The Rolling Stones made it back to Maryland during the long Fourth of July holiday, following the postponement of their Memorial Day weekend concert due to Mick Jagger’s heart-valve surgery. Any doubt that the Stones can still play, that Jagger can still command the stage and prance about in full-throated theatrical vigor, was obliterated on a steamy night that would drain men half his age and that of his partners comprising—yes, indeed—the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band ever.
Take that, Beatles fans. More on that later.
A confession in AARP terms: Historical perspective informs my opinion that the Stones are now performing better than ever. Which is saying a ton. In my estimated 27 times of seeing and hearing them live, which may account for my partial hearing loss, I’ve never known the Stones to mail it in, to go through the motions, though at times in the ’70s, when Keith Richards chased his heroin hangover with Jack Daniels, the band occasionally lost focus. Even then, their ragged play reflected a spontaneous and one-of-a-kind genius.
But on this Fourth of July eve, the Stones were as deliberate in their seemingly raucous mayhem as I’ve ever experienced. From the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” opener to the “Satisfaction” finale, the band—even with several new contributors to their supporting cast and sharply limited rehearsals constricted by Jagger’s recovery—never missed a beat. We can thank Charlie Watts for that. The band’s senior—an original Stone along with Jagger and Richards who turn 76 this year—has anchored their controlled chaos for 57 years, coming in at the last instant with the percussive heartbeat they all lean on, if only by vibration when they can’t hear it onstage.
I first heard the Stones in 1964, as I recall, on WCAO-AM, the top 40 station in Baltimore, when an overnight DJ wandered off the playlist to spin a 45 flipside that had Jagger moaning in bluesy-beggar mode “I need you, baby, Mona.” (“Without your love I’d surely die.”) Perhaps this captured the love-life anguish of a dateless 16-year-old. Whatever. The Stones’ Brit/blues fortified me against near-universal peer pressure to tilt my allegiance toward The Beatles. Six years later, when the Fab Four were no more, I taunted their fans by calling The Beatles “the world’s most overrated band.” It was tongue-in-cheek, sort of. They were undeniably great, but also hyped beyond measure. My measure was how well a band balanced studio albums and original songs with live performance. The Beatles never mastered the latter. They surrendered to screaming girls who drowned them out. The Stones, instead, virtually invented the modern rock concert by installing their own sound, and later video equipment plus beyond-Broadway stage sets. Meanwhile, The Beatles and other touring bands at the time relied on sound systems available to them at, for instance, Shea Stadium in New York, or the Civic Center in Baltimore.
The Stones’ mastery of this vital piece of their legacy is so evident as to be taken for granted. Most in attendance at FedEx Stadium, Hyattsville home of the Redskins, expect such aural and visual enhancement at any big-venue event. But geezers like me remember when bands sounded like what you might hear on a P.A. system at a bus or train terminal. Squawk! Squawk!
My first Stones concert was 1965 in Baltimore and the second that same night (or maybe it was vice versa) at the even-then decrepit Washington Coliseum. I discovered by way of Bill Wyman’s coffee-table scrapbook, which he autographed early this millennium, that I paid $7.50 for each concert. A few years ago, at what I expected would be my final Stones attendance, ticket prices moved two decimals to the right. That I could procure nosebleed tix for $99 this time around persuaded me to see them again, I presume, once more, for the last time. I’ve been fooled before, but given Jagger’s surgery and the Stones’ four-to-five-year gap between tours, that makes most of them 80-plus next time around.
Wyman, now 83, may be responsible for the Stones’ astute attention to sound equipment. Senior to other band members, he was hired, in part, because he had his own speakers, better than any the others could afford.
Back to “No Filter,” the Stones’ current tour: Every Stones epoch is represented on their playlist, including a brief instrumental interlude of “2120 Michigan Avenue” and a cover of “Mercy Mercy,” both preceding the 1965 blockbuster “Satisfaction,” ranked rock’s No. 2 all-time by Rolling Stone. The Stones played it like it was first time, virginal (or at least horny). Sometimes rock stars and others in stadium venues turn the microphone toward the audience to fill in the blanks, such as “I can’t get no” or “You can’t always get what you want,” and the gesture falls flat. Not here. The stadium reverberated with live feedback. The same on the disco-ish “Miss You”: “Too too too too, too-de doo. Too too-TOO too!” Even the apocalyptic “Gimme Shelter,” with now climate-change overtones, evoked a mournful wave of “ooooh ooooh woooh.”
On any and all of these numbers it’s impossible to miss the “rookie” among Stones regulars. In 1975, Ronnie Wood succeeded Mick Taylor, who replaced drug-addled Brian Jones before he was fired, then died face-up in a swimming pool in 1969. Wood is a “Picasso on guitar,” as Jagger described him. Next to the frontman, he’s the Stones live-concert centerpiece, displaying his electric and acoustic string athleticism, balanced by Richards’ inventive and high-caliber showmanship. Regrettably, Keith is a lesser figure in that the Stones are not producing new songs. It once bothered me that fans sat on their hands when the Stones played new material on their tours in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. It doesn’t matter anymore. There’s a treasure of songs left off the current 20-song setlist. I didn’t hear my personal favorite, “Dead Flowers,” or the one I personally identify with as a Dutchman’s Lane farmboy—I retired to Easton Club East, next door to the former dairy farm I grew up on—“Sweet Virginia” (“got to scrape the [excrement] right off your shoo-ooze”). But there were songs from every period, sung with no punches pulled, including “Start Me Up,” which was played at our first-dance wedding reception, best known for the lyric “you make a grown man cry,” ending with the woman in question’s desirability to a dead man.
The Stones are profane and poetic. R-rated Bob Dylan, if you will. Who can argue with their philosophy: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time you just might find you get what you need?”
If you’ve never seen the Stones, this could actually be your last chance. They’re playing July 23 in Philly, barely a two-hour drive from Easton (less from Chestertown) since the Middletown bypass opened. Failing that, there are two shows Aug. 1 and 5 up the Jersey turnpike at MetLife Stadium. If you care about rock ’n’ roll at all, you must see these masters of the art.
I have no regrets now, having seen them, I suspect for the last time. But what of my post-Stones life? These guys are not too old to play. But I may be too old to see them. Getting to FedEx was way more hassle than I’d bother for a Redskins game or anyone else besides the Stones. But if they never tour again, what am I left with in terms of guilty pleasures? I don’t smoke and gave up recreational drugs way back in the last millennium. I don’t drink to excess and have been faithful in decades of marriage. The Stones are my last surviving vice. Guess I’ll have to take up gambling.
Steve Parks, retired journalist and arts writer/editor, is a recovering Stones addict now living in Easton.