Here’s a quick and easy test to determine whether you’ve gotten too cynical: you’re blasé enough to bypass a Rolling Stones tour in 2019 for any reason other than a financial one. Yes, you’ve seen them too many times; you’ve never seen them, so now is a bad time to start; the set lists are too predictable; the whole enterprise is undignified for bands and fans of a certain septuagenarian age; they’ve sucked ever since [fill in the blank: Brian Jones/Mick Taylor/Bill Wyman/Nicky Hopkins/Ian McLagan] checked out of the [band/planet]. Well, no, actually: You’re the sucker. So go sit in the corner and ponder the sad fate of the miracle seeker who doesn’t make a side trip to Lourdes because it’s five minutes off the highway.
It is a secular miracle that the Stones are still together, and their appearance at the Rose Bowl Thursday night was the second such trip to a revivifying well in a stadium that Angelenos have gotten to experience in six weeks, following Paul McCartney’s Dodger Stadium stop last month. If anything, the Stones’ visitation seems a little further into the realm of spooky signs and wonders, and not just because this year Mick Jagger has become the poster boy for boyish stent-bearers everywhere. Even more unlikely than Jagger doing his flashy jumping jacks after heart surgery at 76 is that the heart of the band remains together, willing to share the same stage and rehearse for it, too, sounding like scrappy but accomplished lads of 22 a good 55 years after their first local gig. The Stones will forever be a band that has to at least feign a kind of nonchalance on occasions like this — Keith Richards was not about to make the heart symbol or namaste gesture during the final bow — but you could at least imagine that the group had arrived in Pasadena with tangible sense of purpose, as if to say: No, really, Mick’s surgeon says 140-minute skipping-and-galloping sessions are fine. Also: If we can’t rock you, nobody will.
That they look the worse for wear is part of the shared fun at this point, however many decades after we all got our “Steel Wheelchair Tour” jokes out of the way. The faces have changed, while the bodies, cocky postures and enviable stamina levels have not, in some kind of laughably wonderful cosmic disconnect. Compared with the 2015 tour, Jagger expends maybe 5% less energy literally running across the throw stages and catwalks than he did then, but it is, at the least, a steady jog, or a shimmying, frugging sort of jog. And, as photographic evidence has readily attested, he maintains the physique for which skinny jeans (or their Versace equivalent) were made; any deals with the devil that were made in order to keep that frenzied stick-figure thing going have not yet expired. Ron Wood continues to be the preternatural brunette and biggest rock-god pose-striker of the group, and every band needs one. Charlie Watts is still our darling, sitting at a minimalist kit and moving even more minimally with his casual jazz grip, looking like the mild-mannered banker who no one in the heist movie realizes is the guy actually blowing up the vault. And Richards is, as always, the bloke who’s chuckling at the more extravagant gestures of Wood and Jagger while working just as hard. The Stones are so comfortable with who they are in 2019 that — get this — Richards has now ditched his bandana, as an eff-you to everyone who thinks you can’t slam it out just as hard with some shine on your forehead. Or maybe he just forgot and left it in the Rose Bowl dressing room.
Two things are certain in the set list of a modern Rolling Stones concert: One is that there’ll be a wild card number, voted on via the web by fans from among four choices that have never risen to being staples of the show. Thursday night, it was 1967’s “She’s a Rainbow,” which, as the only thoroughly keyboard-dominated number of the night, isn’t exactly a key exemplar of the brand. Then again, the song has been picked up by a lot of commercial brands lately (see Variety‘s December 2018 story on how “Rainbow” became a sync monster). So maybe the votes of local music supervisors and ad licensing folks alone were enough to put it over the top in L.A. balloting.
The other certainty is that, aside from maybe a couple of other modest surprises, nearly all of the rest of the show will follow along familiar greatest-hits lines. On this shortish 2019 stadium tour, they’ve been mixing up the front end a bit, while the show’s back end has the inevitability of a superhero movie. “Brown Sugar” is the unerring climax of the set proper, overextended to give the audience a few dozen extra chances to go “whoo!” at Jagger’s prompting. One thing that’s changed is that Jagger has gender-swapped the “just like a young girl should” line, maybe in some sort of quiet deference to ongoing complaints about the song’s dicey sexual and racial politics. The encore will always close out with “Satisfaction,” which sounds as wonderfully nasty and grinding as ever, and its adolescent frustration becomes an even better, more ironic joke as the decades go on. It’s the closest thing they have to a signature song, yes, but it’s also kind of a “Gladiator” way to end the show, asking: Are you not satisfied?
If you’ve attended as many Stones tours as some of us have, it’s easy for you as a fan to let your mind go on autopilot during these more overfamiliar picks, even if the band isn’t phoning it in. It’s not as if they are about to do any Dylan-style radical rearrangements. But sometimes Richards and Wood do switch something up in the guitar playing that jolts you back to attention. On this No Filter show, that moment came during an unexpectedly thrilling rendition of “Sympathy for the Devil,” which, with the only pre-taped rhythm of the set, had long since become one of those numbers where you could check out a little and Instagram those snapshots you’d been saving up since the beginning of the show, all Luciferian entreaties notwithstanding. But not this night. After Jagger sang the opening words of the chorus, Richards punctuated the pauses with some particularly ripping chords, to the point that his playing almost seemed to be turned up twice as loud as the rest of the band. That couldn’t have been the case — the sound was unnaturally good enough at the Rose Bowl that there definitely weren’t accidents happening at the mixing board. But that Richards could at least fool us into thinking his amps had been turned up to 111 with a few well placed strums proved that it doesn’t take much to breathe new life into an old satanic chestnut.
Among the other highlights was “Miss You” — these days, as much as anything, a showcase for bassist Darryl Jones, who was given a lot of time in the solo spotlight, with Jagger egging him on and finally saying, in the most flattering way, “Shut up!” The lack of disco sequels in the Stones’ catalog remains regrettable to this day. Just as satisfying on the other end of the roots scale was the band’s mid-set, two-song hootenanny at the end of the center ramp with “Sweet Virginia” and “Dead Flowers,” driven by Woods’ acoustic slide. There are those of us who would very much like to see an entire set’s worth of that approach, but there were 50,000 others who might have had a problem with “Honky Tonk Women” being supplanted by actual honky-tonk music, so we cheerfully take what bluesy-folksy moments we get.
Jagger busted out his harmonica and his serial-crowd-killer strut for “Midnight Rambler,” which sounds more comforting than scary these days — he even shouted out feel-good exhortations to the crowd. Wood seemed particularly supercharged on this one, like maybe he was recalling the 2015 tour, where former member Mick Taylor’s cameo appearances on “Rambler” on a lot of the dates were considered particularly memorable, and he wanted to make us all forget that.
It’s a given on any given night that “Gimme Shelter” will be a standout: There is something almost too easy about how the sight of a female African American singer marching down the catwalk with Jagger trailing behind her loosens up the pheromone inhibitors, assuming that the backup-turned-lead singer in question does deliver. On previous American tours stretching back a very long way, that duet partner was Lisa Fischer, but now it’s 37-year-old Sasha Allen, whom some will remember as a Season 4 “Voice” semifinalist, although she has plenty of other credits in R&B, pop and the legit stage. Allen was up to the task of the song’s war cries, however easy of a lay we, as a crowd, might be in that moment.
During the spoken asides between songs, Jagger was as much the stone-faced comedian as ever — never more than when asking, “Is anybody here from Glendale?” (Perhaps he is a really big “Mildred Pierce” fan.) Prior to the Stones coming on stage, Robert Downey Jr. had made a brief appearance to proclaim that NASA’s nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena had named a rock that had rolled a few feet on Mars upon being nudged by a landing craft after the Stones. Jagger later thanked “our favorite action man” for the intro and said of the Mars rock, “I want to bring it back and put it on our mantlepiece.” If the idea that the group shares a house together wasn’t amusement enough, Jagger talked about some of the band’s highly fictional doings while they were in town, with the same absurd local color he brings to concerts in other locales.
Noting that fans had had to change plans when the Rose Bowl date was rescheduled because of his heart surgery, Jagger said, “It’s affected us as well, because we’re missing Thursday night’s turtle races at Brennan’s” (a bar in Marina Del Rey). “Anyway, we walked all the way up and down Hollywood Blvd. looking for the Rolling Stones’ star, but we couldn’t find it. Sad, isn’t it? But we looked.” (The Stones do not have a star on the Walk of Fame.) “And then we couldn’t get into Spago’s restaturant because it was too late.” (The West Hollywood restaurant Spago closed in 2001.) “But it all turned out all right anyway, because Wolfgang Puck is cooking his shepherd’s pies backstage, so it all turned out perfectly.”
The fabulism continued, with Jagger at one point announcing that “we’re gonna do a couple of Elizabethan folk tunes for you.” Before they did their wild-card choice with “She’s a Rainbow,” the singer talked about some of the other possibilities. “We’ve put some songs up for you to vote for — songs like ‘Can You Hear the Music,’ ‘There’s No Smoke Without Fire, ‘Little Old Lady From Pasadena.'” That last song is, of course, a Jan & Dean oldie the Stones have never performed; the middle one he mentioned, well, Google that and it’s still anybody’s guess; and the first tune cited is an album cut from 1973’s “Goat’s Head Soup” that supposedly has never, ever been performed live, much less put up for a 21st century fan vote. Oh, that Mick.
Listen to enough of these droll gags he does at every gig and you might start to wonder how much the rest of his persona is comedic. He was traditionally viewed as the anti-McCartney, in some ways — the possibly sinister counterpart to the Beatle’s cuddliness — but, seeing Jagger in action so soon after Paul came through town, someone could even begin to think that, in some ways, they’re the same guy. McCartney does silly little shuffles and dance moves between songs that no one quite understands what they are — but isn’t that kind of Jagger’s whole persona during the Stones’ performances, only with a lot more exuberant funkiness and catlike grace and a vaguely mean look on his face while he’s doing it? Material like “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man” (which they opened the Rose Bowl show with) blinded audiences for decades to just how much of a goofball Jagger is on stage, even during — maybe especially during — all that footwork. Maybe he’s not “dancing with Mr. D” so much as dancing with Mr. L… as in Jerry Lewis.
One thing he didn’t joke about on stage was that recent health scare. Jagger didn’t directly refer to it at all, actually — not because he’s afraid of the topic, probably, as much as the Stones just see anything remotely approaching sentiment on stage as rank. In the Stones’ world, it’s dead men who cry. There probably wasn’t a single a tear shed at the Rose Bowl. But some of us could get misty on the inside, at least, over the dumb luck we’ve experienced to have a group that probably outlived its natural shelf life 50 years ago starting us up for the last 55.