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The Rolling Stones: Can You Hear 'Em Rocking?

The Rolling Stones: Can You Hear 'Em Rocking?

By Anthony Kuzminski

Here you stand before me
Waiting to be kissed
You're a beauty, such a cutie
How could I resist
-“Oh No, Not You Again”

There she stood, a shapely young blonde girl, in her early twenties shaking every bone in her body. She was wearing a tight white top, short jean skirt, red cowboy boots and caught the attention of everyone in her sight. However, whoever was gazing at her, she did not take notice as her eyes were on one man, who was forty-years her senior. Her eyes were transfixed on him as he shook, sauntered and signaled to her when she caught his eye. As their eyes met, she let out a scream at the top of her lungs piercing those around her and her body could no longer contain the stimulation as she shot up and down in the air, almost as if those red boots had mini rockets on them. During all of this commotion, she stretched her arms out wanting to make some kind of a connection with the God in her midst. As he looked at her and howled “Oh No, Not You Again”, she shrieked louder. Why is God’s name is this young twenty-something woman screaming and hollering at a sixty-two-year-old man? I’ll tell you why, the man is Mick Jagger. Say what you want about him -God, Satan, sexy, ugly, ego maniac or tortured soul-the man is a rock God. In the annals of rock n’ roll, the Rolling Stones are unprecedented; other bands have come and gone, but at the end of the day, only the Stones have been able to keep it together through breaks ups, death, drugs and a constantly changing musical climate over forty years.

I consider myself a fledging journalist. I don’t go to shows to find the cracks in the foundation. I look the other way hoping that every time I witness the magic of live rock ‘n roll that I will be transformed to another place and time. With some luck and a virtuous proposal to the right people, I found myself extremely fortunate to review not one, but two Rolling Stones shows over the last week. I was blessed to catch them rock out the Bradley Center in Milwaukee and then two nights later in Chicago at Soldier Field. The focal motive for seeing two shows was to see if there would be a dramatic variation in witnessing the self proclaimed “World’s Greatest Rock Band” in modest (arena) and larger than life (stadium) settings. Is there a difference between shows and venues? Yes. Can it be summed up to altered songs and staging? No. The truth is each show has a unique stamp on it. Sometimes it’s a chosen rarity, a guest performance, a mishap or the response of the crowd that gives each show its individuality and prevailing significance. There are those who say the shows are all the same, the good news is that after seeing these two shows I can say they couldn’t be further from the truth.

I see love, I see misery
Jamming side by side on the stage
In the wind some mournful melody
I can read it like the back of my hand
-Back of My Hand

Round #1: Thursday September 8th-Milwaukee, WI
The Bradley Center (The Arena)

The lights dimmed and an intro video showing a “big bang” in outer space occurring. Out of the wreckage, the band member’s faces appeared one by one until the Keith Richards riff to “Start Me Up” ignited the crowd. Running out of the darkness was the model for all front men; Mick Jagger. Strolling along like a man in his thirties, with a red jacket and hat, he reached out to the near sold-out audience…“Start Me Up, I’ll never stop” he sang and for the next 110-minutes, he never did stop. While “Start Me Up” has opened every show of the tour to date, what follows depends on anyone of a number of circumstances. The song that has held the final slot for the majority of the tour, “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll”, was next as Richards tore through his best Chuck Berry riff. I somehow knew by not being conservative with their set list, like they had been in stadium over the two previous weeks, something magical would happen tonight.

The Stones has one of the vastest catalogs in the history of music so trying to decide what to perform each tour is a daunting task. However, I have yet to go to a Stones show and not see at least one song I’ve never seen before. Tonight, that song was “She’s So Cold”. The standout track from 1980's “Emotional Rescue” was in peak form as the band shred through the number like a band who had something to prove. A quarter century after the song was first written and twenty-three years since it was last performed and the band are setting another benchmark for performance with this emergent version.

Two days prior to the show, the band released their first new studio album of new material in eight years, “A Bigger Bang”. Tonight, the album was represented by three songs, including “Rough Justice”. There are those who do not want to see this new material, however, if a band stops creating, they stop developing as musicians. “Rough Justice” is proof that the band is still evolving. Keith Richards fired off a few shredding licks which showed me that the Stones don’t plan on resting on their laurels any time soon.

During a brief moment in between songs, Jagger informed the audience they would record a song for the MTV Katrina concert. For only the third time since 1981, “Waiting On A Friend” was performed in the US. The two other performances were during a Pay-Per-View show in St. Louis in December of ‘97 and at the band’s last stop in Chicago during January ‘03. The sweet and somber performance was melancholy and a very fitting tribute. I for one was thrilled to see The Stones push themselves out of their comfort zone. After the final note of “Friend” was performed, the evening took off to unprecedented heights. Keith Richards stood up front and center and began “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Right at this moment, the 16,000+ in attendance appeared to be electrified. The crowd sang in unison, whether Jagger was egging them on or not...and it gave me chills. It is moments like these that make me truly happy to be alive as I felt deeply connected to the human race. Even when Jagger came to a line about a favorite soda, the crowd yelled back “Cherry Red” even before it was to be sung (ironically Jagger was wearing a cherry red shirt). As Ron Wood ended his remarkable solo, the band came to an immediate stop and the crowd took an instantaneous cue and sang the chorus right back to the band. This was a magical marriage between performer and crowd as they enhanced and cheered each other on. Without commitment from both audience and artist, there is no show. The success of any great live concert completely relies on the two converging and supporting one another. The breakneck pace at the end of the song had the entire crowd’s attentiveness with hands clapping, singing and swerving arms in the air. “All Down The Line”, from the band’s brilliant “Exile On Main Street” was dispatched next. This is the Stones at their most raw. Ron Wood’s solo was slick and potent as his guitar wailed and screeched signifying that the heart of rock n’ roll is still pulsating with a vengeance.

Jagger introduced “Night Time Is The Right Time”, performed as a tribute to Ray Charles. If a concert is truly remarkable, you will walk away with at least one transcendent moment that will be etched in your heart and mind forever. Tonight, this was that moment. The soulful tune established that beyond all else, the Rolling Stones are the world’s greatest cover band. The soulful rendition had killer vocals from Jagger, but wait, there was more. Out of the back of the stage appeared opening act Buddy Guy. When it came time to solo, Buddy let his axe rip. It was one of the most ferocious acts of performance I’ve ever been witnessed to. In the midst of Buddy’s solo, Ron Wood, who was standing behind Buddy, turned around and watched the solo from the giant screen overlooking the stage. Buddy’s playing was so passionate that he broke a string on his guitar. Wood returned his eyes to the stage where the blues legend himself was mere feet in front of him and stood there in complete awe as he shook his head back and forth is disbelief at the solo he just witnessed. Ron Wood was not the only one doing this but also the 16,000 in attendance. What I had witnessed was arguably the world’s greatest blues guitarist steal the show from the world’s greatest rock band. When the song came to its climactic finish, the crowd in the upper rafters were on their feet roaring with approval the likes of which I’ve seen merely a handful of times in my life.

The first nine songs of the band’s set were perfectly paced and performed. After band introductions, Keith Richards stepped up to the mic for his two numbers, and surprisingly instead of a rush for the bathrooms, many were eager and did listen attentively. Keith’s songs continue to grow on you with every listen. If you go back to 1980 and picked the twenty-five best songs by the band, many of those numbers would be Keith tunes. “Little T&A”, “I Wanna Hold You”, “All About You”, “Slipping Away”, “Thru and Thru”, “Thief In The Night” and “Losing My Touch” are classics. Keith’s songs have always been faithful to the blues model the Stones based their sound around their first decade. Tonight he started off with “The Worst” from 1994's “Voodoo Lounge” (arguably the band’s best post-1981 album). A gorgeous sweet sax solo, a harmonizing duet from backup singer Bernard Fowler and Ron Wood’s melodious country pedal steel melodies would give us one of the finest performances of this song as new life was breathed into it. When I first saw this song on the Voodoo Lounge tour in ‘94, it was rough around the edges and in all honesty, felt unfinished. Tonight it was sweet and tranquil. However, before Keith was done, “Infamy” (from “A Bigger Bang”) would be performed with a iniquitous riffs from Richards backed by a band relishing the prospect to establish themselves as more than just a band who relies on greatest hits.

Mick rejoined the band back on stage, with a microphone wrapped around his head, as the band ran through “Miss You”. Halfway through the song, the stage began to lift with the six main players and it flew over to the b-stage, where your humble narrator happened to be in front of. As the stage landed and the band continued through “Miss You”, it became clearly evident that bassist Daryl Jones, who took over for retired Bill Wyman in 1994, has clearly found his groove as a true member of this band. As I watched his fingers move across those four strings and felt the reverberations of his playing, I realized how underappreciated he is. Daryl’s bass was turned down in the mix for his first few tours following Bill Wyman’s departure, most likely out of respect to Wyman’s style of performing. However, Daryl’s a seasoned veteran now, so for the first time in his tenure I am really hearing and feeling the musicianship he brings to the stage.

The final new song of the evening, “Oh No Not You Again”, electrified the crowd with its catchy chorus. Jagger strut his stuff and with wide open arms tried to make contact with as many audience members as possible. Another advantage of being so close to the band is that one has the opportunity to witness what damn fine musicians these guys really are. Charlie Watts may be 64-years old but his drumming is unprecedented. He whacks them harder and maintains the rhythm better than anyone else. During “You Got Me Rocking” he was hammering his drums so fiercely I thought he may shatter one. The upper rafters were singing and shaking along to the band’s catchiest tune of their post “Tattoo You” catalog.

The remainder of the show my friends refer to as the “Hot Rocks” set, as its one powerhouse track after another. “Paint It Black” is one of those haunting songs that resonate as much today as it did when originally written over thirty-five years ago. The classic guitar intro led into a devastating pulsation by drummer Charlie Watts on his kit. As I gazed to the upper rafters to the crowd behind me, seas of people were clapping with their hands in unison. This was merely another song where the band, once again led by inexhaustible Charlie Watts, was firing on all cylinders and they maneuvered the crowd to the next level of madness with this intense performance. “Honky Tonk Woman”, “Sympathy For The Devil”, “Brown Sugar” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” were gloriously performed pushing the audience over the top.

For the lone encore, Richards took to the stage, front and center, to play arguably rock’s most celebrated riff, “Satisfaction”. The current incarnation of “Satisfaction” has been stripped back where it has less emphasis on the spectacle and more of a concentration on the raw performance. As the song came to a rousing finale, the Milwaukee crowd was rapturous. I was tired after standing for close to two-hours watching this band give it their all, and I’m less than half of Ron Wood’s age (58). I went into the show with a cynical chip on my shoulder not believing they would capture my imagination as I felt they would not show me anything I had not seen before. I’m happy to say that I was dead wrong. It appeared to me that the Stones still had something to prove as this determination would flow over into the stadium performance two nights later.

I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes
-Paint It Black

Round #2: Saturday September 10th-Chicago, IL
Soldier Field (The Stadium)

“I want to hear the classics” says the twenty-six year old Brooke, as we ride in my car on the way to Soldier Field in Chicago. Her father, sitting to my right, nods his head in affirmation. Both made the trip from Omaha, NE specifically for a father-daughter bonding trip over something they could agree on, the Rolling Stones. A generation apart, different world views, yet somehow, there is something universal about rock n’ roll. They ask me about the show two nights earlier in Milwaukee, wondering if they would see the same show at Soldier Field. Good question and one that I think gets overlooked far too often. Not knowing the exact science of the set list the Stones would pull out, I gave my opinion and best guess as to what the band would and would not pull out. However, I did not think any of it would matter as I could hear the giddiness on Brooke’s voice as she was ready to be rocked.

The Rolling Stones The stadium show is vastly different from the one indoors. There are four times as many people and the stage is about four times as big. I love and hate stadium shows, the spectacle and larger than life atmosphere can be exhilarating, especially when a band and crowd unite. However, some of the most distressing shows I’ve ever seen have been in stadiums. Too many people, long lines, parking nightmares and sometimes where a band is playing to a crowd so large, they do not feel comfortable taking any chances. Bon Jovi at Comerica Park, in the summer of 2003, relied far too much on “calling it in” rather than stimulating their audience. I was not sure how the Stones Soldier Field show would go over? Would they take any chances? Would they call it in?

As the house lights went down at 8:40 pm, 60,000 rose to their feet and immediately shook the foundation of the stadium. The opening video sequence was the same as Milwaukee, however when the collision took place on screen, a giant pyrotechnic blast went off above the stage. As the video wound down shadows emerged on stage until Keith Richards stepped up to hit that opening note of “Start Me Up” amidst a blast of flames that encompassed the front of the stage. Was this blast of fire foreshadowing events to come? Right from the first chord strummed, the band was on fire showing each and every one of the 60,000 fans how stadium gigs are done. The first few numbers flowed beautifully and the Chicago crowd and the Rolling Stones came with their “A” game.

One disadvantage of stadium is lesser known material does not come off as well. The crowd reactions to “Rough Justice”, “Infamy” and “Oh No Not You Again” were by no means volatile; however, I just felt the crowd in Milwaukee was more receptive to the “Bang” material. In a stadium, momentum is lost as quickly as it can be gained. However, with each concert, the Stones are becoming more confident with these new songs and it could be seen during “Rough Justice” which featured a wicked slide guitar solo by Ron Wood whereas “Infamy” showcased subtle but equally remarkable guitar work by Keith Richards as the lights rotated and altered colors which gave the audience eye candy to augment the song.

The most fanatical reception of the evening occurred in the early part of the set, as the band ripped through five colossal classics; “Tumbling Dice”, “She’s So Cold”, “Ruby Tuesday”, “Shattered” and “Bitch”. “Tumbling Dice” gave the crowd a jolt of energy needed and brought about a rain shower of lights upon the crowd, next they fired up the paramount live version of “She’s So Cold”, had 120,000 arms waving in the air for “Ruby Tuesday” (believe it or not, it was the first time I witnessed the song live), shattered expectations with a vitalizing “Shattered” which ended on a pitch perfect note which left the audience in ecstasy before “Bitch” conquered the audience with a breathtaking and vicious performance. Over the course of these five songs, something congealed; the stage effects, solos, audience consciousness, perfect pacing and a bond between the band and 60,000 strangers into a united rock n’ roll family of one.

The focal point of the Milwaukee show was the Ray Charles tribute, “Night Time Is The Right Time”. While it sounded fantastic at Soldier Field, the performance could not compare to Milwaukee’s two nights earlier. Here is where I feel the arena setting worked to the songs advantage because there were fewer people to be lost right from the get go, and the wild card for the Milwaukee was a scorching guitar solo by Buddy Guy. There was no guitar solo at all in Chicago; however, Lisa Fisher prowled the stage like a sex kitten, showcasing rock n’ roll’s second greatest pair of legs (first place goes to Tina Turner) that brought the crowd to life. I actually saw a few people in my row heading for a beer break when Lisa hit her first high note. The couple immediately turned around and came back to their seats to witness the world’s greatest rock band knock out a great R&B cover.

Surprisingly, Keith Richards’s solo spots have been the same on every night of the tour regardless of whether it’s a stadium or arena; “The Worst” and “Infamy”. With a rather extensive catalog of tunes at his hands, why not play some of the other tunes off of “A Bigger Bang” or the resurrected “Thru and Thru” or in the case of a stadium, why not pull out “Happy” and give the crowd a reason to raise their fists? Both songs (“The Worst” & “Infamy”) were executed beautifully, but these songs shined brighter in an arena setting.

My life flashes forward
Then it flashes back
-“Oh No, Not You Again”

Just like the arena show in Milwaukee, the stage flies over to the b-stage at the other end of the stadium during “Miss You”. If I could offer a suggestion to the band, it would be to play a rarity or a new song for the flying stage sequence. This is where you sometimes need a stage propping to enhance a new number, whereas “Miss You” will receive a terrific reaction almost any way it is performed. While I was able to appreciate the musicianship better in an arena, I was impressed with the zealous reaction the fans at the far end of the stadium gave them as they landed. During an arena gig I feel that I’m more focused on the music whereas this time, I’m in awe of the spectacle of the show as the fans surrounding the b-stage are zealous, even more so than anyone in the first ten rows of the stadium. Here is where the band breaks bread with the true fans, the ones who pay over $100 just to sit at the other end of a football stadium, all just to experience the Rolling Stones live. From the nose bleed seats, the Rolling Stones look like ants on stage, but all that matters is the awe-inspiring connection the band forged with the crowd. Thursday night’s finale, “Satisfaction”, is given b-stage treatment tonight as the ardent crowd was pushed to the next level of hysteria. It was amazing to see 15,000 people go fanatical to “Satisfaction” in Milwaukee, but tonight, the 60,000 in the Windy City took the crowd to deafening levels with their cries of approval which the band no doubt received some sort of “satisfaction” from this feedback. There was even a moment where the Mick’s head microphone went dead and while he walked over to grab a hand mic, the crowd picked up the slack for a brief moment. On the b-stage “Satisfaction” is crude, messy and astounding. Sure there are missed cue’s but none of that matters as Charlie Watts, the backbone of the band, holds the band together with his hammering drum fills and as long as he is behind the kit, it allows Ronnie and Keith the ability to improvise on their riffs and solo’s.

“Honky Tonk Woman” was highlighted by the opening riff, as Richards strode across the stage hitting that one note over and over again with one hand appearing cool and calm with a giant grin on his weathered face. At one point, Keith missed a few notes because there was a fan needing his attention. He left the comforts of the stage and went into the pit and shook their hand. I’m not sure what made Keith do this, but it goes to show it’s all about connection for the musical pirate. Shortly after Keith returned to the b-stage, it lifted and made its way back to the main stage as a giant inflated tongue hung over the top portion of the stage. This is another perk of the stadium show; toys and special effects can either add or detract from the music, depending on your personal point of view. Me personally, I don’t care either way, but I did talk to a few people who felt the inflated tongue was one of the best moments and another felt it was the worse of the evening. I give the Stones props for doing their best on each and every tour to enlighten the stadium audience. Pyrotechnics and elaborate lighting ignites those in the nose bleeds with a rush of adrenaline. If you are going to play a stadium, you should be giving your all to the crowd so they feel like they are part of the experience and not in an overpriced seat bored out of their mind. One thing constantly overlooked about each and every time the Rolling Stones stroll through town they silence the cynics with their stage presence as both entertainers and musicians, these are extraordinarily talented musicians who continue to impress me, even after seeing them live a dozen times. If they were hacks, people would not be forking over hard earned money to see a second-rate show. Love them or hate them, the truth is the Rolling Stones are the masters of the live stadium experience.

“Out of Control”, not performed in Milwaukee, added another dimension to the stadium experience, back on the main stage. The jazzy rock number stood out with the help of alternating and veering lights as Jagger and Richards roamed the stage like a warriors. Never ones to rest on their laurels, the band sucked the crowd in with their musicianship on this number. An album track from the 90's, that should have been a bathroom break, was turned into a driving number through the sheer strength of performance and some superlative lighting. No sooner did “Out of Control” end than the beats of “Sympathy For The Devil” could be heard beneath the thunderous response from the crowd. As enormous clouds of red smoke appeared throughout the stadium, the band delivered a truly epic performance of “Sympathy” in every way imaginable; lights, smoke and pyrotechnics (some which were so scorching I thought someone had dropped a cigarette on my hands, even though the pyrotechnic blast occurred a solid one-hundred feet above me.) The explosive finale to “Sympathy” was the cherry on the sundae; it truly had to be seen to be believed as no words I write could recreate this experience.

“Jumpin' Jack Flash” began on a bum note. In Keith’s stride to never perform the same song the same way, it felt as if the opening riff was a little off. The crowd appeared to sit there complacent during what is arguably one of their three prevalent songs, which was appalling to me. Bum note or not, the crowd should have been rocking out to this one. There were no stage gimmicks here, but there was passionate resolve in the form of Mick Jagger. Jagger noticed the crowd was lacking in response when he surged forward towards the audience, emptying a water bottle and then kicking it into the audience. He then strove towards the left side of the stage; arms lifted and began to jump up and down inhumanly. Like a man with mystical powers, the crowd became entranced at once and began mimicking him. Here is what every front man in a band should watch when they come across a challenging audience. I’m not sure what was wrong with the crowd, but Jagger took them from a place of complacency to a state of frenzy, merely with the movement of his hips. If that was not enough, he leaped off the stage and prowled down the center ramp so those further back on the main floor would take notice that this was a rock n’ roll show and not a business conference. Instead of losing the crowd, he single-handedly pulled the audience back into the palm of his hand. The main set closer, “Brown Sugar”, rebounded nicely as the instrumentation of the band was flawless. Bobby Key’s sax solo was spot on and during the ending chant of “yeah, yeah, yeah!” the audience was in heaven. The main set climaxed with a few pyro blasts as the band rushed into the darkness to regroup before the encore.

In Milwaukee, the encore was one song, a rousing rendition of “Satisfaction”. For stadiums they are pairing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “It’s Only Rock N’ Roll”. On paper, this may appear to be a bore, yet, there is something to be said about actually being there to experience it. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was an enduring performance; however, it could not reach the heights of Milwaukee two days earlier. It’s funny, not even 60,000 soaring voices could compare to the level of adoration and lunacy given by the crowd in Milwaukee. This does not mean that when the Stones play arena and stadium gigs in New York the opposite won’t be true. Upon its completion, “It’s Only Rock N’ Roll” was run through like a standard number at first and appeared to be out of place as the grand finale for a stadium. However, this was no four-minute rocker but one with an extended jam as the band urged the crowd to participate as they brought the song to rousing heights. After a couple of decades of having “Brown Sugar”, “Satisfaction”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Sympathy” as semi-predictable closers, the Stones showed the Chicago crowd they still have a few aces up their sleeves. The songs on this night were about the intensity and will of performance. In a stadium, regardless of how legendary the material may be, you can’t “call it in” as the crowd will turn on you quicker than you can say “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. As the band took their bows, there was no denying they rocked harder than bands forty years younger and enthralled 60,000 in the process.

As I met Brooke and her father after the show, they were euphoric in their enthusiasm. Both could not stop talking about seeing the Stones again this coming January, when they make a stop in Omaha. For the remainder of the weekend, they talked about how they wanted to be transported back to the two hours the Rolling Stones owned Chicago. When it comes to concert performances the Rolling Stones are tough to top; Ron Wood and Keith Richards dueling guitars which give each performance its own unique fingerprint, while Jagger elevates his performance every night to take the crowd to that next level and Charlie Watts…what else can be said about the coolest rock star to ever grace this Earth? He’s the most consistent musician I have ever laid eyes upon. He’s the foundation of the band and is irreplaceable.

Throughout two shows, one in an arena and the other in a stadium, the Rolling Stones illustrated the power of perseverance as they come out on stage with all guns firing every night. They do not rest on their prosperous history, but challenge their audience-even when they don’t want to leave the comfort zone. The Rolling Stones have taken rock n’ roll machine further than any other band in the history of the world. All bands a generation behind them are watching them with a close eye to see where the final template ends up. I have a feeling there will never be a “farewell” tour announcement as Ron, Mick, Keith and Charlie will be doing this until they leave this world for another. Love them or hate them, the truth is the Rolling Stones have taken concert performing to heights never touched by any other artist. They are the elder statesmen of rock. Can’t you hear them rocking?

Life is short, one look and it's over
Comes as quite a shock
All I got is some memories
Stuck in an old shoebox
-“It Won’t Take Long”

*Very special thanks to the following people for making this review possible: Michael Cohl, Cheryl Ceretti, Celena Aponte & Lonn Friend. Thanks for believing!