It might sound like hyperbolic gushing, but we’ll say it anyway — the Rolling Stones are not just a rock & roll band, they are the rock & roll band. Massively-talented performers. Effortless songwriters. Mythic figures. We might all be sick of people throwing around the word ‘iconic,’ but they fully embody its meaning like no others. The only thing that must be conceded about the Stones, at least as of last month, is that despite indications to the contrary thus far, they are not immortal. And that was a hard pill to swallow for an uber-fan, which, if you haven’t already guessed, this writer happens to be. Charlie Watts really is gone and his presence is missed in the musical sense, but also in the spiritual sense.
It was definitely felt at the Rolling Stones’ Sofi Stadium shows last Thursday and this past Sunday. People even toted signs commemorating the drummer and the shows began with a video montage highlighting his contributions throughout the band’s nearly 60-year long career. A lot has been said about Mr. Watts being the foundation of the band, perpetually un-showy as a skinsman, and as a person. Though technicality and aggression is what gets a drummer noticed, Charlie was simply “the rock” — steady, smooth and solid, keeping the guys in front of him on track. This has real value, one might guess never more so than back in the day when Keith Richards was a junkie and Mick Jagger was taking the egotistical frontman role a little too far for his comrades’ tastes. When Charlie passed away on Aug. 24, the most shared story about him was tellingly, the fight he, Mick and Keith had over the singer’s solo album. He reportedly said, “Never call me your drummer again, you’re my singer,” but that story over-simplified the dynamics of the band and their brotherly relationship.
Over the years the eldest Stone represented a distinguished contrast to his music mates’ flash (jumpin’ or otherwise) and watching the group for the first time live without him on Sunday, was as bittersweet as we thought it would be. Sonically, fill-in Steve Jordan (who played with Keith and had been a pal of Charlie’s for 40 years) did a great job, though, providing a fierce and funky-when-needed rhythmic base for the band’s set list, which we thought was quite refreshing selection-wise compared to past stadium sets. (We’ll note here that we have seen every L.A. stadium gig since 1989, plus their shows at The Hollywood Bowl, Desert Trip, The Henry Fonda Theatre and The Echoplex — see a few links to our past reviews at the end of this one).
The opening number, “Street Fighting Man,” is a familiar choice and really, a perfect choice for right now, as it’s often called their most politically-driven song, inspired by anti-war protests. Less literally, it evokes disruption and expressive uprising. Riff-wise it’s catchy as hell. Though Exile on Main Street is often cited as the Stones’ best work, we usually get “Shine A Light” and “Tumbling Dice” (the latter, they did play Sunday). But “All Down the Line” captures Exile‘s twangy spirit and hearing it at the start of the show was a real gift, as was the ’60s-era gem, “19th Nervous Breakdown,” which followed.
“Beast of Burden,” “Wild Horses (the fan voted track, but not by us — we voted for “Worried About You” off of Tattoo You via the website, mostly because we melt for Mick’s falsetto) and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” made for a beautiful, sing-a-long worthy mid-tempo block, followed by the new number about the pandemic, “Ghost Town,” and two more crowd-pleasers — “Start Me Up” (ok, some of us are sick of that one, but the more casual fans in the crowd clearly didn’t agree) and “Honky Tonk Woman.”
It’s a running joke amongst fans that the “Keef portion” of a Stones show is bathroom break time, but never for this one. We’ve always loved his old wino screech, especially when it’s in harmony with Mick’s deeper croon. As he’s gotten older, its gotten weaker, but no matter, it’s the moment when the personification of cool takes the spotlight and missing it feels like a crime. Still, Richards’ take on “Connection” from Between the Buttons was honestly not the best, and we wished that it’d been sung by both of the glimmer twins. “Before They Make Me Run” off Some Girls, with its lively yet languid chorus was better; after all its about moving while “it’s still fun,” and he proved that it is indeed, for all of us.
The rest of the set was… well, just take a look at it above (and the previous date’s below). Perfect. Some of the biggest, best and most badass hits by any rock band ever, living or dead, from the ’60s and ’70s, right there. The arrangement on “Miss You” was a little different (or maybe Mick forgot the words) but either way it felt joyful and jammy. The rest, all from their earlier albums, were rendered as good as anyone could possibly imagine they could be, and not just “for their age,” either. We had incredible floor seats and the sound was great, but apparently our friends in the nosebleeds weren’t so lucky, as Sofi is mostly meant for sporting events. That said the $5 billion venue is quite the looker, even if a parking spot took an hour to get to upon entry and there was a bottleneck smash to get onto the floor. Under normal circumstances we’d have probably welcomed bonding with our fellow tongue-tee’d Stone-rs, but in COVID-19 times, not so much. At least they really did check vaccinations, which we were grateful for after dealing with the hordes.
One song notably missing from the set was “Brown Sugar,” a source of controversy this tour, as the band made a conscious decision not to play it. It’s getting a lot of press, but for fans, the questionable nature of the track is nothing new (we even wrote about it a bit here). The references to slavery meshed with overtly sexual double entendre (about Mick’s girlfriend at the time, Marsha Hunt) and jubilant hooks make it kind of a mess in terms of tone, but it’s an infectious one that probably became popular precisely because it’s as sleazy as it is catchy. It’s the first track on the crotch-covered Sticky Fingers, after all.
As far back as the ’90s, Jagger admitted that the mishmash was problematic, but let’s be honest, most of us don’t sing the verses –at least not the whole of them– even if we savor the sweet refrain of the chorus (“how come you dance so good?). Whatever motivated the chaps to finally stop performing it now doesn’t really matter. We respect their decision, especially as musicians who’ve always shown respect for Black people and their artistry as their main inspirations (Chuck Berry, James Brown, Little Richard and all the Blues greats), collaborators and friends. Backup singer Bernard Fowler is practically the 6th member and Lisa Fischer and Blondie Chaplin shared the spotlight on past tours for years. Current female back-up singer Sasha Allen got to hold her own with Mick, wowing on “Gimme Shelter” during the encore, and bassist Darryl Jones and now Jordan, all feel like a cohesive part of the band, each getting moments to shine on stage and the jumbo-trons, accordingly.
Speaking of the blues, the other clickbait of recent weeks involving The Stones had Paul McCartney dismissing them as nothing more than “a blues band.” Jagger even addressed it at the Oct. 14 show, quipping that Paul would be joining him onstage for a blues cover. In a recent interview he also pointed out an obvious truth that should quelch the cultural comparisons (but won’t): The Beatles ceased being a band in 1970, while the Stones arguably enjoyed the prime of their career in the ’70s and are still an actual touring band to this day, filling stadiums around the globe. Both bands are exceptional and wonderful and deserve more than the tired ‘who’s better?’ bouts. Both are also comprised of human beings, even if Jagger’s visceral output makes him seem like he’s not, the way he jumps around, dances and still sings with gusto (he even busted out the falsetto we were hoping for a couple of times on Sunday) at 78 years old.
But Charlie Watts leaving this earthly dimension was a reminder that one day the remaining Stones will indeed stop rolling. Though they dealt with death early on when Brian Jones died and had other member exits too (Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman), losing their bedrock member this year was more than huge. We don’t know if this is the last tour or not, but we do know that one day, it will be. Mick will not be able to shake his hips, and despite all the memes, Keith (and Ronnie too) won’t be cranking amps with the post-apocalypse cockroaches. It’s a truly heartbreaking thought, especially if you’ve ever seen them live. And it makes what they are doing right now as they complete the No Filter tour all the more remarkable and legacy-defining.
Read some of our past reviews here: