Still the Stones' age

Rolling Stones 40th anniversary tour kicks off in Boston

Well now, what can a poor boy do, 'cept to sing for a rock 'n' roll band?

Though it's a rhetorical question for Mick Jagger and his well-heeled mates in the Rolling Stones, it didn't seem so Tuesday night at the Boston Fleet Center, where the four-decade-old band ripped through classics and rarities with an intensity that musicians half their age wish they could achieve.

With the immortal chime of Keith Richards's opening chord on "Street Fighting Man," the Stones kicked off yet another world tour, this one distinguished by its division among stadiums, arenas, and small theaters.

Minutes into the 125-minute set, they also reaffirmed that their title as the World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band won't be relinquished anytime soon – and that it's possible for granddad rockers to improve with age.

At 59, Jagger is still a mass of kinetic energy, his untamed strut as suggestive as ever, his voice carrying every bit of its original edgy sneer. Richards's vocals, showcased on "Slipping Away" and his standard "Happy," have actually gotten better, and his unabashed joy at the mere act of playing infused his licks with a passion that's almost tangible. Guitarist Ron Wood and ever-stoic drummer Charlie Watts helped create a mood that was, if anything, triumphant. Though there were some clunker moments, most notably on "Wild Horses," the Stones certainly clarified the true meaning of the tour's logo-referenced title: "Licks."

Stripped of the stadium flash and relying only on a 70-foot video screen (including floating "Rocky Horror"-like lips), the Stones performed an assortment of tunes that ranged from required ("Satisfaction," "It's Only Rock and Roll," "Honky Tonk Women") to esoteric ("Neighbors," "If You Can't Rock Me").

On this tour, the band is including thematic segments from specific albums; for opening night, they plucked five songs from "Exile on Main Street," including "Loving Cup," "Rip This Joint," and an amazingly sharp "Tumblin' Dice." If that segment didn't smack fans with the realization that the Stones really are just your basic, blues-lovin' R&B bar band, they drove the point home with a rendition of "Mannish Boy," performed on a smaller second stage planted amid the audience.

"They're bigger than just rock 'n' roll," fan Tom Hayes said after the show. He believes the band is "changing the whole paradigm of age" – not just for themselves but for guys like Hayes who, in their 50s, still paper their walls with rock posters. "You can see when they were on the small stage that rock 'n' roll has kept 'em young."

His brother Steve, who first saw the Stones in 1966, said Tuesday's show was the best he's ever seen.

Ad van Diessen traveled from the Netherlands for this show and Thursday's Gillette Field date, a more typical Stones stadium extravaganza. "The Stones are something special," he explained.

That's fact, not conjecture. Several songs on Tuesday's set list rank as immortal – "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" are rock 'n' roll time capsules – yet each was performed (for the umpteen-millionth time) as if they were written yesterday.

Curiously, they also covered the O'Jays' "Love Train" (on which Jagger preened in a white, rhinestone-covered coat and hat), followed by "Undercover of the Night" – a pairing possibly meant to convey the need for love in a time of strife. "That was fun," Jagger exclaimed after "Love Train." "We never let that one out in public before."

Introducing "Can't You Hear Me Knockin," he repeated, "We've never tried this one onstage before. We're gonna have a bash with it."

Punctuated by Bobby Keys' classic sax riff, the song was another show-stopper.

They may not be sliding across stages on their knees these days, but the Stones are still full of amazing surprises. Forget the rock 'n' roll dinosaur references; it's still the Stone age, and these guys are nowhere near ready for extinction.

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