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
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.