"Not bad for a bunch of old farts."
That was Mick Jagger's self-mocking assessment after the Rolling Stones chugged through a gloriously cracked rendition of "Shattered" at RFK Stadium last night, and for once, Jagger's modesty wasn't just an affectation. Despite all the jokes about the Stones being not "The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band" but "the World's Oldest Rock and Roll Band," there was nothing geriatric about the group's sound on stage.
If anything, the performance the Stones gave hearkened back to the glory days of the late '60s. As the rhythm section pumped out one sinuous groove after another, Jagger strutted and drawled, the guitars crunched and snarled, and the crowd writhed ecstatically.
It wasn't just a matter of getting by on memories and oldies, either. True, it was hard not to feel a twinge of nostalgia when the band launched into the familiar cadences of "Honky Tonk Women" or "Tumbling Dice," the latter replete with a classically boozy tenor solo by sax man Bobby Keys. If you closed your eyes, you might have convinced yourself that barely a moment had passed since those songs were new.
But the band kept that groove going even when it was trotting out its latest offerings. "You Got Me Rocking" followed "Live With Me" so naturally that the two seemed of a piece, while the brand-new "Out of Tears" could easily have come from an earlier era than "On Down the Line," which followed it.
It's hard to say what, exactly, brought about the band's rejuvenation. Certainly, the change in the rhythm section is a factor. New bassman Darryl Jones played with a supple authority that drove the band in ways Bill Wyman never could. From the snaky pulse of "Monkey Man" to the stylized funk of "Hot Stuff," Jones was rarely less than magnificent.
But drummer Charlie Watts was just as impressive. From the moment he opened the show with a throbbingly infectious Bo Diddley beat (for "Not Fade Away," natch), Watts seemed utterly in command of the groove. It was his four-on-the-floor propulsion that gave "Rocks Off" its power and stop-on-a-dime precision, and his unflagging stamina that made "I Go Wild" such a credible paean to carnality.
Not that the rest of the band wasn't doing its part. Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood coordinated their roles as well as ever, with Wood's slide adding especially articulate solos to the likes of "Beast of Burden." Richards played well, too, but oddly enough, it was his singing that was most impressive, from the soulful counterpoint he offered to Jagger in "Memory Motel" to the breathless intensity he gave "Before They Make Me Run."
Richard's rough-hewn vocals, no matter how heartfelt, were no match for Jagger, though.
Even though the singer seemed to put as much energy into the visual end of his performance -- giving us the usual assortment of bantam confidence and sex-maniac swivel -- his singing was as sure as it has ever been.
In fact, one might even argue that Jagger has improved with age. After all, he no longer felt the need to prop up "Honky Tonk Women" with an ersatz country drawl, nor did he flesh out "Hot Stuff" with exaggerated soul mannerisms. He sang 'em straight, and for the most part, that was enough.
Of course, it wouldn't have been a Stones show without a certain amount of emphasis on the "show," and the high-tech set had its share of gimmicks. But instead of the overblown effects that made the music on the last couple of tours seem almost secondary to the spectacle, the staging this time around kept things in perspective.
Apart from the odd burst of fireworks, as on "Not Fade Away," most of the special effects were subdued, given over mainly to the video screen. A few even enhanced the tunes, as on "Beast of Burden," in which Jagger danced along with an oversized animated demoness.
Could it be that the Stones have grown tasteful in their old age? If so -- and Monday's show certainly seemed to suggest it was -- here's hoping they keep going despite the geezer jokes.