For the Rolling Stones, time is on their side

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If this truly is to be the last Rolling Stones tour -- and with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards both pushing 60, it could very well be -- then the time has come to stop obsessing on how old they are, on whether they remain relevant, on whether they've put out a decent album since Tattoo You, on whether rock and roll is a young man's game with no room for elder statesmen who refuse to concede the stage.

The time has come to plunk down your money and go see them, especially if you've never been. There's a reason these guys are called the world's greatest rock and roll band, and it has nothing to do with hype, public relations or fiftysomething fans who refuse to retire gracefully.

It has to do with a body of work unrivaled over the past four decades. It has to do with a group of guys who know everything there is to know about rock and roll, about a band that includes both rock's greatest poseur (Mick) and truest rebel (Keith) -- until you start thinking about those labels, and realize they're immaterial, irrelevant and inaccurate. It has to do with an energy that remains astonishingly undiminished.

And it has to do with that tingling feeling, that rush of adrenaline, that takes over whenever those first jarring chords of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" hit your ears.

Seeing the Stones in concert -- as Philadelphians did three times earlier this month, and as folks around here will be able to do Friday, when the band plays FedEx Field in Landover -- is an experience that defies description in all the best possible ways. To see and hear them play the way they are during this tour and not be moved, in ways both joyful and profound, is to deny the power of rock and roll. To dismiss the Stones, even at this late stage of the game, is less a judgment call than a lack of judgment altogether.

Whether it was Keith smiling through the outlaw anthem "Before They Make Me Run," sultry backup singer Lisa Fischer adding some appropriately apocalyptic shadings to "Gimme Shelter," or the senses-crashing final notes of "Satisfaction," the Stones in Philadelphia were proof that, even in rock and roll, it is possible to age without necessarily growing old. And while professionalism may be a poor aesthetic substitute for passion, it can prove no less satisfying when it comes time to perform.

There's a fascinating, circle-closing aspect to what the band is billing as its Licks Tour, a look back on everything the Stones have done so well for so long. The play list spans their entire career: The 40 different songs they played over the course of their three Philly shows ran the gamut from "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," which appeared on 1965's The Rolling Stones, Now!, to "Don't Stop," which will appear on next month's greatest-hits package, Forty Licks (their 42nd album).

Three different venues

And while the majority of the tour is being performed in single shows in stadiums and arenas (as in Landover this week), the band is also trying something new: In certain lucky cities, they're performing shows in three different-sized venues, small, medium and large. In Philly, that meant Sept. 18 at Veterans Stadium (capacity 50,000), Sept. 20 at the adjacent First Union Center (capacity 21,000) and Sept. 22 at the Tower Theatre in nearby Upper Darby, Pa. (capacity 3,000).

Not only are the venues different, but so are the play lists. The stadiums are for showcasing the monster hits ("Brown Sugar," "Jumping Jack Flash," "Tumbling Dice"), while the arena shows are meant to be a little more eclectic, each one spotlighting a different album (for the First Union Center, it was 1969's Let It Bleed). The small theater shows are meant for the hardcore fans, including songs the band has rarely, if ever, played in front of an audience. (The Tower set included "Heart of Stone" which probably hadn't been heard live in 35 years.)

The concept is not only a stroke of marketing genius -- a lot of fans felt the need to attend all three shows, and ticket packages were sold for more than $3,000 -- but also a nod to the band's unique place in the rock pantheon, as well as to their role in the development of the live rock show. It was the Stones, after all, who pioneered the monster-sized stadium tours in the early 1970s; it was also the Stones who started playing smaller venues, as a way of returning to their roots and forcibly downsizing the scale of their performances, during their 1978 American tour.

True, the average age in the band is around 56, which may be just a tick older than the average age of those paying to see them. But at the Vet, that's not what anyone was talking about. As one well-lubricated fan, drinking beer from a plastic cup shaped like a guitar, kept screaming into his friend's ear, "It's all about the Mick, man, it's all about the Mick."

Confident musicians

After a welcome opening performance by Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, the Stones seemed to burst onstage, Keith storming to the front and pounding out the opening riff to "Brown Sugar." There was no unnecessary intro, no teasing the audience with flickering lights or isolated drum beats. There was just the music.

"Brown Sugar" has always been one of the group's most irresistible songs, with a churning, infectious rhythm that serves to obscure some of Mick and Keith's most salacious lyrics. Watching Jagger up there, storming the length and breadth of a stage roughly 75 by 100 feet, it was hard not to be impressed by his stamina.

The song also served to showcase the tight musicianship that would dominate the evening; rarely has the band sounded so confident live. With Charlie Watts (in sensible white T-shirt) again providing rock's steadiest backbeat, Richards and Ron Wood played their guitars, rather than assaulting them into submission, while longtime Stones stalwarts Chuck Leavell on keyboard and Bobby Keys on sax propelled the song forward.

As befits a band entering its fifth decade, gone were the sloppy, frat-house jams that marked the 1975 tour, or the forced relevance of the late '70s and early '80s, when the band felt compelled to point out to all the young punks that, yes, they still mattered. Also gone was the cold professionalism of some of the more recent tours, where one occasionally got the feeling that a time clock was being punched.

No, the Stones had come simply to rock the joint, welcoming those who signed up for the ride.

And the hits just kept on coming, including a gorgeous version of "Wild Horses" (with a video-screen backdrop of streaming, iridescent tears); a surprisingly cutting "Undercover of the Night," Watts' drumming giving it a seductively propulsive power it never had before; a rousing cover of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone"; and a decidedly PG-13-rated "Honky Tonk Women," complete with an animated seductress attempting to subdue the group's infamous tongue logo.

Pure celebration

There was even a warm-hearted take on the O'Jay's festive "Love Train" -- rock and roll as pure celebration, a festiveness and lightness of tone that's not exactly a Stones trademark.

In fact, there was a clear feeling throughout the show that the Stones recognize that they're no longer the bad boys of rock, and if you've got a problem with that, too bad -- they don't. "Midnight Rambler," missing from their most recent tours, perhaps because its celebration of decadence didn't fit with a group composed of fathers and grandfathers, was performed with energy and brio, if not passion and menace.

And "You Can't Always Get What You Want," a mantra we all need to remember, has changed perspective over the years. When Mick first sang it on Let It Bleed, he was a young man looking out on a world still being made ready for him. Then the song became the anthem of a man looking on as the world formed around him; the song became a watchword, and audiences would sing along as though they finally understood. But at the Vet, Mick was clearly a man looking in, offering a bit of sage advice to a generation that could desperately use it.

And the song rocked as strongly as ever.

For the fans

The party continued on at the First Union Center two nights later. If anything, the Stones' performance was even stronger, as the band interacted well with the smaller, more enthusiastic audience. They also benefited from the smaller venue's fuller, more explosive sound.

"Street Fighting Man" opened the show this go-round, and there was Sir Mick onstage (there's something either deliciously or despicably ironic about a guy who sings "Sympathy for the Devil" being made a knight of the realm) jerking about with the same sort of loose-limbed moves he displayed during the band's landmark performance 38 years ago in the 1964 movie The T.A.M.I. Show.

The songs from Let It Bleed -- "Live With Me," "Love In Vain," "Monkey Man" (which evolved into a surprisingly robust crowd singalong) and "Gimme Shelter" -- were a welcome reminder of the group's most astonishingly consistent album. The inclusion of Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose" proved the band can funk it up with the best. And a blisteringly tight version of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," featuring controlled guitar runs from both Richards and Wood, proved that guitar solos don't always have to be sloppy and self-indulgent.

By the time the Stones returned for their encore of "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Jumping Jack Flash," time had clearly been transcended. They had played for more than two hours, these gray-haired grandfathers, and the only thing to be regretted was that they wouldn't play any longer. And when Watts, before leaving the stage, gingerly handed over his drumsticks to a fan in the crowd, something unimaginable during the band's bad-boy days became clear: The Stones appreciate their fans, as much as we appreciate them.

Me, I can live with that.

For information on tickets to the Rolling Stones Oct. 4 concert at FedEx Field in Landover, call Ticketmaster at 410-481-SEAT.

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