At first, it sounds as if the band is just tuning up. Mick Jagger honks out a call on his harmonica. Guitarist Mick Taylor responds with a blues run. Ron Wood twiddles between a couple of notes.
Then Keith Richards lands the haymaker opening chords to “Midnight Rambler,” Charlie Watts crashes his way in on cymbals and drums and the long-running locomotive that is the Rolling Stones roars to full, satisfying life, careening down the rails, popping rivets, threatening to jump the tracks.
It was one of several highlights Monday at the Verizon Center, where the band brought its "50 and Counting Tour" for a final American stop, conjuring unflagging energy for a 21-song set of hits dating back half a century, a few album cuts, and a couple of new songs.
Seeing the Rolling Stones live in 2013 is a multigenerational affair: The crowd ranges from preschoolers to the elderly – in some cases, within the same party – all there for a late glimpse of the combo that once billed itself as the world’s greatest rock 'n' roll band.
On the evidence of the records, the Rolling Stones sound better live now than they did when they were making that claim. Where they once were given to abridging their material in concert – excising introductions, simplifying riffs, paring down harmonies – they now take care to play the songs as they recorded them. So we get the foreboding opening guitar run to “Gimme Shelter,” electric sitar on “Paint It, Black,” the Washington Chorus singing the choral opening to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
The proceedings start Monday with a loop of the samba introduction to “Sympathy For The Devil,” embellished with Carnival drums. Then, the opening beat to “Get Off My Cloud,” the chords, and Jagger explaining, once again, that he lives in an apartment on the 99th floor of his block.
It’s the second song that sets the template for the evening: Richards rips off a Chuck Berry riff. Wood responds with a variation. Richards answers with the bending refrain from Berry’s “Carol,” and the band drops into a rough-hewn take on “It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It).”
It’s what Richards and Wood have called the “ancient art of weaving” – two guitars in conversation, calling and responding, barrelling into or making space for each other. Wood, in particular, provides many of the bluesiest runs, while Richards chugged fat rhythms. They are abbetted sometimes by Jagger, who takes the lead riff on the fine new “Doom And Gloom,” and Taylor, the prodigal Stone, who adds a searing lead to “Midnight Rambler” and acoustic chords to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Longtime sideman Darryl Jones invests old bass lines with a new funk, particularly on the disco-era hits “Miss You” and “Emotional Rescue.” Among the other backing musicians, singer Lisa Fischer shines in her soaring, Gospel-inflected vocal on “Gimme Shelter.”
Watts is a marvel, his whipcrack drumming holding the enterprise together.
If Watts is a marvel, Jagger is a freak. The quintessential frontman, who turns 70 next month, snakes and shimmies his impossibly lithe form through two and a half hours, gathering steam as the evening progresses, captivating the enthusiastic audience. An early highlight is his falsetto on “Worried About You;” later come strong takes on the set-closing run of hits from the band’s late 1960s-early 1970s sweet spot: “Tumbling Dice,” “Brown Sugar” and “Sympathy For The Devil.”
He also gets off a good one for the Beltway crowd, saying, “I don’t think President Obama is here tonight – but I’m sure he’s listening in.”
Jagger gets a break only during Richards’ two-song showcase, when the guitarist sings an affecting “You Got The Silver,” with Wood on slide guitar, and the pirate-outlaw anthem “Before They Make Me Run.”
Still, Jagger and the band have energy to spare for the encore, an energetic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” followed by tight rips on two of their greatest: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Satisfaction.”
And so concludes the last U.S. appearance on the schedule.
These Rolling Stones, they are giants.
Get Off My Cloud
It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It)
Paint It, Black
Worried About You
Street Fighting Man
Doom and Gloom
One More Shot
Honky Tonk Women
You Got The Silver
Before They Make Me Run
Midnight Rambler (with Mick Taylor)
Start Me Up
Sympathy For The Devil
You Can’t Always Get What You Want (with the Washington Chorus)
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (with Mick Taylor)