“Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones.” These thundering words precede a pantheon of rock and roll that takes its place on stage as tens of thousands of fans, whose ages span several generations, look on in anticipation and joy.
It all started for the big, bad progenitors of rock and roll back in 1962. At London’s Marquee Jazz Club where, one summer night, the Rolling Stones played their first ever gig. At the time, their roster featured founder and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, Brian Jones; vocalist Mick Jagger; guitarist Keith Richards; and keyboardist, Ian Stewart. United by their passion for American blues, the unparalleled ensemble set off to bring the music of Chuck Berry, Muddy Mutters, et al. to Europe. As Richards explains in his autobiography, Life, “the British invasion was really an invasion of American music into Europe.” The four were joined a few months later, in January, by bassist Bill Wyman and jazz drummer Charlie Watts, thus completing the lineup.
In May of 1963, with a producer on board, the Rolling Stones were signed by Decca, the record label notorious for passing on The Beatles. In June, the Stones released their first single, “Come On,” a Chuck Berry cover.
They have been at it ever since, performing more than 2,000 concerts around the world, with grueling, nearly nonstop touring through the 1960s and early 1970s. They have claimed the title of top-grossing tour four separate times and amassed the world’s highest-grossing tours in both the 1990s and 2000s.
Now, showing no signs of stopping, the Stones are in the last stretch of their latest tour, “No Filter,” spanning two continents, and 45 shows. But the tour has not been without turbulence. A brief scare postponed the last set of shows, as Jagger had to undergo emergency heart surgery. However, Jagger — who just celebrated his 76th birthday — recovered from heart surgery at around the same rate that most adolescents recover from having their wisdom teeth pulled out. Within mere weeks, he announced he was back to his usual exercise routine and had a clean bill of health from his doctor. The tour was back on.
I, myself, saw the Rolling Stones play in their one Canadian show, and suffice it to say, every minute of the six hours spent standing still against the stage-front barricade was worth it for the spectacle that followed. The Stones regaled spectators with fan favorites, the majority of the set-list being drawn from the band’s famed, four sequential chef d’oeuvres: Beggars Banquet (1968), Let it Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971), and Exile on Main St. (1972).
Lesser-known records were played as well, especially thanks to the audience having a say in the set-list via online voting. Contenders were picked from a bag of forgotten hits and esoteric cuts off earlier albums: “Mercy Mercy” from 1965’s Out of our Heads – played for the first time in 50 years; “Under My Thumb” from 1966’s Aftermath; and the one I got to see, “She’s a Rainbow.” It was a welcome revival of a colorful, pop-ballad from the Stones’ oft-overlooked, early-era Pink Floyd inspired album, Their Satanic Majesties Request.
The Stones opened the show with the energetic, lively paean to protest: “Street Fighting Man.” Jagger emerged, draped in glam and glitter, his bellowing vocals filling the field, Richards in his usual debonair, driving the main riff, Ronnie Wood and Darryl Jones commanding the band’s tight rhythm, and Watts keeping the beat, as a bona fide human metronome. Any remaining qualms concerning the Stones’ ability to perform at peak performance were henceforth quashed.
As the evening went on, the syndicate of septuagenarians showed no signs of slowing down. Tearing through bread-and-butter staples like the twangy “Tumbling Dice,” and demonstrating their range by beautifully elevating the mellow, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” to its grandiose proportions, the Rolling Stones of 2019 have remained largely unchanged from their disheveled adolescence in the epoch of the 1960s. They still run like a well-oiled machine, engineered to play the blues. A lead guitarist amongst the members is rarely identifiable, as Richards and Wood interweave their instruments while playing off Watts’ drums and Jones’ bass to create a cohesive, unified sound. It’s a product far greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s the magic behind the Rolling Stones’ sound.
Midway through the show, seeking to recreate the more intimate aura from the band’s early days playing in smaller clubs – like Toronto’s El Mocambo Tavern in 1977 – Jagger and company moved to a smaller stage, set amidst the crowd. From here they played their acoustic love ballad, “Angie” — though a more fitting track would have been “Salt of the Earth,” their stirring — and some might argue, sardonic — salute to the working class; the commoners who surrounded their stage. “Say a prayer for the common foot soldier; Spare a thought for his back breaking work.”
As the Stones made their way back to the main stage, an orchestral arrangement of a snare drum, maracas, and congas began to play. The field filled with the haunting echoes of “woo-woo!,” scenes of fire and brimstone were projected above, creating the macabre backdrop to “Sympathy for the Devil.” I have heard this song more times than I can count, every beat and guitar note is forever etched into my memory, but hearing it live, for the first time, as soon as Mick Jagger opened with those iconic introductory pleasantries, “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste,” I just couldn’t help but smile in awe. “Woo-woo!”
Jagger then handed the reigns to Richards, to front his 1989 ode to old age, “Slipping Away” from the album Steel Wheels. Wrinkled but not withered, like a finely aged wine, Richards’ performance was imbued with layers of complexity.
A highlight of the show came in the encore: “Gimme Shelter.” What other songs can perfectly capture and recreate the atmosphere of the late 1960s in four-and-a-half minutes? Everything from the Kennedy assassination, to the draft and Vietnam War, is encapsulated in this record.
But what makes this song shine is the chorus. Backup singer Sasha Allen (perfectly filling Mary Clayton’s shoes from the original recording) delivered the best vocal performance of the night, a duet with Jagger. Her soulful, gospel cries and screams of “RAPE! MURDER!” elevated the song to its epic proportions, draping the audience in its creepy, ghastly ambiance.
The Rolling Stones could have retired a long time ago, in the early ’70s, and have still enjoyed heaps of accolades, lauding their legacy. But touring until today — in their 70s — they refuse to rest on their laurels. Jagger, when asked in a 1965 interview how much more fuel the Rolling Stones had to burn, replied, with a sanguine smirk, “I think we’re pretty well set up for at least another year.” Fifty-four years later, in 2019, the Rolling Stones “No Filter” world tour rolls on with concert dates scheduled through the end of August. Is this the last tour of the last true remnant of rock and roll’s heyday? Well, this could be the last time; this could be the last time; maybe the last time; I don’t know, oh no, oh no.
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Writer’s note – Here is my personal, comprehensive ranking of the Rolling Stones’ UK studio discography:
1. Let It Bleed (1969)
2. Beggars Banquet (1968)
3. Exile on Main St. (1972)
4. Sticky Fingers (1971)
5. Some Girls (1978)
6. The Rolling Stones No. 2 (1965) (UK)
7. Between the Buttons (1967) (UK)
8. Aftermath (1966) (UK)
9. Black and Blue (1976)
10. Tattoo You (1981)
11. Goats Head Soup (1973)
12. Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
13. The Rolling Stones (1964) (UK)
14. Blue and Lonesome (2016)
15. Out of Our Heads (1965) (UK)
16. It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (1974)
17. Emotional Rescue (1980)
18. Voodoo Lounge (1994)
19. A Bigger Bang (2005)
20. Steel Wheels (1989)
21. Bridges to Babylon (1997)
22. Dirty Work (1986)
23. Undercover (1983)