Skip the Stones, go to Vegas


January 25, 2006


Out of curiosity, I consulted an online travel service Tuesday. You and a loved one could take advantage of numerous package deals this Friday through Sunday, luxuriating at one of several four-star hotels in Las Vegas. Total cost for airfare and two nights at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino: $1,276.38; the MGM Grand: $1,229.25; the Hilton Las Vegas: $1,060.97.

Alternately, you could go to see the Rolling Stones tonight at the United Center during the second evening of their second lap through town on the Bigger Bang Tour; there are still plenty of seats available in the first tier off the floor. Total cost for two tickets, with Ticketmaster service charges and parking: $961.50.

That's 48 hours of fun in the now-Disneyfied Sin City for a little more cash than an hour and a half with the Stones. Granted, it will cost you some extra coin to see top-dollar Vegas entertainers like Elton John and Celine Dion. But there are plenty of free shows at clubs on the Strip, including a nostalgia revue called "Sixties Mania."

And a nostalgia revue was all that the Stones delivered at the United Center on Monday.

To be clear, the Stones weren't bad this time through. I would have welcomed bad, and absolutely embraced awful. A set that was sloppy or ragged might have been evidence that the musicians were improvising or trying some less familiar tunes, sweating and interacting with one another while reacting to their audience in the here and now.

The Stones were something worse. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Charlie Watts and the hired help were proficient. Slick, well-oiled, streamlined and smoothly gliding on autopilot, they may as well have been pre-programmed animatronic dummies or holograms. Plug 'em in, hit play and watch 'em deliver "Jumping Jack Flash" for the 49th time this tour and the umpteenth time in their 44-year career. Whee!

The only indication that the band was aware of the current year came during the final tune of its 20-song performance, the obligatory set-closing "Satisfaction," which included a snippet of "Mustang Sally" in homage to the recently deceased Wilson Pickett. Otherwise, this was once again the lowest-common-denominator, ultra-predictable greatest-hits show, plus a few lackluster versions of the mediocre tunes from the last album, "A Bigger Bang."

There was still no "Sweet Neo Con," though, and don't expect to hear that one when the band plays the Super Bowl, either. The group's recent Bush-bashing anti-war ditty could offend somebody, somewhere, sometime, and rock's onetime baddest of the bad boys would never want to do that now. No, they are all about giving the people what they allegedly want.

That's the group's rationale for sticking to the same tired arena anthems: People expect to hear "It's Only Rock and Roll," "Start Me Up" and "Honky Tonk Women." Which people? Why, the most casual of Stones fans, the folks who own "Hot Rocks" but nothing else, and who just want to see these rock icons once before one of them dies.

In 2005 the band grossed more than any other touring group -- almost $168 million -- playing to these people in the stadiums on the first leg of the Bigger Bang Tour.

But the Stones have one of the richest catalogs in rock history, and even if we accept that they must pander in the stadiums, this was their second visit to this market, and they were playing a more intimate venue -- if you can call a place with 25,000 seats intimate. Nevertheless, they coasted through 11 of the same songs they gave us at the 61,500-seat Soldier Field last September, with only one surprise -- a tender reading of "As Tears Go By" powered by Richards' acoustic 12-string -- among the nine "new" songs.

Is it really too much to ask that, for these prices, the Stones play a show for their most devoted fans, those of us who've burned through three or four copies of "Exile on Main Street" and "Let It Bleed" and seen them do this or a very similar set a dozen times before? To challenge themselves and their listeners just a bit with the sort of surprises they unleashed and the risks they took at the 4,800-seat Aragon in September 2002?

Some folks think that's an unreasonable request, and I argued with one of them Tuesday morning during a call-in radio show. A diehard Stones fan, Camille from Schaumburg, said she's seen the band 90 times and listed "Exile" as her favorite album ever. Though she would welcome a richer set list, she still loves this band, and she begged me not to use the word "pathetic" to describe it in this review.

OK, Camille: The Stones weren't pathetic. We fans were, for allowing this once-great group to go through the motions with a glitzy Vegas road show instead of making it clear that we expect more for ticket prices nearing the amount of a mortgage payment. But maybe, just maybe, some of us are starting to get frustrated with such mediocrity.