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One More Shot with the Stones

December 16, 2012

For all the legendary trappings of show-business hoopla, interpersonal conflicts, drugs, stardom and riches that accompany them, the Rolling Stones are best served up when stripped down to the bones. Like the tongue-and-lips logo they have sported for most of their 50-year career, they can say it all with a simple and elegant package pairing style with substance. In celebrating a milestone reserved for very few entertainers, their enduring legacy is so immense it hardly matters that they are ostensibly promoting a greatest-hits package called GRRR! with only two new songs. The question for me going to see their final “50 and Counting” show at Newark Prudential Centre in New Jersey was not what they would play, but how they would deliver those essential and indispensable songs.

GRRR! is an inspired collection, deftly covering most highlights from all five decades of the Rolling Stones’ activity. Unlike previous anthologies, it stretches out to encompass all eras of the band’s development and the widely varying styles of its discography with multiple formats including a comprehensive box set. The cover art depicts a gorilla (with those iconic tongue and lips) whose name is Grrregory, and he prominently features in the promotions and merchandise for this 50th anniversary mini-tour. The symbolism is clear: being proverbial 500-pound gorillas themselves, the Stones have reached Silverback status and playfully dominate the rock ‘n roll jungle gym. The band drew almost exclusively from this collection for their expansive 23-song setlist, with only the surprise guest artists’ appearances, Keith Richards’ solo torch song “Before They Make Me Run” from 1978’s Some Girls (celebrating freedom from a Toronto drug bust that almost ended the band) and the online poll-winner “Dead Flowers” providing an opportunity to branch out into some relative obscurities.

This was my second time seeing the Rolling Stones in concert; my first exposure to them was as part of the Toronto Rocks concert in 2003 organized to rehabilitate my home city’s international reputation and local morale, which was decimated by the SARS outbreak that not only affected the families of those infected but also the hospital workers and business owners hit hard by quarantine measures. In that grand gesture of support for our town, the Stones proved themselves more than capable of providing a hugely inspiring outdoor spectacle. That show was also studded with guest artists, such as Angus and Malcolm Young from AC/DC and Justin Timberlake who also performed their own sets earlier in the day. This show was, however, quite different in approach: it was a Stones concert, full-stop; no opening acts, no outdoor festival atmosphere, just an evening designed entirely around supporting pure delivery of the band’s core essence.

The stage was tastefully designed and beautifully lit throughout, with a series of successive “reveals” calculated to strip back the pomp and bring us closer to the band as the show progressed. It began with a giant inflatable pair of metallic lips encircling a massive video screen (which, before and during the first number, was displaying a set of teeth — completing the re-creation of the band’s enduring logo in arena-sized form with a tongue-shaped walkway into the crowd) and a shimmering golden curtain behind that. At key moments, these stage elements successively withdrew into the extensive rafters of steel truss overhead containing an armament of moving lighting fixtures that danced and sprayed the entire arena with colour. All that was left was a massive video screen immediately behind the band. The effect was, even from my vantage point halfway across the room, one of intimacy and closeness. At no point in the show did the technical and production aspects fail to match and enhance the band’s performance with graceful ease. There was no need for gigantic props, pyrotechnics, or other distractions. Primarily the focus stayed right where it should be: on the music.

While Mick Jagger bantered with the crowd and slipped in some messages of welcome to the live audiences watching on a TV pay-per-view special around the world, the most touching moments came from the shared acknowledgement of what keeps the band going and the source of its inspiration. With a spotlight illuminating him from above, the rest of the band left him alone for just a few moments to answer the perennial question of why the band continues to perform and persist in building their careers when they could all have retired comfortably long ago: “it’s because of YOU.” His heartfelt respect and appreciation for the audience was palpable. Jagger also took the opportunity before the yearning ballad “Wild Horses” to tastefully offer condolences to the Sandy Hook shooting victims’ families. Another powerfully affecting moment came along with the requested singalong country tune “Dead Flowers” from 1971’s Sticky Fingers, accompanied by a video montage of the many American performers throughout history whose music has inspired the Stones’ own stylings. It was a stirring tribute to the power of that musical legacy, a rich tradition that the band are humble enough to recognize and celebrate as the primary source for their inspiration. That all came full circle during the first encore when the choir of Trinity Wall St. church came out to perform the gospel/baroque hybrid vocal arrangement of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” — gorgeous and soaring as it had ever sounded.

At the opening of the show, a short segment of interviews with celebrities and fans played on the screens with testimony to the Stones’ cultural power and impact through the years. We watched Johnny Depp, Martin Scorcese, Perry Farrell — cultural touchstones in their own right — and many more recall their first exposure to and lasting impressions of the band. In an eccentric twist, they also responded to the odd yet somehow appropriate query “with a gun to your head, if you had to have sex with a Rolling Stone, which one would you choose?” After various amusing responses the house lights went down, and the tension built amongst the crowd while the all-female Batala Percussion Band, clad in black and wearing plastic masks of Grrregory’s face, began a choreographed drumline routine from the aisles of the arena, eventually forming a line around the edge of the stage. At the throbbing musical climax of this introduction the arena plunged into pitch darkness and a voice intoned “…welcome to the stage THE ROLLING STONES!”

They exploded into “Get Off of My Cloud” followed by “The Last Time” and “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)” — a one-two-three punch of familiar classics that kept crowd participation high and showcased the effusive stage presence of Jagger and guitarists Richards & Ron Wood. With keyboardist and de facto musical director Chuck Leavell keeping the band on course, these early hits shone with renewed vitality. From the outset it was immediately apparent that the richly textured, multilayered arrangements of previous tours were off the table. This was two guitars, keyboards, bass and drums — with saxophones on a few songs only. Veteran bass guitarist Darryl Jones was excellent in supporting the backbeat of the indefatigable Charlie Watts, stretching out on a newly minted arrangement of “Miss You” that allowed him to showcase his precise and yet fluid melodic sensibilities in a rare yet well-earned solo chorus. This song also marked the first entrance of longtime compatriot Bobby Keys for his tenor sax lead, which was surprisingly furious in its melodic scope and drama.

Backing vocalists Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer supported the songs with tight and tasteful harmonies, occasional percussion flourishes and the lasting impression that they were having the time of their lives just sharing a stage with so many legendary performers. The guest list was outstanding: Lady Gaga twirled and shrieked through the dark and brooding “Gimme Shelter”, hometown favourite Bruce Springsteen posed and shouted alongside his heroes on their masterpiece “Tumbling Dice” and the Black Keys grooved and yelped through the Bo Diddley classic “Who Do You Love?” In an unannounced surprise, modern blues guitar superstars John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr. swapped solos with Wood and Richards on the Freddie King tune “I’m Going Down”, an extended workout along all concerned fretboards.

Perhaps the most ecstatic musical pitch reached was during perennial favourite “Honky Tonk Women”, where the sultry horns of Keys and arranger/composer/University of Toronto professor Tim Ries drove on alongside the propulsive groove of Richards’ oozy riffs and Jagger’s weary tale of sexual misconduct. Accompanying it all was a new animated video of a cartoonish bikini-clad femme fatale scaling the Empire State Building à la King Kong, only to be confronted by a squadron of machine-gun-equipped biplanes — each piloted by the hooting red-lipped figure of Grrregory himself. This song always presents the opportunity for a moment of high drama onstage, and between the hilariously seedy video and over-the-top guitar sleaze, this definitely delivered on that promise. It brought back fond memories of a similar sequence during the same song as I saw it performed in 2003, where an animé-inspired cartoon cowgirl in leather boots rode the tongue & lips like a bucking tentacle monster.

Prodigal guitarist Mick Taylor returned for one number, the epic R&B mini-opera “Midnight Rambler” originally from 1969’s Let It Bleed. The blistering interplay of his fiery lead guitar and Jagger’s howling blues harp perfectly straddled the dramatic interplay of shifting rhythms driven by the other band members. It was a triumphant homecoming for Taylor, bringing to mind his superlative performances of the same song from the iconic live album Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! and the recently remastered film of their 1972 tour Ladies & Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones. Taylor strode confidently and happily next to his old band onstage, seeming quite at home despite his long absence and altered appearance. After the guest artists returned post-encore to take a bow with the band, Taylor tried to leave but Richards grabbed him for one more bow in the middle of the four other Stones, a touching final image. In that moment, Taylor reclaimed his once-abdicated position as the virtuosic centerpiece of the world’s greatest rock and roll band.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 27, 2012 10:00 pm

    Hey! Thanks for the shout out!!
    -Stacy, Musical Director BatalaNYC
    http://www.batalanyc.com
    We are fundraising!

    • December 27, 2012 10:18 pm

      Thank YOU! What a great thrill it was to see your band perform. Glad you found the blog!

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