I once asked guitarist Keith Richards why most Rolling Stones live records are such a drag, never as hot and vivid as the shows I've seen. Even the best of the lot, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, was punched up with overdubs. "You gotta be there," he said with that pirate's laugh. "When you know you're recording, you can always guarantee that the Stones will not deliver." This two-disc spawn from their 2002-03 tour breaks that jinx. You may not need this if you own last year's set of full-show DVDs, Four Flicks, but Live Licks is the Stones' first live album since Ya-Ya's to earn a spot next to my best soundboard and broadcast boots. One good reason: a bright, hard mix that nails the Stones' matured vigor onstage, even in the warhorses packed on Disc One.
Richards' droning Telecaster clang opens "Street Fighting Man" like swordplay, and Mick Jagger sings the chorus at the top of his range with astounding strength. Charlie Watts pushes the beat in "It's Only Rock n' Roll" with pinpoint impatience; Ron Wood's lap-steel screams turn up the barn-dance delirium in "Happy." Twelve more good reasons: the covers and rarely aired album tracks on Disc Two. "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" was a highlight of every fortieth-anniversary show I saw — Watts peppering Richards' tumbling riff with gunfire rimshots; Jagger blowing sharp, modal harp. And "Worried About You," a forgotten slice of R&B melodrama from Tattoo You, driven to tears here by Wood's chugging guitar and Jagger's heated falsetto vocal, proves that the Stones, under the lights and at this advanced date, can still improve on even their best studio work.