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STONES ON TOUR: The Bang's Still There

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 Mike Bell has offered to bet me five bucks that when the Rolling Stones come out to play, they will commence their sixth Memphis concert appearance in the last 40 years with “Start Me Up,” a 1981-vintage rouser that has made its way into Americana as a marching-band mainstay at football games, both collegiate and NFL.
           

I don’t bet, because that’s my thinking, too, and, anyhow, I wouldn’t want to cost Mike any more than he’s already spent – $750 apiece for two scalped tickets to this sold-out affair so that he and his 15-year-old daughter Hillary can sit on the floor of the FedEx Forum, right under the noses of those seemingly ageless English sexagenarians who evidently will go on playing rock and roll music as long as Father Time, who’s obviously determined to look the other way, will let them.

           

The Bells, father and daughter, hail from Nashville, where Mike Bell has seen the Stones twice before but which the Stones have skipped this time around. “I was about eight years old, I think, when I first heard them – ‘Satisfaction,’ ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ and all those – and I’ve never stopped liking ‘em since,” says Mike, who runs a helicopter charter service. This will be the first Stones concert for daughter Hillary, who attends prep school at Battleground Academy but has a sensibility that derives more from hip-hop. 

           

That’s a genre that’s supposed to be about real things but has turned too “flashy and posey” to maintain its street cred, says Hillary, an Eminem fan who goes on to deliver a critical rap on the intellectual appeal and acrobatic skills of Los Lost Boys, Saturday night’s warmup group. Mike should be proud; he’s raising a charmer whose own persona runs all the way from Hillary Duff to Greil Marcus.

           

And suddenly, after a brief video intro featuring interstellar images,  followed by the familiar guitar chords of (yep) “Start Me Up,” there they are in the stage lights, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards up front, both wearing sport coats, just as they did when they first played the Coliseum back in 1965, guitarist Ron Wood and bassist Daryl Jones appearing next, and Charlie Watts back there on the drum stand.

           

During the next couple of hours, their positions will change, so will their wardrobes and stage arrangements (about midway of the concert they’ll ride a mobile runway into the middle of the floor and then back again), and they will be joined now and then by keyboards, by a Stax-sounding horn section,  and by a backup vocal trio, all these supportive groups classy and accomplished and unpretentious, just like the Stones themselves.

           

For that’s surely the point of this ongoing Faustian epic that is the Rolling Stones, who are, of course, superb performers but whose life-work depends less on any musical virtuosity that than on their fidelity to an adopted folk history – one made up of blues riffs and E chords and plain but archy vernacular, even when, as in the great anthem “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” it’s accompanied by operatic choruses, Old World-style.

           

There’s a moment on the DVD that’s included with their new CD A Bigger Bang (the ostensible reason for the current world tour) when vocalist Jagger and guitarist Richards, the band’s main songwriters, name various African-American blues masters as their role models and opine hopefully that, in their fifth decade of trying, they’ve almost got it right finally.
          

Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. They’re as good as they ever were, anyhow – which is as good as anybody gets at rock and roll. The current Stones lineup is marginally changed from the original one. Co-founder Brian Jones died long ago, of course; guitarist Mick Taylor came and went (to be succeeded by Wood); and Bill Wyman, who’s pushing 70, finally hung up his bass.  In the course of doing “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” Saturday night, Jagger made a point of thumping his chest when he got to the line “Can’t you see this old boy’s getting lonely?”

           

Four or five serviceable tunes from the new album were mixed in Saturday night with what amounted to a medley of the old songs (a partial list: “Shattered,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Angie,” “Miss You,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Brown Sugar,” “19th Nervous Breakdown”) and homages to the likes of Ray Charles and Otis Redding.

           

Results of the physical: Keith looked and (on his two obligatory lead vocals) sounded haggard, and he moved like Vincent Price on reds – just as in 1965, 1975, 1978, 1994, and 1999; Charlie was white-haired, serene, and crisp; Mick’s dervish-like stage strut and sluttish posturing were on point; and Ronnie looked the right degree of Rushmorian. No reason why this act can’t go on forever.

After all, as the second of their two encores suggested, they still can’t get no (satisfaction).  Thank God. That means these old boys’ll keep trying.

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