THE ROLLING STONES… 50 & COUNTING… BY DAVID RUSSELL
(David Russell is a Berkeley based writer and European wine buyer who has seen way more live Stones than you or I. He comes fully vetted by yours truly and Sir Mick. On Sunday, Nov. 25th, 2012, Mr. Russell sat front and center at the first of two Rolling Stones’ 50th Anniversary concerts at London’s 02 Arena. I asked him to give us his take – EB)
Eschewing a traditional Thanksgiving celebration, I took advantage of the long holiday weekend to jet off to London for the first Rolling Stones show of what has been tagged the “50 & Counting” tour. In the days and hours leading up to the dimming of the houselights at the O2 Arena, the question looming in everyone’s mind was whether this bunch of geriatric rockers, lured by a rumored $25 million payday (for all shows combined) would simply phone it in, or if they’d really throw down and kick some ass.
Any fears of a boilerplate set list were dispelled within moments of their taking the stage when they opened with a spirited “I Wanna Be Your Man,” a Lennon-McCartney chestnut penned in 1963 (specifically for Jagger and company, according to some accounts) and the only Beatles tune ever covered by the Stones. Resplendent in a black and white, zigzag-patterned jacket and matching stingy-brim fedora, Sir Mick attacked his front man duties with an energy and abandon he’d sustain for the next two-and-a-half hours, prancing and preening like some psychotic marionette on meth. They continued to mine their mid-60s catalog for the next few numbers, offering up such gems as the enigmatic, minor key “Paint It, Black” and the defiant “Get Off of My Cloud.”
As much as the true diehards would have loved another half-dozen obscure B-sides, the band then launched into “Gimme Shelter,” a loosey-goosey rendition—featuring a gospel-tinged guest spot by Mary J. Blige—that proved that five weeks of rehearsal on a Paris sound stage is no substitute for getting it on front of 20,000. On the other hand, I’d almost rather see them lurch and stumble a bit than turn into a slick Vegas lounge act (something they’ve flirted with a bit, regrettably, on previous big tours). Three songs later and yet another guest artist appeared, this time guitar god Jeff Beck, whose smoldering, jazz-inflected riffs injected a note of urgency into “Goin’ Down,” even if his particular sound never quite jelled with that of the Stones to my ear. But Mick’s supposedly a huge Beck fan, so there you have it.
I’m of two minds when it comes to the whole “special guests” phenomenon. On one hand, it’s nice to see a band acknowledge a musical debt, pay tribute to a former mate, etc., but it can also ultimately be distracting and verging on gimmickry. But hey, you’d have to be a cold-hearted bastard not to have smiled when original bassist Bill Wyman joined his erstwhile posse for “It’s Only Rock and Roll” and “Honky Tonk Women,” but he was so buried in the mix that whatever his musical contribution might have been was lost on me.
Incidentally, all of these guests had been announced beforehand and were therefore no secret, and the most anticipated by far was Mick Taylor, whose short tenure as the Stones’ lead guitarist, from 1969 to 1974, found the band at its absolute artistic pinnacle in terms of its songwriting and, just as importantly, its prowess in live performance. As Jagger teased out the opening harmonica riffs of “Midnight Rambler,” Taylor emerged from the shadows to a deafening roar from the O2 crowd. The next 12 minutes were alternately ecstatic and just plain weird.
It was clear that Taylor hadn’t rehearsed so much as a note with the band. Since “Rambler” is a fairly complex number with several changes of time signature, without a few prior run-throughs the song ended up sounding disjointed, seemed to founder a bit in spots, and rhythmically was all over the place. Moreover, and this is the hardest thing to have to admit, while he got in some fine blues licks here and there and his slide riffs toward the end recalled the old magic, his playing lacked the elegance, fluidity, and lyricism of the 23-year-old Mick Taylor. Whether it was a case of nerves, or if he’s simply lost a step, I have no idea (and the way he lurched about the stage stalking Jagger—and this is a guy whose stage persona was as famously statue-like as that of Bill Wyman—bordered on cringeworthy). In fairness, I’ve since watched a YouTube video of the second London show four nights later, and Taylor not only looks far more at ease here, his playing is much more tasteful and more well-integrated with that of his fellow musicians.
For the final half-dozen or so tunes, the boys rolled out the heavy artillery: such pure, unalloyed rock and roll as “Start Me Up,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Brown Sugar,” “Sympathy for the Devil.” While the question on everyone’s lips at the outset was whether the band could still bring it in, the real elephant in the room had been Keith’s condition: his playing, frankly, was showing signs of deterioration in at least two of the three shows I caught during their last tour, A Bigger Bang (2005-2007). That his diet at this time consisted largely of vodka and cranberry juice cannot have helped, nor did brain trauma as a result of a fall from a coconut palm in Fiji in 2006 (thought by many to be a cover story for an aneurysm or possibly a stroke). If his very strong mid-concert solo spot (“Before They Make Me Run” and “Happy”) had not quieted any remaining doubts, this last segment of the show certainly did. Maybe Richards feels he has something to prove, but the Human Riff is definitely back…with a vengeance: witness the fabulous tension and release of the start-stop syncopation of “Start Me Up” and his jagged, angular lead lines on “Sympathy.” All played at the appropriate volume with Richards’ axe way up in the mix. This was great shit by any standard.
The first of two encores, a melancholy “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” was augmented by the London Youth Choir. a nice touch. A fiery “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” with Keith windmilling his power chords à la Pete Townshend, closed out the show. With the band having already played past a ridiculous 10:30 pm curfew (for an indoor venue?!?), and getting stuck with a potential $350,000 fine for their infraction (they quit at 11:05), we didn’t get no “Satisfaction,” probably the first time in at least 30 years or more that it was omitted from a live performance. I suppose, it’s just as well: the tube doesn’t run past 11:30 or so on Sunday nights, and I barely made the last train back to drizzly central London. (The Stones did play “Satisfaction”, the final encore song of their Nov. 29th performance – EB)
All told, this was a dynamite Stones performance, if falling short of epic, as explained by a few random observations. They did a lot of things right: a more imaginative set list than most of us were expecting; a relatively stripped down stage setup (a variation of the lapping tongue logo) that put the focus on the music; an equally stripped down band (no Blondie Chaplin; only two horns, Bobby Keys and Tim Ries, instead of four or more; and limited use of backup vocalists Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler). They’re lucky to have Chuck Leavell on keyboards: not only is he a gifted de facto musical director, he knows when to lay back and when to hit those ivories assertively. Ron Wood is a competent rock guitarist but nothing more. Charlie Watts is unique among rock drummers in that he possesses a certain je ne sais quoi typically referred to as “swing.” His is almost a jazz sensibility: driving, propulsive, but with beautifully tasteful and deft cymbal work. Finally, while Rolling Stones may not be as ambitious in their artistic vision as, say, a Bruce Springsteen or a U2 or a Radiohead, you leave their show shaking your head. What a hugely impressive body of work we have in the Jagger-Richards oeuvre, right up there in the rock canon with Dylan and Lennon-McCartney, or at least in their general neighborhood), with some songs capturing the zeitgeist and others simply embodying the redemptive power of rock and roll.
Stones performing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” encore on Nov. 25th 2012, at the London 02 Arena.