Deep into the Rolling Stones' first American concert in six years, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on December 8th, Mick Jagger paused for a few words about his band's 50 years in business. "People keep asking us, 'Why do you keep doing this?'" the singer remarked with that slight touch of annoyance I've always heard whenever I have to ask him if this tour, this show, is the last time. "You're the reason we keep doing this," Jagger told the crowd, which responded with roaring delight. "Thank you very much," he added quickly.
It was a startling moment of plain-spoken appreciation, from the least sentimental of rock stars. There was no irony in Jagger's voice, aside from a short chuckle at the end, as if he didn't want to seem too sincere. Then the Stones jumped into "Brown Sugar," a good choice as Jagger might have blown the moment if he'd waited a little longer to get grateful, before the last song of the set: "Sympathy for the Devil."
Back in '72
The third date in the Stones' London-Brooklyn-Newark anniversary run was notable for what it lacked: original bassist Bill Wyman and early-Seventies guitarist Mick Taylor. The former members did not repeat their cameos from the recent London concerts. And the scale of the production was, by the standards of the last few Stones mega-tours, striking in its restraint: A modest line of amps; rear-screen video, mostly of the Stones at work; the tongue-and-lips logo blown up into a huge metal proscenium and long half-circle ramp into the crowd. Jagger used that often enough. Guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood also took a couple of strolls out there. But they spent most of the night hanging out in front of drummer Charlie Watts, throwing laughs and smiles back and forth over the cymbals as if they were all still in the practice room.
The supporting cast was slimmer, with fewer brass (saxmen Bobby Keys and Tim Reis) and extra vocalists (veterans Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer). The Stones played their opening sequence – "Get Off of My Cloud," "I Wanna Be Your Man," "The Last Time" and "Paint It Black" – with just bassist Daryl Jones and keyboard player Chuck Leavell, pushing that mid-Sixties streak through the rattling-essentials drive of the Stones’ Seventies tours. The extra space in the mix heightened the cutting whine of Wood’s bottleneck-guitar solo in "I Wanna Be Your Man" (echoing the late Brian Jones’ feature on the record) and the hectoring impatience in Jagger's vocal. When the band got to "Paint It Black," there was also plenty of room for the song’s real highlight: the hard boom of Watts' tom-devil drumming.
Less Spectacle, More Barroom
One intended highlight – the return of singer Mary J. Blige, who played the Merry Clayton-vocal role in "Gimme Shelter" on November 25th in London – fell short. She was more convincing in her few mid-range moments – lustier, less theatrical – than when she went for the high notes, toe to toe, with Jagger. Guitarist Gary Clark Jr. was the greater surprise. He may have less marquee value than Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, who did the blues-segment honors in London. But in the Don Nix stomp "Goin' Down," Clark played his terse, biting breaks with the right balance of deference and challenge, showing his stuff with poise while forcing Wood and Richards to tighten their game. On the video screen, Wood could be seen with his face in a serious look of "Woah!" before stepping out to fire his own busy flash. Richards followed with a confidence expressed in far fewer notes, like he was swiping a knife blade through the air.
At times, the show seemed like a public rehearsal – less spectacle, more barroom, with some confusion over what went where in the set list. "It's blues time!" Jagger yelled before "Goin' Down," then turned to the rest of the band. "It's not? You're sure?" But he was right. "It's blues time!" Jagger shouted again, introducing Clark. Two songs later, Jagger announced what he thought was next – "One More Shot," from the new hits collection, GRRR! – and got corrected. The band swung into "Miss You" instead.
The kinks will surely be ironed out by next Saturday's pay-per-view broadcast from Newark. But the relative modesty and humanizing marks of this performance were arguably more fitting for a golden-anniversary gig: emphasizing the roots and bones, primal moxy and enduring empathy that got the Stones this far. "Wild Horses" was the night's only ballad. It was a reminder, though, of the Stones' often forgotten specialty: wounded resolve, especially in the roughneck grace of Wood and Richards’ plaintive guitar exchanges. They sounded like two guys drowning their sorrows in a pool of country treble.
The low bells-and-whistles quotient underscored another notable thing about the Stones' improbable birthday: At 50 years "and counting" (as the promo goes), they still don't need a lot – guests, pyro, etc. – to get to the best in what they do. Mick Taylor, by all accounts, supercharged "Midnight Rambler" when he played it with the band in London. But the Stones had the menace and dynamics – Jagger's harp fire, the A-bomb accents in the slow-motion break – covered in Brooklyn, in full, without him. And Richards' solo in "Sympathy for the Devil" remains a series of basic, strafing notes – barely-melodic coughs that counter, with perfect concision, the voodoo turmoil below.
The lesson in this: The Stones are not a half-century old. They are constant, running on a strange determination of never-say-quit resolve, antic spirit, feigned diffidence and a lot more discipline than they like to let on. Note the way Watts, rock’s most impeccably swinging drummer, ends every song with a mock-sloppy flurry of snare bangs and tom shots.
At the start of the evening, a voice came over the PA with a simple request: "New York, will you please welcome the Rolling Stones?" There was no mention of "the world's greatest rock & roll band." There was no need. There is still no one else.
"Get Off of My Cloud"
"I Wanna Be Your Man"
"The Last Time"
"Paint It Black"
"Gimme Shelter" (with Mary J. Blige)
"Going Down" (with Gary Clark Jr.)
"All Down the Line"
"One More Shot"
"Doom and Gloom"
"It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll"
"Honky Tonk Women"
"Before They Make Me Run"
"Start Me Up"
"Sympathy for the Devil"
"You Can't Always Get What You Want"
"Jumping Jack Flash"
"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"