at Chicago's United Center. (Tom Cruze/Sun-Times)
Late last year, on the occasion of their 50th anniversary concerts in London and New York, I wrote of a Rolling Stones revelation. No more would I sneer at the batty old boomers and advise them to finally, at long last, for the love of all that's holy, please retire. Soldiering on as raucous rock 'n' rollers well into their unimagined, unnerving age, I said, could be their last, great rebellious act.
Emerging from Tuesday night's concert -- the first of three this week at Chicago's United Center, continuing Friday and Monday -- I remain convinced. The Stones are a bit worn and predictable, but they should absolutely rock until they drop.
THE ROLLING STONES
• 8 p.m. May 31 and June 3
• United Center, 1901 W. Madison
• Tickets: $250-$600; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
The current tour is titled "50 and Counting," indicating a continued future instead of a farewell. Tuesday night's show -- not sold out, with occasional patches of empty seats throughout the arena, no doubt due to absurdly high ticket prices -- found the band careening through a mostly wild but sometimes woolen two-and-a-half-hour set. They stumbled, they fumbled, Keef mumbled, but they still managed moments of serendipity and spark amid all the sodden nostalgia.
For an arena go-round, this Stones outing is a stripped-down affair -- the four principals plus bass, keys, backup singers and a couple of occasional horns -- with little flash jumpin' on stage aside from a large video screen and a basic light rig. No props, no inflatables, nothing to distract fans from the grooves laid down by four consummate pros. This is roots rock in its superb and often sloppy glory.
Opening with a stomping "Get Off of My Cloud," Mick Jagger began his considerable self-parody -- pouting, clapping, shaking his stick-thin excuses for hips -- while guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood warmed up, playing the first several songs as if they were emerging from amber. Some soul came together in "Gimme Shelter," featuring Jagger pairing with backup singer Lisa Fischer for some "Proud Mary"-like duet sass. But the groove finally locked in during, of all songs, "Emotional Rescue," with Richards and Wood braiding their parts on the bridge and letting Chicago bassist Daryl Jones drive the disco.
Then the roller coaster. Highs: Jones' hot-walking bass solo in "Miss You," the Midwestern crowd going wild for "Honky Tonk Women," the new "Doom and Gloom." Lows: the fumbling of "Tumbling Dice," the fan-requested selection turning out to be "Rocks Off" (really, people?), the new "One More Shot." An extended jam through "Brown Sugar" was a thrilling high near the end, and should have been the end. But an anemic "Sympathy for the Devil" followed, with Jagger fluffing around in a campy feathered cape and Chuck Leavell's oddly jaunty piano draining the song of every drop of menace.
Two moments were extraordinary. First, while Jagger took a break from flapping his limbs and lips, Richards and Wood stepped forward for a handsome acoustic rendition of "You Got the Silver," with drummer Charlie Watts applying brushes to color in the mood. Second, prodigal guitarist Mick Taylor joined the band for a sprawling, voodoo-séance version of "Midnight Rambler." While Jagger strutted the stage, Taylor, soft and wrapped in a showy scarf, played with a cool detachment but played so bloody well. As he finished, Richards put his arm around him; Taylor kissed his cheek.
At each tour stop thus far, the Stones have brought on special guests mid-show. All of them have been pop figures -- Carrie Underwood, Dave Grohl, Katy Perry, even Lady Gaga. In the city whose blues influenced the band possibly more than anything else, thank heavens Tuesday night the guest was Taj Mahal for a driving boogie through the classic country blues "Six Days on the Road."
Decades ago, the Stones looked to the elder bluesmen of Chicago -- aging, some forgotten, some broke -- as initial inspiration for their new music. Now the wrinkled rockers are elder statesmen themselves, retreading and reviving a catalog of formidable hits. The world will be less when they're gone, so here's to keeping them propped up.
The Rolling Stones' Tuesday night set list:
"Get Off of My Cloud"
"It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)"
"Paint It Black"
"Six Days On The Road"
"Doom and Gloom"
"One More Shot"
"Honky Tonk Women"
"You Got the Silver"
"Before They Make Me Run"
"Start Me Up"
"Sympathy for the Devil"
"You Can't Always Get What You Want"
"Jumpin' Jack Flash"
"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"
More photos from Sun-Times photographer Tom Cruze: