Stones stick with tried and true - and that's too bad

 

September 9 2005

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

On every much-hyped, ever-more-expensive tour between 1982 and 2002, the Rolling Stones devolved further and further from their self-proclaimed status as "the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band" -- a hyperbolic claim that was once close to the truth -- to become more of a bloated, self-parodying, second-tier Rolling Stones cover band.

The primary cause for this sad decline was that the band simply stopped challenging itself. Here is a group with one of the richest catalogs in rock history, yet time after time, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Charlie Watts and the latest hired hands trotted out the same tired set list, heavy on the staples that dominate classic-rock radio, because they claimed that was what fans wanted. Meanwhile, ticket prices grew ever steeper; the top seats at Soldier Field on Saturday night cost $450.

The welcome and long overdue exception came on the group's last tour, when the Stones gave the people what they allegedly wanted during their show at Comiskey Park ("Brown Sugar," "Start Me Up," "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll," etc.), then played a gig for themselves and the hard-core devotees at the Aragon Ballroom.

On that night, Sept. 16, 2002, the Stones jammed with Dr. John on Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You." They flirted with reggae (via Peter Tosh's take of the Temptations' "Walk and Don't Look Back"), disco (a fiery and funky "Dance Part 1"), country ("Torn & Frayed") and up-tempo R&B (with the horns leading the way on "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love"). They tore through a batch of songs from their best album, 1972's "Exile on Main Street." And for several hours, they were once again one of the best bands I've ever seen.

THE ROLLING STONES

With Los Lonely Boys; Belushi/Aykroyd & the Have Love Will Travel Revue

  6:30 p.m. Saturday

  Soldier Field, 425 E. McFetridge

  Sold out

 

The group's current tour isn't likely to match the highs of that relatively intimate night at the Aragon. The set list has taken a big step back toward the safe and predictable (see "Reasons for Living"), and the group is varying things very little from night to night. The most adventurous and emotional moment is a tribute to Ray Charles in the form of a cover of "Night Time Is the Right Time."

Of course, fans get the obligatory four songs plugging the new album "A Bigger Bang." But in an apparent acknowledgment that all of their albums since 1980 have been little more than disposable concert souvenirs, 1997's "Bridges to Babylon" and 1994's "Voodoo Lounge" are represented by one song each, and everything else dates from 1980's "Emotional Rescue" or much, much earlier.

The good news is that the Stones seem to be playing many of their hoarier staples with renewed vim and vigor. They apparently reconnected with the muse during 2002's Licks Tour, or at least remembered something they had long forgotten, emphasizing immediacy and energy over spectacle. "Jagger seemed to be particularly pumped for the show, using every inch of the ample floor space to strut and stomp like an angry ballet dancer while working the catwalk,' " raved the Ottawa Sun.

"The best stadium tour by the Stones since 1988's 'Steel Wheels' [tour], " declared the Boston Globe, which went on to call the musicians "the Dorian Grays of rock 'n' roll -- most are in their 60s, but they perform like musicians half their age." Added a second review in the same paper: "The Stones seemed to echo the bluesmen they grew up admiring, men who also played well into their 60s, 70s and even 80s."

It has long been a rock-critic cliche to say that any new Stones album is "their best since 'Some Girls,' " released in 1978, inspired by the then-burgeoning punk movement and the last inarguable classic. But another factor that bodes well for this tour is that "A Bigger Bang," the band's first new album in eight years, at least stinks less than any of its releases in the '90s, rating as a perfectly OK [**1/2] effort.

To be sure, this is still a simulacrum of a once-great band. Harder-edged tunes such as "Rough Justice," "Oh No, Not You Again" and "Rain Fall Down" sound like the current Stones imitating the earlier Stones of "When the Whip Comes Down" and "Shattered," who sounded like the even earlier Stones of their mid-'60s through mid-'70s heyday. But at least the group is rocking out a bit, and "Sweet Neo Con" actually qualifies as something new for a band that's hardly ever gotten specific about its politics.

There are also plenty of duds, including the uninspired blues vamp "Back of My Hand," the anemic drone "Laugh, I Nearly Died," and the tepid toss-offs "Biggest Mistake" and "Look What the Cat Dragged In." Yet producer Don Was generally knew what was worth aping from the past, highlighting the aggressive interplay between Richards and Woods' guitars and the stripped-down power of Watts' simple but massive backbeat. But you don't have to take my word for any of this.

You can judge for yourself online via free streaming audio at www.rollingstones.com/abiggerbang. When have the Stones ever given us anything for free? Gee, maybe the fellas are improving in their old age after all.

REASONS FOR LIVING

The Rolling Stones' Boston gig on Aug. 21 stands as a typical example of the set lists on their current tour:

"Start Me Up"
"You Got Me Rocking"
"Shattered"
"Tumbling Dice"
"Rough Justice"
"Back of My Hand"
"Beast of Burden"
"She's So Cold"
"Heartbreaker"
"Night Time Is the Right Time"
"The Worst"
"Infamy"
"Miss You"
"Oh No, Not You Again"
"Satisfaction"
"Honky Tonk Women"
"Out of Control"
"Sympathy for the Devil"
"Jumping Jack Flash"
"Brown Sugar"
And encores of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "It's Only Rock and Roll."

Some of these tunes are mediocre at best, while some were once great but have become tired warhorses. My gripe is that the Stones have recorded dozens of others I'd rather hear. While compiling my choices for the ultimate set, I tried to be fair, allowing them to keep two new tunes as well as the Ray Charles tribute, and generally following the same mix of rockers, groovers and mellower moments.

"Rocks Off"
"Little Queenie"
"Sway"
"All Down the Line"
"Rough Justice "
"Sweet Black Angel"
"Dead Flowers"
"19th Nervous Breakdown"
"Going to a Go Go"
"Night Time Is the Right Time"
"Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby (Standing in the Shadows)"
"Infamy"
"Can't You Hear Me Knockin'"
"Oh No, Not You Again"
"Bitch"
"Before They Make Me Run"
"Respectable"
"Dead Flowers"
"Stupid Girl"
"I'm Free"
And an encore of "Wild Horses" and "Torn and Frayed."

Now, be honest, Stones fans: Wouldn't you much rather hear that set?

 

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