“Well this could be the last time
This could be the last time
Maybe the last time
I don’t know
Well this could be the last time”
There are so many reasons why this shouldn’t be happening. It’s 2012; this band formed in 1962’s London. We’re in Brooklyn in an ultra lounge of an arena built by a Jewish real estate financier and a drug dealer turned rapper turned impresario. But here we are, and The Rolling Stones are about to take the stage at Brooklyn’s newly minted Barclays Center, celebrating their astonishing, improbable, triumphant 50th anniversary — a feat almost unprecedented in the history of recorded music.
The architecturally intriguing venue is corporate through and through, its name bought and paid for by a London-based bank ensconced in scandal. For adult beverages, they seemingly sell only that swill that sponsored Mr. Shawn Carter’s recent Philly festival. And the ticket pricing (two tiers — either $750 or $450 per seat) is less rock-n-roll than “Take The Money And Run.” The odds favor a Vegas-style valedictory, a smash and grab job that cashes in one last time on what was once truly transcendent. After two 50th Anniversary shows late last month in London, the Stones are doing three concerts in the U.S. (the last of which will be broadcast on pay-per-view), plus a couple of songs last night at the 12.12.12 Super Storm Sandy benefit — for a cool $25 million in total.
Perhaps this is as it should be. After all, how can a band of near septuagenarians, weathered by the accelerated ravages of rock-n-roll excess, perform a musical tightrope act that requires both flailing energy and collectively precise balance? How can a crowd old enough and comfortable enough to afford this show actually channel their inner adolescent? Can either band or audience authentically embrace the anthems of their youth, along with the passion that compelled them decades ago to revolt against the very types of adults they’ve become?
Given the circumstances, it would be easy to give into cynicism. Fiftieth anniversaries are for grandparents, not rock bands. It would be realistic to expect a high-priced karaoke pantomime act rather than a primal moment of discovery and catharsis. But we’re not here because we’re cynics. We’re here because we believe in the transformative power of rock-n-roll, and because, as Allen Ginsberg once observed, we are “burning for that ancient heavenly connection to the machinery of night.” Or, at the very minimum, we want to be able to tell the grandkids that we saw The Rolling Stones in concert.
It’s a sparse stage by most modern standards, with an elegant, rainbow-shaped curtain reminiscent of old-time movie houses framing an unobtrusive video screen. There will be no warm up act tonight, and from the electricity in the air, it’s clear that the crowd is already warm and fuzzy and filled with cheer (whether holiday, anticipatory or a cocktail or two. Or three.). Something has to happen…something memorable, something real, something to talk about. Anything, please, anything but banality.
Our aspirational thoughts are interrupted by the beating of tribal drums pounding out what vaguely resembles the menacing beat signaling the beginning of “Sympathy For The Devil.” A long stream of high school-aged drum corps cadets — seemingly hundreds of them — are marching into the arena. The lights are dimmed and BOOM, The Stones kick straight into “Get Off of My Cloud” knowing that they still have something to prove. The crowd goes wild as Mick Jagger gyrates like he’s trying to shake himself out of his pants…and into everyone else’s. Challenge, accepted.
We search the stage for the players — Charlie, check. Ronnie, check. Keith, double check. And then it hits us just how anachronistic this is — seeing the Stones in the year 2012. We now experience their contemporaries — The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Kinks — only through well-worn footage from yesteryear. But here are The Rolling Stones — long in the tooth perhaps but just as heavy on the swagger–performing before us in the flesh today. The band ends the first song with a triumphant burst of percussion, then launches into a string of hits from the Brian Jones era — the Beatles-penned first Stones single “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “The Last Time” (with its premonitory aura setting the tone for the night), and their darkest masterpiece, “Paint It Black.” Several songs in, we’re still struck by the fact that we’re hearing the most iconic songs of the rock cannon not on the stereo, but live, being performed by the men who forged them in the libidinous fire of their youth.
The Stones always said that the great bluesmen — from Mississippi John Hurt to John Lee Hooker to B.B. King — played well into their 70s and 80s, so why shouldn’t they? After all, at their core, they’re just bluesmen. Nevertheless, we keep checking the stage for signs of infirmities. Charlie Watts, ever the human metronome at 71, is straight of back and hard of stick, smiling along nonplussed like it’s the ’72 tour. Ronnie Wood, the youngest of the members at a spritely 65, slinks around the stage like an alley cat looking for nourishment in the next hook.
But Keith Richards, aka “The Human Riff,” it must be said, looks a little off at the start. Not overly so, but he appears slightly stiffer than we’re used to seeing him and he’s whirling around the stage less than ever. He and Ronnie have always swapped lead and rhythm interchangeably, effortlessly interspersing guitar parts like twins speaking their own secret language. But tonight, Ronnie seems to be playing lead considerably more, maybe even helping Keith through some flubs as if to say “we’re going to lift this weight together, even if I’ve got to lift 70% of it!”
By contrast, Jagger preens, purrs and prances like a man less than half his age. It’s preternatural how limber and energetic he is, with every hip thrust and finger wag conjuring up the classic footage of his Tattoo You era self, when he roamed the stage at Veteran’s Stadium in a Philadelphia Eagles half-shirt and football pants. His voice is as strong and authoritative ever, which is shocking given how much running around he’s doing. It’s striking that, on most songs, there are only the five Stones on the cavernous and sparsely stage (with exceptions for songs that required a pair of female backup singers, Chuck Leavell on keys, and Bobby Keys on sax). But on most songs, it’s just the boys in the band enjoying a old-school raunchy rock party for their Golden Jubilee.
Mary J. Blige saunters onstage to belt out “Gimme Shelter” with the band, and you get the feeling that Marty Scorsese is here somewhere, mulling over which scene he should incorporate this version in his next film. Her powerful voice soars, contrasting perfectly with Jagger’s. Next up, the band plays its only ballad of the night, a somber version of “Wild Horses,” made all the more poignant by the line “let’s do some living… after we die.” Gary Clark Jr. joins the band for “I’m Going Down,” a Decca/London outtake from 1969, demonstrating why he’s the most celebrated young gunslinger in the guitar world today. Keith is becoming more invigorated with each passing number, and when the band cranks into “All Down the Line” (the first of three Exile on Main Street songs, along with “Happy” and “Tumblin’ Dice”), it’s clear that his “Devil’s Right Hand” has awaken and is ready to slash its way to glory.
The band discos its way through the Studio 54 infectiousness of “Miss You” before leaning into their two new singles — “One More Shot” and “Doom and Gloom” — like a teenage band auditioning for an A&R man. Both go over well with the audience and, truth be told, stand proudly alongside some of their best material of the last 35 years. For those hoping for some deeper cut material, or at least something more NYC-centric like “Shattered” or “When the Whip Comes Down,” it’s becoming clear that this will largely be a greatest hits show, as evidenced by the next two numbers, “Honky Tonk Women” and “It’s Only Rock-n-Roll.” Bill Wyman, who’d joined his old bandmates for the latter song in London, clearly did not make the trip to Brooklyn.
Mick disappears backstage as Keith steps up front and center for lovably scruffy lead vocals on “Before they Make Me Run” and “Happy.” Mick comes back with even more frantic energy for the final songs of the set, running around the tongue-shaped loop of the outer stage like he’s trying to match Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile. “Midnight Rambler” sounds exquisite, albeit without the guest appearance of Mick Taylor, who proved at the London shows why Keith referred to him as “the greatest guitarist the Stones ever had.” The set ends with the still menacing “Sympathy for the Devil,” with the crowd chanting along the lyrics like it’s a ritualistic Dark Mass.
For the first of a three-song encore, a massive choir is brought onstage to provide a gospel flair to the timeless “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Then Keith thrusts out the majestic first chords of live-show staple “Jumping Jack Flash,” and the crowd seems to be pogo-ing in ecstatic sing-along. As Bill Wyman notes in the new HBO documentary Crossfire Hurricane (which takes its name from the first line of “Flash”) every band in rock history follows the drummer. Except The Stones, where Charlie follows Keith, who generally plays behind the beat by a fraction of a second. Since, as Wyman notes, he always plays ahead of a beat by nanoseconds, this gives the band’s sound “a bit of a wobble” in which every song is in danger of coming unhinged at any point. Nowhere in the night was this “wobble” more apparent than on “Jumping Jack Flash,” which featured Keef, Charlie and bassist Daryl Jones (who replaced Wyman in 1993) in a Doppler-like game of musical tug of war that sounded like a Delta blues field recording played on slightly warped vinyl…only dangerous. Which is to say, it sounded like the embodiment of rock-n-roll.
Just as we noted that they hadn’t played the ever-present “Satisfaction,” the band kick into that most familiar riff in the rock canon. Just under four minutes later, they take a bow and walk offstage to thunderous applause from the Barclays crowd. And so it ends, this night in the timeless space of blues-driven catharsis, and we return to the rain-drenched streets of New York — silent, sweat-soaked, and yes, satisfied. Just as the holiday spirit had surged through the city, supplanting the grief and distress of Super Storm Sandy and her aftermath, its resilient march forward was echoed in the performance of the band that rang sweetly in our ears as we zoomed over bridges toward the bright lights of Babylon.
We’d come here tonight hoping to see something: something iconic, something real, something primal. Something that transcended the quotidian in a society (and, to be honest, a band) that routinely turns art into advertising and beauty into commerce. We had arrived hoping to see a glimpse of something eternal that would temporarily pause the inexorable march of time. What we got was an undaunted display of resiliency that demonstrated that the idols, for now at least, are still secure on their pedestals. Or, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of The Rolling Stones’ demise appear to be greatly exaggerated.
And so it doesn’t end, but continues…
The Rolling Stones played briefly last night as part of the 12.12.12 Super Storm Sandy benefit. They are scheduled to play full shows tonight and Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, with special guests that include Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga and the Black Keys. It will be simulcast on Pay-Per-View.