Every one of the Rolling Stones’ 50 years has etched a line into Keith Richards’ face, making it certainly one of the most battle-scarred visages in rock -- which makes it oh-so-incredibly cool when he breaks into that scraggly smile, the one that says, "I’ve survived, and I’ve prospered. Howzaboutyou?"
Tuesday night at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, the Stones’ 50 & Counting tour rolled into the City of Brotherly Love for a party that celebrated all sorts of things: survival, perseverance, genius and glory undimmed. It was an evening of everything that is good about rock 'n' roll, and then some.
In other words, Keith smiled a lot. And he wasn’t the only one. Even the legendarily stone-faced Charlie Watts could be seen beaming as he and his mates stormed their way through “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
From the evening’s opening chords of “Get Off My Cloud,” a song of proud defiance that the Stones have been performing for 48 years -- how can that possibly be? -- Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the boys pounded, prodded and stroked a playlist of songs that have defined at least a couple generations. Whether tearing through a rendition of “Brown Sugar” that sounded as lascivious as ever or inviting the crowd to “hold hands” to the gently plaintive sounds of “Wild Horses,” the Stones proved, for about the umpteen millionth time, their status as rock’s greatest band, and quite possibly the music’s best showmen.
Jagger, once lauded by an especially perceptive Internet critic as “The Best. Frontman. Ever.,” pranced and strutted and exhorted like no one’s business, displaying moves that both explain and belie his longevity; no one works a crowd better. He wished Philadelphia a happy 300th birthday, twice told the crowd they were singing great -- during “Miss You” and the encore of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” -- and roamed the tongue-shaped stage (a replica of the band’s familiar logo) like the rooster-on-speed he’s always been. Late in the show, as the band broke into what may be its signature song, “Sympathy for the Devil,” he walked on stage dressed in what looked like a gorilla costume sans head -- proving that, even after half-a-century, he’s still got some new moves. The crowd roared.
But the Stones are more than Jagger, and that, too, was made obvious repeatedly. Richards’ guitar positively stung on “Sympathy,” sounding like he was playing with razor blades instead of picks. Ron Wood, after 38 years still the new kid on the block, played with uncharacteristic restraint; his solo on “Dead Flowers” (which featured a guest appearance from Brad Paisley) was a thing of beauty. And Watts, certainly among the smoothest and steadiest drummers on the planet, gave the music a propulsive power that never let up.
The most welcome moment of the evening came when former Stone Mick Taylor, who replaced Brian Jones in 1969, ambled on stage for “Midnight Rambler,” a song of dread on which his virtuoso guitar playing cuts and thrusts and just flat-out screams. Never exactly a domineering stage presence, Taylor nevertheless enjoyed himself and the crowd’s enthusiastic reception, parrying happily with Richards and Wood (and suggesting that a Stones line-up with three guitarists could really have been something to hear). Taylor returned for the encore of “Satisfaction,” this time leaving the leads primarily to Richards and contentedly basking in the song’s reflected glory.
There was, in fact, lots of basking throughout the show, which relied mostly on songs from the 1980s and earlier. In fact, only two numbers -- “Doom and Gloom” and “One More Shot,” both from last year’s "Grrr" compilation -- dated from the band’s second 25 years. So sure, go ahead, complain that the Stones have become an oldies band; you won’t be the first. But no other band has a sound that remains this vital, combined with a stage presence few acts can match and a playlist no other band can even approach. When the Stones encore with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” followed by “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Satisfaction,” that pretty much defines rock 'n' roll in 15 thrilling minutes.
Sure, it’s only rock 'n' roll. And if you don’t like it -- well, let’s just say that's nothing to be bragging about.
"Get Off of My Cloud"
"It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)"
"Paint It, Black"
"Gloom and Doom"
"One More Shot"
"Honky Tonk Women"
"You Got the Silver"
"Before They Make Me Run"
"Start Me Up"
"Sympathy for the Devil"
"You Can’t Always Get What You Want"
"Jumpin’ Jack Flash"
"(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction"
(The Rolling Stones have two shows remaining in the Baltimore area. They return to Philly's Wells Fargo Center at 8 p.m. June 21, then end the North American leg of their 50 & Counting tour with an 8 p.m. June 24 show at D.C.'s Verizon Center. Information: rollingstones.com)