The Rolling Stones are, in many ways, the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of glaciers. Ancient and huge, they don’t move particularly quickly, but virtually every slight movement can seem like a major change in the landscape. Such was the case at the band’s sold-out Madison Square Garden show — the first of three Gotham-area gigs. For the most part, the Stones stuck to basics, peppering the two-hour gig with just about every “must” in their catalog and delivering those tunes with minimal deviation from the versions that play on the average fan’s mental jukebox.
There were moments, however, when the band, without tossing the script out the window entirely, gave cause for pause. A troika of tunes from the seminal “Exile on Main Street” album did just that, with Mick Jagger coaxing more palpable emotion out of “Loving Cup” than on the recorded version and Keith Richards veining “Tumbling Dice” with impressively abrasive flecks of blues guitar.
The blues aspect of the Stones’ formula was played up throughout the set, far more so than on tours of the recent past. A version of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” harked back to the band’s roots, while an understated “Wild Horses” demonstrated that those roots bore some fascinating fruit in later years.
At other times, the group seemed content to simply go through the motions: “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” was dispatched in a manner perfunctory enough to cast plenty of doubt on the “but I like it” subtext, and “Shattered” simply never gelled, its stuttering rhythms and scratchy riffs bouncing off each other rather than coming together.
Although stretching out has never been the band’s strongest suit, both Richards and Ron Wood delivered knockout punches on the more extended numbers, especially “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ ” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” An expanded cover of the O’Jays’ “Love Train” was less stellar, proving only that smooth soul is one of the few R&B languages in which the band is not fluent.
Staging was simple, but not threadbare. A giant video screen projected standard Stones-ish imagery — primarily tongues and (female) torsos. The band moved to a smaller second stage for an intimate interlude highlighted by an erotic “Brown Sugar” that retained its dark energy even three decades on.
There’s little left for the Stones to prove at this point, of course, and at times at this show, they played as if they knew it. But there were enough stretches where the old hunger rose to the surface, making it seem like the Rolling Stones are — if not the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world — still a long way from being museum pieces.
The Rolling Stones perform at Los Angeles’ Staples Center on Oct. 31, Anaheim’s Edison Intl. Field Nov. 2 and L.A.’s Wiltern Theater Nov. 4. They return to Madison Square Garden Jan. 17 and 18.