakers. His band—Darryl Jones, Steve Jordan, Ray Parker, Jr., and others—is tight and flinty in a way that recalls John Lennon's on Plastic Ono Band. (By the way, Fowler has sung backing vocals for Yoko Ono, as well as for Herbie Hancock, Alice Cooper, and Bootsy Collins, to name a few.)

Support The Stranger

"Sympathy for the Devil" finds Fowler enunciating Jagger's lyrics like a Samuel L. Jackson-level thespian. The congas and tambourines carry much of the rhythmic thrust here, with flamboyant flourishes of piano replacing the guitars. Don't worry, though: Those mesmerizing "woo woo"s are present and correct. The line "What's puzzling you is the nature of my game" could be Fowler's slogan for the entirety of Inside Out. I, for one, am glad he went out on such a precarious limb to re-imagine a fragment of the Stones' storied songbook.

Bernard Fowler performs Friday, February 15 at Benaroya Hall, opening for A Bowie Celebration: The David Bowie Alumni Tour.