The Rolling Stones
If last night's concert at Staples Center really was the Rolling Stones' final show in Los Angeles after nearly 50 years of faithful pilgrimages to the Southland, it revealed that the British warhorses are still capable of major gasp-inducing surprises. When the tour officially kicked off at this arena three weeks ago, there was considerable pomp and circumstance to mark the occasion, including visitations from moderately stellar celebrity guests and the stirring spectacle of dozens of blue-jacketed members of the UCLA Marching Band streaming through the aisles, belching out a festive instrumental version of "Satisfaction." However, at last night's bookend sequel at Staples, the thrills and chills were largely musical instead of theatrical.
After a month of touring up and down California and Nevada, it appeared that the Stones had already settled into a relatively predictable routine by the time they arrived again at Staples. Augmented by the occasional special guest, the group usually stuck to the same set list, mixing in a few prized obscurities early on before closing with a fusillade of the major hits. The fact that the "50 & Counting" tour might be the Stones' last one is certainly noteworthy, but what's made this trek so compelling for hardcore fans is the long-awaited return of brilliant former lead guitarist Mick Taylor, who quit the group in 1974 and hadn't performed live with the Stones since a mysterious one-off gig in Kansas City on the 1981 tour.
As much as longtime fans have cherished every fat and juicy note flying out of Taylor's frets during his regular spotlight turn on "Midnight Rambler," they've also lamented that the Stones have barely used him during the rest of the set. At the last few concerts, he's also walked onstage to riff along on the encore of "Satisfaction," although without getting space to do a proper solo. Making matters even more vexing for Taylor fans is that the Stones' set list is filled with songs like "Gimme Shelter," "Tumbling Dice," "Brown Sugar," "It's Only Rock & Roll" and "Honky Tonk Women" -- classics that Taylor either recorded with the band or made his own on definitive live versions on the 1972 and 1973 tours.
For three decades, most Stones fans have found themselves classified in one of two camps -- those who love Taylor's replacement, Ron Wood, and those who desperately pine for the return of Taylor. The irony is that Wood has been a perfect gentleman about this over the years, whether he's asking Taylor to appear on his solo albums or going out of his way on this tour to literally bow and show deep respect to his predecessor. It's been exciting seeing all three living Stones guitarists, including Keith Richards, jamming together onstage on "Midnight Rambler," but it was only at last night's stunning show that the planets of Ron Wood and Mick Taylor fully aligned in a more satisfying manner.
There was little indication at first that this concert would be markedly different than the previous ones on the tour. Following a short opening film of testimonials from such fans as Iggy Pop, Cate Blanchett and Sheiks of Shake drummer Paul Body, the Stones burst into "Get Off of My Cloud," with Mick Jagger prowling the large stage in a glittery jacket. After all of these years, the Stones still remain, at heart, a simple garage-rock band, capable of crashing and burning at any time just like any struggling young punks. It's precisely that uncontrollable, chaotic euphoria that makes the Stones so exciting, especially in comparison to their early peers, who have either retired or turned into slick show-biz lounge lizards.
Several of the subsequent tunes, including "It's Only Rock & Roll" and "Gimme Shelter," came and went without a peep from Taylor, who was apparently still locked up in his backstage cage. When the Stones rattled through "All Down the Line" for one of the first times on the tour, Wood even attempted to mimic Taylor's original guitar parts, which was unusual since Wood usually tries to play the oldies in his own style.
All of this just made those in the Taylor camp even more frustrated. After a warm and homey version of "Faraway Eyes," where a strong and clear-voiced Jagger guilelessly remade himself as a Bakersfield yokel, drawing cheers from the sold-out crowd when he namedropped Los Angeles, it appeared that the pattern was set. Most of the rare songs were out of the way, and the Stones were presumably poised to plow through the rest of their usual set.
But that's when the power of the people intervened. For some of the shows on this tour, the Stones have allowed online fans to choose one of the songs for the set list. Last night's winner was "Sway," beating out such rarely played songs as "Shine a Light" and "Some Girls." Although "Sway" is one of the most powerful tracks on one of the Stones' most powerful albums, Sticky Fingers, they've only started performing it live on rare occasions in the past decade. It's one of Mick Jagger's more passionate and unusually confessional lyrics, as he laments, "Must be that demon life that's caught me in its sway."
Reportedly, the music was written by Taylor, one of several key songs that the guitarist felt he was never properly credited (or compensated) for. Would the Stones dare play the song live without Taylor? Last night, they didn't, which meant that, for the first time ever, the song was played properly, with Jagger's world-weary musings rising grandly over Richards' thick chords -- and Taylor's artfully embellished and intricate curlicues of lead guitar. Taylor looked ecstatic to finally get to play something different, and many fans in the crowd had stunned looks on their faces. Several grown men were in literal tears.
Taylor left the stage as the Stones slammed and swaggered through their two new songs. With Jagger strapping on an electric guitar, "Doom & Gloom" was really cooking, its stop-and-start riffs sounding extra tight and confident. "I see you're all dressed up to the nines," Jagger said, perhaps wistfully, to the casually dressed crowd. With its iconic Keef Riffhard riff, "One More Shot" sounded much more vital and intense onstage than on the recorded version, and the double shot of new songs proved that the Stones can still be relevant and timely, whenever they motivate themselves.
Then the biggest surprise of the night -- a version of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," the extended epic from Sticky Fingers that was one of the earliest indications that the Stones really were much more than a garage band, capable of branching out expansively into jazz and dazzling improvisation. The Stones have tried playing it a handful of times in the past decade, but, without Taylor's incisive, fluid soloing, the song previously seemed incomplete.
Last night, they tore the roof off the sucker. "Can't You Hear" is really two songs in one. The first half rides along one of those trademark monumental riffs, with, again, an atypically vulnerable Jagger forcefully pleading for help between the serrated edges of Richards' angry rhythm guitar. Then, halfway through, the song suddenly downshifts into a jazzy instrumental passage, where funky percussion, percolating keyboards and swooning bass create a Santana-like idyll, with Taylor slowly gathering elegant melodies together and spinning them like webs over everything.
On this live version, even Taylor's simple rhythmic inversions underneath Richards' chords were sublime. Drummer Charlie Watts came to life, visibly happy to show off his jazz chops on such a complex and febrile song. Taylor outlined several of the classic melodies at first, before venturing off into new sonic byways. An impatient Jagger came over to glower at Taylor, as if to say, "Hurry up," so Taylor reeled back in his most out-there licks, culminating finally in a dramatic coda where he tied everything neatly together with a velvet bow.
This was what hardcore Stones fans have been waiting for all their lives. This was why they stood in lines for hours, paid too much for tickets, missed work time or begged off from family obligations -- just so they could follow the Stones around the state like true believers, dazed and ecstatic to finally hear those magic skeins of sound onstage for the first time. It was a real moment. It made up for every torture, every test of endurance and patience, every hoop that Jagger made the fans jump through.
Fans were so delighted and shocked by "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" that they barely cared that Taylor left the stage again for "Honky Tonk Women" -- even though he's the only Stones guitarist who can actually play the main riff correctly. After Jagger introduced the band (playfully saluting Charlie Watts as "Mr. Wham-a-lama-loo"), Richards took over the mike for his two song mini-set.
Richards' soulfully craggy vocals sounded warm and intimate on a stripped-down version of "You Got the Silver," with Wood smearing his slide pleasingly up and down his acoustic guitar. Whether it's the presence of Taylor or merely a coincidence, the oft-erratic Wood has been really disciplined on this tour, peeling out especially searing and chiming tones on Richards' second song, "Before They Make Me Run."
It seemed too much to hope for to have Taylor come out and do "Midnight Rambler," especially since he'd already gotten to play the similarly epic "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," but this was a night of fulfilled expectations. Not only did Taylor come out again, but his bewitching rhythmic twists even had Jagger dancing an extended sideways soft-shoe shuffle. Taylor dropped to his knees for his first extended solo, the licks bubbling out slowly at first like lava before erupting in a cascade of stinging, stabbing notes. Watts tapped his cymbals for light-rain sounds, pulling the strings like a puppeteer as the stormy riffs subsided into the slow, bluesy midsection. Taylor airily unfolded woozy surges from his slide guitar as the rest of the band slammed down the whiplash accents and Jagger wafted provocative entreaties on his harmonica.
Taylor was often the centerpiece of the night, but the concert was moving and memorable in other ways. Jagger was atypically nostalgic, talking frequently about how the Stones have been visiting Southern California since 1965. He seemed to be openly rueful that this might be the last time they'd ever play in one of their favorite cities.
As the melancholic strains of "Miss You" began to swirl around, Jagger made an announcement to the crowd. "Tonight, the special guest is you guys," he declared. Corny, yes, but no special guests were needed last night, not with Taylor in the house and tearing it up so ruthlessly. The special guests on this tour have been all over the place. Some have been brilliant, such as Tom Waits growling his way through "Little Red Rooster" at the Oakland show, and John Fogerty (whose voice fit in well with Jagger's on a jubilant rendition of Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now") and Bonnie Raitt (who more than held her own, on vocals and guitar, on a randy version of "Let It Bleed") in San Jose. Other have been overmatched, such as a game Gwen Stefani, whose voice wasn't a good fit on "Wild Horses" at the first Staples show. Still others have been surprisingly decent, namely Keith Urban, whose puppy-dog enthusiasm actually worked on "Respectable," whereas others have been merely bland or blustery, such as John Mayer and Dave Grohl at the two Anaheim concerts last week.
But the special guests have been mere sideshow distractions in the bigger scheme of things. While much of the country (especially in the South and the Pacific Northwest) isn't getting even so much as a peep from the Stones on this final tour, California has already had more than a half dozen shows on this leg. This meant that the Stones could play a lot of different songs during the past month, including songs that may not reappear later in the tour.
At the first Honda Center show last Wednesday, fans in the O.C. were treated to "Rocks Off" (chaotic and sloppy) and an unexpectedly moving and intimate version of "Waiting on a Friend," as well as a bluesy stroll through Muddy Waters' "Champagne & Reefer" with guest John Mayer. Wood's and Mayer's solos on "Champagne" were fairly standard and unremarkable, but Richards' closing solo -- so elemental and piercing in its simplicity -- had the most authentically scarifying blues bloodiness to it, much like his biting, staccato thrusts on the set-closing "Sympathy for the Devil."
The sound at Staples Center was still muffled and quieter overall than the louder shows in Anaheim and, especially, San Jose (where the guitars were blisteringly loud and fully satisfying, as if it were a nightclub). For some reason, they don't crank it up much at Staples, but, despite that, this last show of the California swing was the most memorable -- a virtual dreamtime tour through songs that many fans never thought they'd hear played live.
With all of this newfound energy and the strength of their new songs, the Stones really don't sound like a band that's about it hang it up forever. The Rolling Stones and Southern California have been in a mutual love affair for five decades. What are we going to do without them? What are they going to do without us?
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