Town and Country
December 17th, 1992
On the eve of his forty-ninth birthday, the eternally delinquent Keith Richards was back in his hometown, at an 1800-capacity club, doing what he loves most. Striding onstage punctually at 9:00 p.m., carrying a battered blond Telecaster and a hefty burden of legend on his skinny shoulders, he kicked straight into the chiming intro of "Take It So Hard," a classic concoction of open-tuned suspended sevenths sawing across a drumbeat hard enough to fell a tree.
When Mick Jagger made his first solo album, in 1985, Richards was initially reluctant to follow suit and step outside the Stones. But as he remarked after the release of his own solo debut, Talk Is Cheap, in October 1988, "If you let me out of the cage, you'll have a job getting me back in." Four years down the road and this show was more than enough to disabuse anyone of the idea that Richards is merely dabbling in a solo career as a way of marking time between assignments with the Stones.
Having hung together since that first album, the nucleus of the X-Pensive Winos – drummer-bassist Steve Jordan, bassist-drummer Charley Drayton, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and keyboardist-guitarist Ivan Neville – has evolved into a killer of a band with a punchy character all its own, and while Richards may look and speak as if the fuse protecting his central nervous system has been tripped once too often, his playing has rarely been sharper.
Focused, energized and committed, the band cranked up the pace with "999," Richards turning over one of his most thuggish riffs for inspection by the muscular Jordan-Drayton rhythm section. As with many of the songs, the outro was extended into a ferocious workout, which, despite a sloppy sound mix that suffered from a muddy bottom end, pretty well blew the jammed-solid crowd away.
There was a smattering of Stones songs including "Before They Make Me Run," "Connection" and "Time Is on My Side," the latter sung with mighty gusto by backup vocalist Sarah Dash. But it was the early inclusion of "Gimme Shelter" that caused the biggest stir. Richards took the song at about three quarters of its original pace, welding his delicate arpeggios to Wachtel's more strident lead-guitar style in a way that was reminiscent of the old interplay with ex-Stones guitarist Mick Taylor. Joined by sax player Bobby Keys – an old Stones acolyte now looking more than ever like Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Richards put the number through the grinder in heroic style.
It was, however, one of the several songs that highlighted the small matter of Richards's unorthodox vocal technique. His approximate pitching and rattled croak of a voice are not to everyone's taste, and it would be difficult to defend his merits as a singer on a technical basis (though no harder than justifying in purely technical terms the singing of Tom Waits or Joe Strummer or Bob Dylan). But Richards demonstrated guile in his deployment of the X-Pensive Winos, all of whom are capable backing singers, especially on the reggae-dub arrangement of "Too Rude," which featured bursts of layered a cappella harmonies. And he sang with a gritty but nonchalant charm on softer numbers like "Yap Yap" and the Memphis-Motown pastiche "Hate It When You Leave," which also featured an extended ad-lib sequence from backing vocalist Babi Floyd.
Although he has lived a life of fearful excess, Richards has emerged as a supremely centered individual, and it seems no accident that his keynote song, with which this show ended, should be called "Happy." The loving way he caressed his guitar, occasionally snapping both hands away as if the instrument were simply too hot to touch, and his relaxed demeanor onstage left an overriding impression of a man taking immense satisfaction in plying his craft to the very best of his abilities. Never indulgent but always a pleasure.
This story is from the February 4th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.