Rolling Stones musicianship shines through stage flash

In Chicago Friday night, the Rolling Stones performed a show that was much more revitalized and lean than any of their mega-blockbuster extravaganzas in recent decades.

By , Staff writer

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    Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones with special guest Sheryl Crow perform at the United Center on Friday in Chicago.
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Before the band took the stage, a video played, revealing clips of famous faces telling the audience why the Rolling Stones – a band now in its 51st year – is worthy of our attention after all this time.

“Kind of dangerous,” said filmmaker Martin Scorsese.

Oh, really.

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The Stones didn’t need the endorsements, nor did they seem to play a show that reveled too much in self-serving accolades. Instead, the band, which played the United Center in Chicago Friday, the second of a three-night engagement that ends Tuesday, performed a show that was, in many ways, much more revitalized and lean than any of their mega-blockbuster extravaganzas in recent decades.

To be sure, the hit machine did due diligence – the customer is always right when they pay more than $600 for a seat. But along the way, the band seemed to have paused when it came to the requisite shenanigans of the past (pyrotechnics, inflatables, an army of auxiliary players) to create a show that was, instead, one that thrilled through ample musicianship.

The Rolling Stones embarked on this tour late last year to celebrate the 50-year milestone, a party that continues to roll this summer in North America and Europe.

For veteran bands of their era, mining the past for fresh incentives to tour is not new; what makes this road show unique, especially for the Stones, is how it leans back to emphasize, not just what makes them familiar after all these years, but what makes them endure.

The approach brings focus to Mick Taylor. The guitarist only spent five years in the band, but they were an essential five years: the golden period of creativity between 1969 and 1974, when Mr. Taylor’s contribution as a virtuoso guitarist created both inspiration and competition within the band.

Taylor’s reunion with his bandmates amounted to almost a third of the two-hour, 30-minute show, and each stepping out rotated the stage immediately into his direction.

For someone with an apparently lax stage personality, Taylor took command of the stage each time he appeared, as the band seemed to huddle around him for cues.

On “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” he played jazz improvisation, counterbalancing the song’s defiant swagger. Taylor disappeared into his playing, illuminating songs from the band’s repertoire, even refusing to stop after everyone had – at one point, Keith Richards, the Stones’ principal guitarist, had to touch him on the shoulder to let him know it was time to move along.

Taylor proved a needed counterpart to Mr. Richards, who hung back coloring in songs through simple chords, or sticking to what he often refers in interviews as “guitar weaving,” which involves interspersing his playing against another guitarist, usually Ron Wood, who delivered power chord riffs on command, but shined most adding a slide to his playing, giving songs that threaten to sound too polished an unkempt racket.

While the three guitarists played three distinct roles but at the same time, they all interacted with Mick Jagger, who at age 69, did not show any signs of burning out or fading away.

He demanded the audience stay with him, and if his constant stream of finger commands didn’t work, he tried wiggling each of his legs in several directions; in one moment, he slid across the stage so effortlessly, it created the impression it was atop nothing but air.

While Mr. Jagger’s tight relationship with Richards is legendary, he often looked more magnetized to Taylor. Both men started “Midnight Rambler” bunched tightly together – Jagger on harmonica – and the lengthy blues looked back to the band’s Chicago roots.

Except for temporarily donning a ridiculous furry black cape, Jagger restrained from wearing anything but stretchy black clothing – that is, except for a Chicago Blackhawks jersey he held up, but did not try on, to salute the team’s recent conference semifinals victory.

“On Monday, we decided to do the Rolling Stones On Ice,” he offered.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this fifth decade incarnation of the Stones is drummer Charlie Watts, who motored the band forward, occasionally revealing not just an impeccable swing, but also impressive stamina, delivering unexpected blows and dancing accents.

The 22-song show did not neglect predictable hits that stuck to the band’s earlier era through 1980. Failing to age well was the quasi-disco of “Miss You” and “Emotional Rescue,” but, remarkably, the swagger of a new song, “Doom and Gloom,” seemed to energize the band, especially Jagger, whose vocals snapped with a bite.

What served the band well was sticking to the core of its touring players – Darryl Jones on bass, Chuck Leavell on keyboards, Bobby Keys and Tim Ries on saxophones, plus two backup singers – and not the more wieldy lineups of the past.

One guest appeared unannounced – Sheryl Crow, whose spidery legs looked like they had the potential to ensnare Jagger’s own on “All Down the Line.” But otherwise, this band was not lacking.

An old rock cliché is that the best bands operate like gangs, a description that likely originated with these players. Between songs they talked, hugged, knocked into one other, reflecting an interactive fellowship.

The Stones have dogged criticism about their age since they entered their forties. For some, the uncomfortable reality may be this: Like the veteran Chicago blues heroes they emulated as young men, the Stones are showing that, far beyond the formulas of early commercial success is a rare musical alchemy that is only accessible through time. The trick is surviving.

Set list:

Get Off My Cloud

It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)

Paint It Black

Gimme Shelter

Shine a Light

Emotional Rescue

Al Dow the Line

Doom and Gloom

One More Shot

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking

Honky Tonk Women

You Got the Silver

Happy

Midnight Rambler

Miss You

Start Me Up

Tumbling Dice

Brown Sugar

Sympathy For the Devil

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Jumping Jack Flash

Satisfaction

Recommended: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: The top 5 biggest omissions
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