Got Live Stones! (If Ya Want It)

The Rolling Stones
Angel Stadium, November 4, and the Hollywood Bowl, November 6

With a massive stage set and a lurid frenzy of fireworks, the Rolling Stones’ show at Angel Stadium was almost as much about the bigger bang than it was about A Bigger Bang. In the end, though, several tunes from the surprisingly strong new album, combined with the undeniably powerful nostalgic tug of the old hits, resonated more deeply than the pyromaniacal pyrotechnics. (“Besides the fact that it was, like, the most incredible music ever, it had, like, the best effects ever,” as a tearful Mimi explained to Sean-D on a recent Days of Our Lives, when the couple conveniently stumbled across the new Stones video in a brazen bit of cross-promotion.)

After the lights dimmed for the opening fusillade, Charlie Watts, in a plain red T-shirt and gray slacks, walked to his drums with the nonchalance of a man sitting down to dinner, while Mick Jagger — decked out in black, finished off with silver shoes and a small silver jacket — dashed eagerly around the wide stage like a dog just off his leash. Keith Richards ambled out casually, bare chest under unbuttoned shirt and tan trench coat, and hunched crookedly over his guitar for the obvious opener, “Start Me Up.” He and a perpetually grinning Ron Wood exchanged suspended chords that were as big as the stacked balconies of onstage seating, which resembled looming office buildings more than opera boxes. Two songs later, the flashing lights made “Tumbling Dice” seem more like “’Bling Dice,” but the arrangement was well supported by the sumptuous, gospel-rich harmonies of Bernard Fowler, Blondie Chaplin and Lisa Fisher. As the song’s last chords rang out, Watts — recovering from last year’s bout with cancer — tumbled his tom-toms together and tossed a quick mini-drum-solo salad to let us know he was still the boss.

“Oh No Not You Again” was next, and while it’s one of the lesser songs on A Bigger Bang, it had a properly rambunctious Some Girls energy live with Keef’s snazzy Chuck Berry–ified solo. “Ruby Tuesday” shifted moods and decades, Jagger’s vocals up front in the mix, stonier with age and wisdom than his cocky youth; Richards posed with and occasionally strummed warm accents on a brown acoustic, while Chuck Leavell’s piano carried the delicate melody. Good, hip-swaying versions of “It’s Only Rock & Roll” and “Bitch” followed — the latter enlivened by the decadently saucy sax retorts of Bobby Keys and Tim Ries — but they also exposed how much the Stones still miss Mick Taylor. Wood’s licks didn’t quiver and hang in the air with Taylor’s stinging eloquence, but the bigger problem lay in his maddening inconsistency — the eternal enigma of Ronnie Wood. During the hyena slide breaks on “You Got Me Rocking” and the stomping new “Rough Justice,” he was coolly effective. At other times, he floundered randomly, particularly at the Bowl two nights later when he butchered and couldn’t resolve extended solos on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

While they may never again approach their peak — when Taylor was unreeling insanely dazzling leads on the 1973 European tour — the Stones are in some ways better than ever onstage. A full horn section and complement of backup singers, along with the reliable throb of bassist Darryl Jones, gives the songs maximum flavor, and Jagger is singing with more control and assurance than he has in decades.

The one surprise in Anaheim was a horny and bluesy rumble through Ray Charles’ “Night Time Is the Right Time.” Lisa Fisher took the lead from Mick halfway through the song, raising the stadium’s invisible roof with soulful insinuation and awesome force. Before Keith’s two-song spot, Jagger introduced the band, drawing a stern double take from Charlie “Wang Dang Doodle” Watts. Richards slouched into “Slipping Away,” and much of the crowd began slipping away, even though his singing was clearer and more robust than the glorified mumbling of previous tours. They also missed Keith’s word-playful new “Infamy,” which had a murky reggae lilt. Jagger and the rest of the audience returned in time for the night’s most special effect: The Stones vamped through “Miss You” as the section of stage that held the core members and Leavell broke off from the main stage, and was carried slowly along a track to the infield. The band seemed almost as thrilled as the madding crowd to be up close. Women climbed on their boyfriends’ shoulders to scream at Jagger, who leered rudely back, and the band barreled through “Rough Justice” and “Get Off of My Cloud.” Fans in the infield then waved helplessly as the mini-stage sailed like a ship homeward to the big stage during “Honky Tonk Women” (evoking the 1975 publicity stunt when the Stones introduced Ron Wood by performing on a flatbed truck as it moved down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue). The band closed with the usual warhorses, highlighted by the fireball explosions of “Sympathy for the Devil,” Richards stabbing out angry string-bends under the hazy, blood-red lights.

The fireworks were less ostentatious at the Sunday concert in Hollywood, and most of the set and effects weren’t used because they couldn’t fit in the Bowl’s smaller confines. (Several stagehands pushed Charlie’s drum riser a few feet closer to the front row for the midset “intimate” segment, a somewhat weak approximation of the impressive mobile stage at Angel Stadium.) But the sound at the Bowl was punchier, the song selection better, and Jagger was in a chattier mood. “We haven’t played here since 1966 . . . the only thing that’s still the same is the set list,” he joked before “Live With Me.”

Introducing “Tumbling Dice,” he complained that “you turn on the TV, and what you get is Arnold propositioning you.” He nailed the low notes on “Dead Flowers,” and Keith and Ronnie “Rembrandt” Wood (so dubbed by Sir Mick) kept “Midnight Rambler” tight and chunky, but the biggest chill came during the new album’s “Back of My Hand.” Searchlights pried their arms into the deepening fog as Jagger honked swampy harmonica, scraped up some nice slide guitar (!) and made dire soothsayer predictions. Pure blues. Fewer folks hit the aisles this time for Keith’s rock-steady star turn on “Slipping Away” (“This song’s for somebody, or everybody, who knows who they are”) and “Infamy” (“from the new bid-a-bing, bid-a-Bang, bid-a-bong thing”), and he chimed in with some purty world-weary harmonies on “Wild Horses.” Smoke settled ominously on the unsuspecting crowd, and occasional sparks from roof flares crumbled down the Bowl’s shell on “Sympathy for the Devil.” By the time Jagger ad-libbed a line about “Hollywood swinging” on “Brown Sugar,” the party was almost over. An encore, the bumblebee riffs of “Satisfaction,” a quick group hug — and the Stones were whisked off well ahead of the final eruption of fireworks.


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