Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Old Devils

The Stones Can Still Rock

By Michael McCall

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  After all the hype and hoopla, after all the expense and extravagance, it still comes down to basics. It comes down to songs and how well they're written and how well they're performed. On that level, the Rolling Stones delivered Sunday night. To paraphrase one of their best-known songs, the Nashville performance by the world's most famous rock band was a gas.

Of course, the nearly 50,000 people crammed into every corner of Vanderbilt's Neely Stadium were there for reasons beyond music too. They came because it was an event. The old came for vivid reminders of their lost youth, while the young came for a safe, streamlined evocation of an era they missed. They all came for a sanitized encapsulation of a rebellious period when white rock 'n' rollers were truly threatening to authorities. (Now those same authorities use the once-dangerous sounds to sell computers and soda pop.) Mostly, though, they all came because they wanted to be able to say they did. They wanted to say that they, too, saw the Rolling Stones.

For the most part, the crowd heard highlights from the best catalog any rock 'n' roll band has ever accumulated. They saw a group of 50-year-olds earnestly wanting to prove that they still have it, that they can still rock, and that they deserve the attention and the riches showered on them. Rock the Stones did, playing with commitment and precision, singing with power and attitude, all the while acting as cool and nonchalant as anyone working that hard could. They made it look effortless, and they also made it look fun. That in itself is amazing--considering the years, the wear and tear, and how many times they've played those same songs. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ron Wood, and their hired hands had something to prove, all right. They could have taken it easier, smothering their show with theatrics and spectacle and crowd baiting. Instead, they concentrated on performance, on moving people with music.

Of course, the stage set did suggest excess--a Rolling Stones specialty. The gold-embossed pillars and gigantic female forms conjured a feeling of both antiquity and futurism. Nonetheless, most of the spectacle was set up to support the music, not to detract from it. The group ably reduced the enormous stage in a way that allowed them to interact like a bar band, which is how they played. The chunky, nasty guitar lines of Keith Richards and Ron Wood intertwined like lewd dancers, as the two players anticipated each other's moves with uncanny intuition. The great Charlie Watts popped a sinewy backbeat that slithered with sexy rhythms--a great, almost forgotten art among modern rock bands.

Bassist Darryl Jones proved outstanding; his deep, rhythmic patterns locked in with Watts' drumming with the same invisible ease that made Richards and Wood such a remarkable team. His extended vamp on "Miss You" kept the pulse strong and familiar while occasionally altering it just enough to keep it interesting. In the horn section, Bobby Keys repeatedly turned in brilliantly heated outbursts on baritone and tenor saxophone. And of the background singers, which included rock vets Blondie Chaplin and Bernard Fowler, the star turned out to be the prancing and primping Lisa Fischer, who added a compelling energy to the show as she danced and played off Jagger and the other musicians.

The music, once fierce and packed with swaggering passion, carried a loose, jaunty feel. The large video monitors and the rightly named Jumbotron background screen displayed the band members in large, clear, quick-cut images. Perhaps because they've had more experience at these types of events, the Stones avoided the grand gestures and stock entertainment moves that marred Garth Brooks' Central Park performance. Even as Jagger pranced down the runways and made spastic stage moves nonstop, the show remained tightly wound, just as it would in a smaller auditorium or club. Brooks would do well to study how the Stones let the music do the entertaining; he could also use some training tips from Jagger, who, at age 54, seemed tireless. Despite more than two hours of constant physical activity, he never sounded winded, and his voice remained expressive throughout, from the opening lines of "Satisfaction" to the closing encore of "Brown Sugar."

Even though the stage show had a big gimmick, it was one that underscored the band's desire to concentrate on basics and to connect with fans. Midway through the show, an elongated, erector-set bridge slowly stretched from the lip of the stage, extending over the crowd to link with a smaller platform in the middle of the stadium. Crossing over to the mini-stage, the band used the closer environs to crank out songs from early in their career, starting with a revved-up take on Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie," a staple of their shows in the early and mid-'60s. They also reached back to an early hit, "The Last Time," a 1965 single from Out of Our Heads.

A lack of interesting new material remains the Stones' primary problem in the 1990s. It's been 20 years since Some Girls, the band's last consistently outstanding album. For years now, it seems that the group has been recording new collections simply to justify embarking on another record-breaking world tour. Sunday night, the only good song from the last two decades was 1981's "Start Me Up," while the primary dragging points occurred during the three obligatory songs from the current Bridges to Babylon LP.

Apparently, Jagger has little left to say as a songwriter. Even when Richards comes up with an interesting musical idea, the singer falls back on the same jivey snarl and the same empty lyrics about the battle of the sexes. Most of the good material on recent collections has come from Richards' raspy whisper. He tends to write unbelievably tender love songs these days, as in the new "How Can I Stop?," the best cut on Babylon. Too bad that the guitarist opted to sing two ill-chosen songs at Neely Stadium, the misogynistic "All About You" from Emotional Rescue and the unremarkable "Wanna Hold You" from 1982's Undercover.

The bulk of Sunday's show, and nearly all of the best songs, came from four tumultuous yet fertile years in the group's career: "Sympathy for the Devil," "Gimme Shelter," "Honky Tonk Women," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Brown Sugar," "Bitch," "Sister Morphine," and "Tumbling Dice" were all originally recorded between 1968 and 1972, when the Stones truly were the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band.

These days, they settle for presenting the world's greatest stadium extravaganza--a '90s thing, for sure, and a good way to stay insanely rich. Band members no longer participate in the decadence that once fueled their songs; instead, year after year, they go around the world, performing songs that celebrate the memory of being young, menacing, and fucked up. This theme is at the core of the Stones' current video, "Has Anybody Seen My Baby?," in which the band members lounge around and watch as others commit immoral acts. Simply remembering the days when they were active participants is enough to sustain them now.

One image from the Nashville show particularly stands out: As the seductive and exotic rhythms of "Sympathy for the Devil" started, a simulation of underground fire emanated from behind the stage; red lights were cast into rising smoke to accentuate the effect. In the chilly darkness, however, the red lights also illuminated a series of billboards along the back curve of Neely Stadium. As the logos of a famous soft drink and a large financial institution glowed with a hellish hue, the only other image visible was the large, protruding tongue that has become the universal trademark of the Rolling Stones.

It looked like just another well-known corporate sign--which is exactly what it has become. After all, the Rolling Stones are now a diversified conglomerate of international proportions; they're a massive, multimillion-dollar machine that provides a service to the masses, but only to those who can afford to pay $60 and up for the privilege of a few hours' entertainment. Sympathy for the devil is right: The old rockers may be dancing all the way to the bank, but being men of pride and passion, at least they're doing it in style.

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