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Mott the Hoople: 2019’s Great Rock Resurrection

Ian Hunter borrowed a bit of Easter imagery for “Roll Away the Stone,” the closing number from Mott the Hoople’s final studio album in 1974. He didn’t take the religious symbolism much further for a song that is a jubilant paean to enduring love and, implicitly, to the power of music itself. But if you saw Mott’s brief, recently wrapped reunion tour of the Northeast — their first American tour since splitting up in 1975 — you came away believing in rock ‘n’ roll regeneration and resurrection, against all bell-tolling and stone-rolling odds.

Mott is risen; the Hoople is risen indeed.

“It’s really gratifying that some people are saying this is the best version of Mott of all.” said keyboard player Morgan Fisher, taking a seat in a dressing room at the Keswick Theatre outside Philadelphia, prior to one of the final shows on the short run. “And the reviews are almost uniformly excellent, and certainty the best we’ve gotten. There’s no ‘old man’ stuff being talked about much. I mean, Ian is obviously a rare example of how good you can be when you’re 79. He’s older than everybody (of that era) — the Beatles, Stones, Dylan — and he’s really leading it. And I think he’s singing better now than he did back then, but he doesn’t smoke anymore, for a start. It’s fantastic to be with someone of that age who’s that good.” (Fisher himself is a young sprout of 69.)

“Are you coming this evening?” asked Hunter, intercepted down the hall. “You’ll see. It’s not an old people’s home, by any means. You should go away with a good feeling — that’s the whole idea. And laughing, as well.”

Hunter indeed kept up a mirthful spirit during the nearly two-hour show that followed, never diverting the feel toward anything that could be construed as sentimentality about having at least a remnant of the final 1970s lineup back together on American shores for the first time in 44 years.

“A pleasure doing business with you,” Hunter cracked at the end of a 27-minute medley that ended the regular portion of the set.

“See you in a hundred years’ time,” he waggishly added, as they exited after their final bow.

Outside the 91-year-old Keswick, located outside Philly in Glenside, Pennsylvania, fans started gathering under the marquee hours before it was dark enough to switch on the neon. It was a reserved-seating show, but that didn’t stop Jim Zemba, from Cleveland, from bringing a chair to be first in the queue. “I’ve been following them since 1969, when I was 10,” said Zemba, who, despite dealing with some health issues, was traveling to every show in the States but one, estimating he’d done 77 hours of driving. Part of the reason for setting up early by the box office was chatting up fellow believers. Because the tour only hit the Northeast, “I’ve seen people who flew in from Texas, Oklahoma, the state of Washington, all over California, and Quebec and Toronto. Nineteen guys came in together from Dallas to the Minneapolis show.” He’s a regular attendee at Hunter’s solo shows, but if he’d put odds on a reunion here: “Never. Never. I never thought I’d see Mott the Hoople again. I’m having the time of my life. If I die next week, I’m good.”

Inside the theater, Hunter was in high spirits, for a guy who’d resisted the idea of reunions like this for decades. “I’m loving it,” he enthused. But, true to form, he cited other factors than sentiment for his enjoyment. Normally, he said, “I’m a club guy (as a touring solo artist), so when the rooms are bigger, it’s much easier on the throat. You get treated better, and, I don’t know, I think the food’s better,” he added, chuckling in appreciation of the Philly theater’s well-regarded catering. “I’d love to give you a sentimental answer, but I can’t. This just feels like (a continuation of) what I do for a living… It’s a bit of fun, now and again. I wouldn’t want to do all the time, but it really is actually a bit of fun.”

Told (or reminded) about how many people had flown to the gigs from other parts of the country, Hunter waxed humble: “Well, we needed ‘em, because we weren’t that popular in the first place, you know,” he said. “Really! The web saved our asses, because nobody knew if anybody remembered us anymore. When the web (proved) that all these little pockets from all over the globe still liked it, I think that was good for us. A lot of people travel with us. And a lot of people don’t get us. They don’t get it. Because we’re the real thing. We don’t pose. This is it. This is the spirit. This is Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee (Lewis) and Little Richard, and a few more thrown in — that’s where we’re getting our buzz from.”

His “and a few more thrown in” addendum there is key. Probably the first other artist people think of when they think of Mott is David Bowie, who lent the band “All the Young Dudes” and produced their breakthrough album of the same name, so Hunter and crew were certainly borrowing from the glam zeitgeist of the moment. And you’d be remiss not to hear huge amounts of Dylan in what he was bringing of the detail-oriented singer/songwriter tradition to harder-rocking music, not to mention some similar vocal traits. And as a band they were covering Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” before covering “Sweet Jane” was de rigeur — and revived that for this reunion tour. Still, when it came to the aforementioned 27-minute medley, Hunter clearly wanted to send a shout-out to realroots by including bits of Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and Roy Orbison’s “Mean Woman Blues” sandwiched between a verse and chorus of vintage originals like “Jerkin’ Crocus,” “One of the Boys” and the proto-punky “Crash Street Kidds.”

Hunter acknowledged that a lot of the Mott reunion set would not normally be part of his solo show. “Oh, I wouldn’t do the medley,” he said. “’(All the Way from) Memphis,’ ‘Dudes’ — you’re going to do these regular ones. ‘I Wish I Was Your Mother,’ that kind of thing, they get done anyway. But I’ve never done ‘Pearl and Roy,’ other than with Mott, I don’t think. There’s this song called ‘Rose’ – I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I wouldn’t do ‘Marionette.’ That’s strictly Mott.”

Revived live over the last 44 years or not, “Marionette” is one of Mott the Hoople’s masterpieces — a crunching mini-operetta from their studio swan song, 1974’s “The Hoople,” that suggests a more theatrical road not taken.

“’Marionette is a real epic,” said Fisher, “and I love doing it now, because I don’t think we ever did it live. Oh, yes we did — it’s on the (1975) live album! What am I saying? But (that period) seemed so short. By the time we had the ‘Hoople’ album out and we did one tour with Luther (Grosvenor on guitar), and then a half, aborted tour with Mick Ronson, then Mott was over, so it didn’t seem like we did it for long. So playing ‘Marionette’ and some of the other songs almost feels like the first time we’re doing it here.”

It’s not just the fans that adored it, maybe. “I think Freddie Mercury liked it,” Fisher says, referring back to Queen making their American touring debut as the opening act for Mott the Hoople (one of 10,000 facts slightly fudged in the screenplay shorthand of Queen’s recent biopic). “You know, the rumor is that it kind of inspired him to write ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ that kind of operatic story or epic. So maybe it’s true. We’ll never know now — it’s too late.”

Speaking of epics and condensation, a wee bit of back story. The version of the band that toured America for just eight dates this month — and has now gone on to the members’ native England (with the final dates scheduled for April 26-27 at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire) — is being officially billed as “Mott the Hoople ’74.” That’s because it reunites three of the principle players from the group’s more-or-less final incarnation during that year, not counting the very brief final moments with Ronson before he and Hunter took off for the latter’s solo career. (A Hunter-less version of the group then briefly reconstituted itself as simply “Mott,” which many fans prefer to forget.)

No Hunter-fronted version of the group appeared between 1975 and 2009, the first reunion of any kind. That’s when the original lineup from 1969-72 finally got back together for a handful UK dates. That was the plan, anyway, since drummer Dale “Buffin” Griffin was not in good enough health to make anything other than a cameo appearance, so he was replaced for the gigs by Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers — but at least original guitarist Mick Ralphs (who quit Mott in ’73 to form Bad Company), bassist Pete “Overend” Watts and keybardist Verden Allen were on board with Hunter. They did it again in 2013 — again, with many American fans flying overseas because of the lack of a U.S. leg.

Since then, both Griffin and Watts have died (in 2016 and 2017, respectively), and Ralphs had a stroke in late 2016 that took him out of plans for a Bad Company tour, much less any further Mott resumptions. But rather than put a complete crimp in Mott the Hoople for good, Hunter took this as the right time to bring in two players he wished had participated in the reunions all along: Fisher, who joined up in ’73, and guitarist Luther Grosvenor, formerly of Spooky Tooth, who took the very glitter-rock nom de plume of Ariel Bender when he signed on in time for “The Hoople” and its associated tour in 1974.

Fisher and Bender/Grosvenor were somewhat unknown quantities, in terms of whether they were around and up to the task. Fisher had lived in Japan for decades but at least had continued to perform and record there; Grosvenor had dropped off the map before reappearing for a short tryout of “Mott the Hoople 74” shows in Europe last summer.

“Last summer, Luther had a bit of trouble with his fingers, because he had forgotten the intensity,” said Hunter. “There’s a big difference between rehearsing in your living room and being on stage in front of people — you know, you dig in more. And he’s had it this time too, but not as badly. Because I said, ‘You just have to get your strength at home, you know — rehearse with gloves on.’ So he’s done that.”

You would never guess Bender hadn’t been commanding stages for the last four-plus decades. On this tour, he’s nearly a co-frontman with Hunter, yelling exhortations at the crowd, holding his strumming hand up in the air for visual emphasis between power chords, and appearing on-stage in flashy gear that on any given night — like Philly — could involve wearing a floor-length scarf and going shirtless at the same time. The stay-at-home years have not shorn him of his rock godhood.

“He’s tremendous, for the morale factor,” said Hunter. “He’s the court jester, and he loves the role — and, you know, he’s a handy player.” But does Hunter ever think the cutting up to his left is getting a bit much? To the contrary: “I love it. I’ll miss it when it’s not there” in his next run of solo shows with his longtime backing crew the Rant Band, who filled out the “Mott ’74” lineup.

Grosvenor and Fisher “were great sports in 2009 and 2013 when we got together previously, because the original band wanted it to be the original band,” Hunter said. (He spoke at greater length in a previous Variety interview about how he always felt badly that these two weren’t allowed in, but gave in to the other original members’ wishes.)

Fisher elaborated, from his point of view: “Of course when I first heard about that (in 2009), I was a bit disappointed, naturally. I thought I’d like to be a part of it too. But at the very first reunion, I think the band were basically terrified. Like, ‘We don’t know if we can do this, but we’ll just try.’ And so they probably wanted to keep it as simple as possible, just the original five guys, and see how that goes. So I tried to just look on the bright side, and I said, ‘Well, I’m going to come and watch, because I get to see the band out front for a change!’ And it was a great thing to do. So I was very positive once I understood why they were doing that. And I think Ian remembered that — that me and Luther were not fighting or arguing or winge-ing about not being involved. Naturally a few fans said they wished that me and Luther were involved. I think Ian had that in the back of his mind for some years and thought now was the time to bring us in — partly because Mott’s main success in America was the time when we were in the band. Particularly in America, people remember us as being part of Mott, so it seems like a good idea.”

CREDIT: Chris Willman

Fisher relishes the memory of his original stint. “What a two years that was,” he said. “My career is 50 years old now, and those two years still stand out as a peak. So when we got together finally last summer, I said, ‘We’re not gonna need much rehearsal, you know.’ Because I remember it all. It’s like muscle memory. I didn’t need to use my mind much — just point my hands in the right direction, and away they go. Literally, it’s like that.” He, too, has become a bit of a foil for Hunter on stage, if not quite as flamboyantly as Bender — teasingly drawing out a single-note piano opening to “Memphis” or coming to center stage to play air piano next to the singer during “Sweet Jane,” and working the audience in his keyboard-themed tux jacket.

With the Mott ’74 remnant combining with Hunter’s Rant Band players on this tour, Fisher said the performances are “just getting exponentially better at each show, as we get to know each other more. And especially for Luther, because he didn’t play for a decade or something, almost, except playing at home. He almost didn’t go on the road before this tour, so you can see him getting more and more into it at every show.”

CREDIT: Chris Willman

For Fisher’s part, “I’ve been living in Japan for the last 35 years, and doing all kinds of music there — I’ve played with most of the major Japanese bands, and I’ve been doing all kinds of collaborations with people like Yoko Ono and Yellow Magic Orchestra, and also developing my own kind of ambient music.” (Compilation CDs of his Japan-based solo music have been on sale at the Mott shows.) “When I arrived in Japan, I thought, this feels like a place I can sort of restart my life from zero. Which also meant instead of looking for another band or something, I have been slowly developing at home more contemplative kinds of solo improvisations and ambient styles. In Japan I could develop that, because people listen very, very carefully and quietly, and they give you space to try something new. Maybe if I had done that in England, people would have (screamed), ‘All the Young Dudes!’ and I wouldn’t have got away with it. But in Japan, people gave me that space, and so it led to a whole other area of music which I’m still involved in, with film scores and things like that. So Japan has been good to me. But it’s now really great to be back on track with this excellent rock ‘n’ roll.”

For Steve Wynn, leader of the Dream Syndicate, a veteran (but not quite as veteran) L.A. band that opened most of the U.S. shows, being along for the ride was a dream come true. “I never could have imagined when I was 14 years old playing Mott the Hoople records in my bedroom as a teenager that we’d be out here prowling the country with them,” Wynn said backstage. “We’ve toured with Ian and made great friends, but when you add Luther and Morgan to it, it’s a whole different show.” For him, “a very big influence on me besides Mott the Hoople themselves was Ian’s book in the ‘70s (the just republished “Diary of a Rock & Roll Star”), which I’m actually re-reading now for the third time. Reading that as a kid who played guitar along with his favorite records in his bedroom, it was something that demystified what it was like to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band and also made it even more magical. That’s what made me think, ‘I think I want to do this.’”

Is this it for the re-mystified magic? The faithful can’t believe that Mott would finally make it to America again, after almost a half-century, and then just skip the west coast. In a previous Variety interview, Hunter had said that promoters in L.A. and elsewhere hadn’t been interested in extending the tour westward, hard as that seems to believe.

“The American side of it was tacked on the front” of the planned European tour, he said. “So we have to leave when we have to leave. There’s nothing planned after this, I’m sorry to say. But nobody got in touch with us on the west coast. Either your promoters didn’t think it would work over there, or… I’m sorry about that. But you’ve got to be asked before you go somewhere!”

Fisher offers some hope for an American resumption, “because we can’t cover the whole United States on this trip. I’m really hoping that we will go further, but nobody’s talking about it yet.” Told that Hunter didn’t sound all that encouraging. He said, “Ian likes to be like that, because he’s very pragmatic and down to earth and realistic. Whereas I am a more pie-in-the-sky and hopeful guy. So I have high hopes. But that’s all I can say, because I don’t know what’s going to happen after this tour. But it surely is showing people that we can pull it off. That’s the point. So if promoters in other areas had any doubts whether we can do it, I think the evidence is now there. There’s videos all over YouTube already of what we’re doing” (and in “road movies” on his own Facebook page as well).

“To everybody who goes, ‘Why didn’t you come to the west coast?’ — I just say, ‘Hold that thought. Just hold that thought. Don’t give up.’ Who knows what may happen. There’s a theme to this interview, I would like to say now. ‘”Hold that thought,” says Morgan Fisher’,” he says, providing his own pull-quote, chuckling. But seriously: “This show deserves to run, I think.”

Still-waiting fans hope that Hunter’s “see you in a hundred years” isn’t intended too literally. His philosophy showed up again in an aside in his Philly performance of “I Wish I Was Your Mother,” as he followed the age-old lyric “Is there a happy ending?” with this: a casual, smiling “So far, so good.”

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