The old guys are all right Stones: Chicago is abuzz with TTC rumors about surprise appearances by the world's greatest rock and roll band.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- Outside Buddy Guy's Legends, the hip Southside blues club and shrine, the faithful line 200 deep along rain-soaked Wabash Avenue. TV news crews briefly bathe the sopping mass of humanity in light, bringing forth profound utterances like "Stones rule!" Limos pull up one after another, each arrival prompting the inevitable question:

Could it be? The Rolling Stones?

Call it Stones Watch, this obsession that took hold with the 50-something British rockers' arrival here for the opening of their "Bridges to Babylon" tour at Soldier Field this week. The hype machine and rumor circuit kicked into overdrive hours after the Stones played a surprise club gig at the Double Door, a dingy dive in a half-gentrified neighborhood north of downtown.

For a week, the two competing dailies scramble to out-Stones each other. TV news crews show up everywhere. Radio jocks promise the inside line. Club owners do little to dispel the rumors of impending Stones appearances, however far-fetched.

"They called, and they'll be here in a half-hour" comes the refrain from Checkerboard Lounge owner L.C. Thurman. He says this about every half- hour, right up until 1 a.m.

Perhaps Mick Jagger, he of the London School of Economics, has taught the club owners something about the value of hype to keep the registers ringing. It feeds on itself: Everybody has a strategy and a theory about a sequel to the first club gig:

The Stones, who opened the stadium tour promising regular surprise appearances at smaller venues, will play Legends because Buddy Guy is friends with the band and Eric Clapton's pick for the best guitarist alive.

They'll turn up at the House of Blues to play with Taj Mahal Saturday night. They'll hit the Checkerboard, the juke joint where the framed photo of the Stones rocking with Muddy Waters at the club in the '70s hangs by the entrance.

They'll return to a favorite jam venue: Kingston Mines, the popular blues club on the upscale north side that rocks until at least 4 every night. Surely, they'll revisit newly restored Chess Records, where they cut their first records in America 33 years ago.

And so, here we are, sandwiched between Spandex and leather and Italian suits on normally deserted open-stage Monday at Buddy's. It's been jammed since 9, and the line snakes a half block. But nobody leaves.

Inside the club, where guitars, gold records and Grammys decorate the walls, Harry Stamper, a 41-year-old stockbroker, stakes his spot in full view of two front entrances. Hearing of the rumored club gig, he drove an hour from Indiana. Now he eyes the commotion outside through the windows and imagines.

"Just the rumors, just the slightest possibility's enough," he says. "I wouldn't do this for any other band. Nobody here would. But then nobody else is the Stones."

By opening night Tuesday, Stones sightings have become as common -- and about as believable -- as Elvis sightings. The second club gig never happens. All the speculation's in vain almost.

While the papers, TV and thousands of fans from as far as Russia puzzle over where the Stones might light up the town, the band's working. Inside an empty Soldier Field, the Stones do dress rehearsals Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights.

A few dozen hardcore fans gather outside the wind-whipped stadium on Lake Michigan Sunday evening. Guards mercifully roll up a steel door in back, offering an unobstructed view of two hours of the Rolling Stones.

A few fans slip a guard $50 to look the other way while they scamper inside. They get their money's worth. Or do they? As the opening chords to "Start Me Up' roll off Keith Richards' guitar, it seems eerie: the Stones live, without the roar of the

crowd.

Opening night, at last, and David Kohl, a 43-year-old from suburban Chicago, is back for his 19th Stones concert. They get better each time, he says, and some of the '70s drug- and alcohol-drenched live recordings give credence to that claim.

For 62-year-old Annabelle Kunze and her three grown children, who drove from Milwaukee, it's Christmas in September. "This is my present to my kids and theirs to me. I've loved the Stones for 30 years now, and they've given me so much joy. So why should I stop now? I'll love them 30 more years."

Yes, it's 2,000 light years from Altamont, a night full of anachronism, nostalgia and capitalism. Sprint's the official sponsor of the tour. (The pre-concert Stones karaoke contest begins any minute inside the Sprint tent, and the long-distance carrier's customers could buy tickets before anybody else, especially AT&T; customers.) The band will take in well over $100 million for "Bridges to Babylon." The best tickets -- face value, $60 -- will fetch $800 to $1,000 on the scalper market.

Outside the stadium, graying hippies handing out leaflets extolling hemp attract few takers. The Jagger look-alike in the 1969 stage get-up, complete with black cape and 2-foot high stars-and-stripes hat, seems lost in a time warp.

Chelli Schibler, a 33-year-old from Union Grove, Wis., wastes no time getting matching tongue shirts for her husband, Tom, and 10-year-old son, Zack. She loves the Stones classics and has decided 'It's Only Rock 'n Roll' must be played at her funeral. Her son had to be here, she says.

"It's history, and it's a good experience for him to see, once-in-a-lifetime, you know?' Well, maybe. "You never know, he might be here with his kids for a Stones concert one day, and they'll roll us in on wheelchairs."

When the Stones take the stage, they annihilate any doubts about whether they can still rock. Jagger prances and preens and skips across the vast stage and even hits most of the notes. Richards attacks his Fender as only he can and clearly relishes every moment. They sound as good live as they ever have.

Midway through the oldies-laden, 2 1/2 -hour set, the Stones cross a bridge through the crowd to a tiny stage in the center of the stadium. From seven rows away, they look more like aging fathers than rebels. But they rock like they never outgrew it and never will.

We clap and sway with the rest of the sell-out crowd of 54,000, singing along with the chorus to "The Last Time," desperately hoping it isn't. But just in case, heard anything about an October club gig in Baltimore or Washington?

Pub Date: 9/27/97

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