Keith Richards is the one who, famously, back about 40 years ago, replied to the sobriquet about greatness that had come to be an unofficial nickname for his group and observed: “On any given night, it’s a different band that’s the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.” This is undoubtedly true, and on Thursday evening, given a God’s-eye-view of all the music being made in the world that night, the honor might have belonged to some bar band playing in Kansas City. Who knows — it might even have been Måneskin. But chances are that it probably was the Rolling Stones… and that it probably will be for all 15 of the nights the Stones are playing on tour this fall, despite the disruption in the divine order that called an original member out less than two months ago.
Fortunately, the Stones are taking about 4-5 nights off between shows to give Foo Fighters, Glass Animals, Radiohead and Which One’s Pink their daily fair shot at being the GOAT (or the GOON… greatest of one night). But as long as they’re on this year, the Stones — average core-member age: 76 — have it to themselves, and not just by virtue of being grandfathered in: These grandfathers are busting their probably Peloton-toned asses.
Thursday, when the group played the first of their two shows at Inglewood’s new SoFi Stadium (they return Sunday), was a good night to be an Angeleno, whether you were a rock ‘n’ roll fan, a baseball fan, or a Stones fan sneaking looks at the score for the most important Dodgers/Giants game in history during the first 45 minutes of the band’s 135-minute set. The cheering was even a little louder than the immediate circumstance dictated during “Start Me Up.” The moment when probably half the stadium got a phone alert that the Dodgers had won the playoff series in a 2-1 victory came just seconds after Mick Jagger sang the immortal line, “You make a dead man come.” If there was some kind of cosmic synergy statement being made there, we’ll leave it to others to figure out.
All this triumph was happening even with key players absent. The Dodgers were without Max Muncy or Clayton Kershaw (and a certain pitching Voldemort not to be mentioned). The Rolling Stones are soldiering on with a lineup change that strikes at the heart much more painfully than a dislocated elbow. Sports teams are meant to be rotational over years and decades, but classic pioneer bands not so much, in the eyes of many fans, at least: You don’t have to walk more than a few yards or wade through more than a few posts to find someone who will tell you that the Stones should have called it quits the moment Charlie Watts became too ill to take part in this tour, let alone when he died Aug. 24. And then there are more practical views, shared by the 50,000 or more fans who didn’t have any compunctions about showing up Thursday. At the opposite extreme, someone on social media said this month that the only two people the Stones really need to keep touring are Mick and Chuck Leavell. (Leavell is not just the Stones’ longtime sideman keyboard player but their musical director on tour.) That was a joke — probably? — but there’s some hardboiled truth about legacy acts in it. And also, to be soft-boiled about it: Who are we to say that musicians who want to make music together shouldn’t?
There’s no hubris like fan hubris, but if you’d been there Thursday night, you would have felt it slippin’ away. (To borrow a Keith Richards-revived song title on the set list.) And part of that had to do with the new guy. It may seem sacrilegious to Charlie to say that there was anything cool about hearing the Stones march to a different drummer for the first time in history — OK, it is a sacrilege — but if you’re really a music buff, you’d be insanely incurious not to wonder what happens when a beloved and insoluble dynamic gets changed up by will or fate. And it’s not negating the tragedy or irreplaceability of the loss of Watts to say that the Stones settling for Steve Jordan is a gas, gas, gas. Maybe you had to be there to get it. (But with nine dates left on the tour, you still could.)
Watts used to be the coolest cat in the room by virtue of the implacability that came hand in hand with his ferocity. (Or underhand grip in underhand grip.) What was he thinking about, as he seemed to nearly be sitting still as he provided as rock-solid a beat as anyone in the history of rock ‘n’ roll? His stocks? Some jazz record he just bought? Maybe even how happy he was to be there — that part didn’t seem impossible, either, despite his nearly stealth stage demeanor? He was the most intriguing member of the Rolling Stones on stage, just from being the least demonstrative. And now that we’re down to three utter showboat core members, his almost bemused-seeming, cryptic calm amid the hurricane is deeply missed, along with the satisfaction of hearing the guy who originally played “Satisfaction” repeat himself, magnificently.
But there’s no doubt about what Jordan is feeling — even with shades on, he wore his enthusiasm for the role on his sleeve Thursday. He looks like he’s pounding harder than Watts did… and that’s probably no optical illusion. By being the blurry-armed, grinning counterpoint to the sleight-of-hand magic trick Watts provided, he’s almost like a stand-in for the audience, as far as palpably conveying just how thrilling it would be to be on stage with the Rolling Stones… if the audience had also put in their 10,000 hours (or probably many times that, in Jordan’s case to get there). Having a key player who runs hot in the space where the former guy used to run cool obviously is not going to make Stones sets any better than they used to be, but just having the feel of the kick drum be that different — however tragically brought about — turns out to be an unexpected kick. Put your guilt aside, Stones fans — it’s OK to be a designated mourner and experience some delight at the same time.
Five official dates into this outing (not counting a friends-and-family show), there are no surprises about how homage will be paid to Watts. The set was immediately preceded by a montage of the drummer’s different looks over the years on the rear- and side-stage screens. Before the playing of the third number, which on this night was “Rocks Off” (a high point), Jagger gave a variation on the short speech he’ll probably do a variation on every night till the tour wraps Nov. 23 in Florida: “It was great to see those images of Charlie up there on the screen just now. It reminds us of all the years that we all spent together. I’m sure lots of you guys have memories of Charlie and seeing him play too, so we want to share that with you. So we’d like to dedicate this show to him. Here’s to Charlie!” If you are expecting Mick to moisten his eyes and tell a tender story, you have not been paying much attention to the Stones for the last five or 10 or 55 years.
Jagger is probably at his most honest when he’s sharing some snark with the audience, as he did when the subject of Paul McCartney very briefly arose. McCartney, as most fans may know, managed to revive the Beatles/Stones rivalry this week — something that’s not easy to do in 2021 — when he was quoted in the New Yorker as saying of the Stones, “I’m not sure I should say it, but they’re a blues cover band, that’s sort of what the Stones are. … I think our net was cast a bit wider than theirs.” Jagger did not expend much time on being as dismissive in return, but he did get a dig in during the segment of the show devoted to some kind of local or topical sarcasm, as has become his custom in recent years. “There’s so many celebrities here tonight,” Jagger said early on. “Megan Fox is here, she’s lovely. Leonardo DiCaprio. Lady Gaga. Kirk Douglas.” (No, he is not still among us.) Then: “Paul McCartney is here; he’s going to help us — he’s going to join us in a blues cover later.” The Stones’ “net,” we can be sure, includes a pinch of comedy.
The Jagger-McCartney volleying is enough to make you feel young-ish again. Certainly it felt like we’d time-traveled to the late 1960s when, on the stairs up and out of SoFi Stadium at the end, there was one drunken fellow trying to lead a chant of: “Fuck the Beatles! Fuck the Beatles!” And when that failed to raise anything more than eyebrows, a soused monologue: “Paul McCartney is a fucking wussy!” You could hardly do better for an everything-old-is-new-again moment.
Fortunately, there was more than just inter-band beefing to make it feel like not so time has passed. The set list, hardly unexpectedly, was heavy on the ’60s, maybe even a song or two more so than usual, since “Ruby Tuesday” was the supposedly fan-voted wild card of the night (and being reintroduced to the set for the first time since 2016), and “19th Nervous Breakdown” being a semi-regular part of the show, as of this fall, after not being played since a couple of occasions in 2005. The nicest surprise, at least for anyone who hadn’t taken a peek at the setlist for the last show in Nashville, was that Keith Richards used one of his two lead-vocal slots to finally sing something other than “Before They Make Me Run,” et al. — it was the very rare “Connection,” from “Between the Buttons.” It felt like garage-rock in a way that the rest of the show wasn’t, and it’ll probably get slicker if they keep performing it, but it provided a surge of momentum for the deeper-cuts-loving fans before the show goes to the hits where it is inevitably going to go.
What the ’60s Lord giveth, the ’60s Lord taketh away, of course, and so some of the songs that were performed when the Stones did one of their final shows with Charlie at the Rose Bowl on Aug. 22, 2019 are gone now — no “She’s a Rainbow,” for instance (maybe because we have commercial television advertising for that). Also gone from where everyone left off in 2019: the mid-set “acoustic B-stage,” probably because the idea of having the longstanding members come out to the stadium’s middle, without their sidemen or newer recruits, isn’t as viable when there are three left instead of four. And also MIA, a staple you thought would never fade away: “Brown Sugar,” which both Mick and Keith said in a Los Angeles Times interview might be back in their sets someday. We all know better, right? How a song that requires that detailed a political defense survived in the show as long as it did is the real mystery (whether you still love it or think it had its day).
There are songs in Stones shows you think you’ve had enough of, till it turns out you haven’t. One such is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which felt overexposed probably even a few decades before its un-ironic use at Trump rallies made it something that produces PTSD among a lot of Stones fans. And yet, when it came to the bridge, with Leavell doing some of his most crucial piano work and Ronnie Wood peeling off some solo licks that were unusually bittersweet for him, you realized you might miss it if it were gone, traumatic associations or no. And the number really came into its own at the close, going into double-time as a full-on secular gospel-rocker. “The Inglewood Singers outdid themselves,” Jagger said afterward, in case we missed that we’d been taken to church.
So much of the show is notable for its savvy performance tropes, as always, like the way Jagger teases the audience by coming down the center ramp just a little at a time before fully inserting himself into stadium center, or does his on-again, off-again strip-tease wardrobe changes, augmenting the black T-shirt that accentuates his skinny frame with a variety of jackets that somehow manage to touch upon every bright color featured on the “Dirty Work” cover. (Somewhat amusingly, Leavell’s keyboard rig quite transparently does double duty as Jagger’s wardrobe department.) In some ways, sure, it’s only show biz-‘n’-roll, and we like it.
And yet it still feels like actual dirty work, too. As in, a job that’s dirty but some World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band has gotta do it. Keith Richards was not going to get much more sentimental than Jagger was, over the course of an evening where a little sentiment wouldn’t have been unwarranted. But he verged on it, just slightly, when he gave his own happy-to-be-here, happy-to-be-anywhere speech midstream. “I’ve got to say, it’s great to see you again,” he said, seeming to mean it a little more than the mere writing of those words would suggest. “It is great to be out and about again, and let’s hope this all works out,” Richards added. And then, speaking of being on the road, he gave all the reason he needed for touring with or without Watts or not giving too much of a shit about what anybody’s expectation of a touring expiration date should be. “It’s what I do,” he said with a laugh. The crowd understood: he was talking about This Thing Of Ours.