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Cause Célèbre: Green Carpets and Ancient Elves 

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FOLLOWING A LITTLE WANGLING AND A WEE BIT TOO MUCH INDUSTRY butt-smooching even for my taste, I found myself the holder of one solitary ticket to see the Rolling Stones at their big free show at Staples Center last Thursday night. Yes, I would've paid upward of $1,500 to attend, as did many of the marvelous celebrities in attendance, but I couldn't spare it. Had to be there, though, because this was, of course, the Stones' much-heralded concert to aid the National Resource Defense Council's work to focus the world's eyes on global warming. Sure to be quite a spectacle, in other words.

Now, it might be that the Stones hardly donated their services for this event; the Stones could likely care less about global warming. I can't state that as fact, just guessing. And one could imagine that few in this happy star-spangled crowd — reportedly including Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lisa Kudrow, Pierce Brosnan, Bill Maher, ex-Stray Cat Slim Jim Phantom and a kissypooing Ed Begley Jr. — worry about it all that much, either, though I could be way wrong about that. I suppose Begley Jr. cares — he's famously down with environmental issues. And Diaz told the L.A. Times that she came out not for the Stones but because "Mother Earth is the issue." Still, scanning the room, I also saw that young TV stud with short brown hair who kinda curls his lip like Elvis, can't remember his name, plus a lot of tanned women who wore tight trousers cut way down right above their pubic hair. I think the Stones were their issue.

The mainly hands-off feel of the security crew at Staples made for a semicasual mood. As I wasn't packing heat this particular night, I entered smooth as silk; earlier, your major luminaries had strolled in upon a green carpet, many adorned in environmentally incorrect leather shoes! Once inside, the vibe was real nice, not high-pressure, kinda open and friendly — something to do with the "cause" behind it all. Steve Bing, Hollywood producer and personal friend of Mick Jagger, also the guy who knocked up Elizabeth Hurley, then denied it, was the one who put up the dosh for this event — okay okay, we like you, weasel . . .

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On with the show: I missed Gray Davis' little speech, but it was probably very, very dull. Following a warm-up set by Susan Tedeschi — pleasant but basically warmed-over Bonnie Raitt blues smoothness — out onstage strolled Boris Yeltsin/W.C. Fields/big ol' Bill Clinton, who gave a short speech about how old he and the Stones are and, seriously, though, let's all get together to do something about global warming. He was greeted with sundry boos but mostly warm applause that grew fervent and thunderous, a semiambivalent realization dawning something like, "Boy, do we miss you now . . . pervert." I was hoping maybe he'd come on later and jam with the Stones on sax, 'cause you know he does enjoy a little blow now and then; sure enough, I looked over stage right a while later and there he stood, puffing and honking and — nah, that was merely longtime Stones main man Bobby Keys.

This is where it gets interesting. One began to notice that the most unpretentious people in this room full of Big Stars, capital B capital S, were the Rolling Stones themselves. "Rarver nice to be here, innit, good cause and all that," spake Sir Mick from on high, or somesuch rockstar talk. He then swiveled his snakehips, and from the get-go his band roared, in seeming determination to give their very best.

They did. Owing probably in part to their well-honed prowess from having been on the road for four months, but maybe more from a sincere desire to play well, this Stones set found them at a new peak, musicianshipwise. It had something to do with their own satisfaction in their songs, in their lives — from the concentric circles in Keith Richards' grinning face, courtly and gracious, you could tell he's really enjoying it now; it was great entertainment seeing him go through his repertoire of archetypal moves, just touching the guitar most of the time to make it do what he wanted it to do; someone must have noticed that in song after song he boasted an inordinately great musicality, all subtly implied notes, inferred chords, caressing fingers on his beloved axes; he's as persuasive when damping his strings as he is when plucking them, and he is the rhythmic core of this band as well, up there with the best rhythm guitar players ever born. Keith's playing better than ever, as is Ron Wood; both displayed their gifts with inspired solo bits.

"Start Me Up," "All Down the Line," "Satisfaction," blah blah blah, they dragged the chestnuts out, typically rushing the tempos and making Charlie Watts pinch his nostrils with the strain; a much better feel came on the slower tunes, like "You Can't Always Get What You Want" or "Wild Horses," and especially on Keith's solo "Slipping Away," perhaps the band's best song of recent vintage.

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