In obvious high spirits, the Rolling Stones launched their worldwide Licks Tour with a raucous display of rock & roll firepower. They were loose, tough and full of swagger. “Now I'm a man/Way past twenty-one/You better believe me, baby/We could have lots of fun,” moaned Mick Jagger during Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” and the band more than made good on its promise.
Everything about this show — from the stark staging to the far-ranging song selection — emphasized the Stones as a veteran working band. Though they made fine use of three background singers and a four-piece horn section, they played much of the two-hour, twenty-two-song set as a streamlined six-man combo: Jagger, guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood, drummer Charlie Watts, bassist Darryl Jones and keyboardist Chuck Leavell. From “Street Fighting Man,” the torrid opening number, to the freight-train rush of the encore, “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” they bit and tore at their songs as if desperate to strip them of their classic status.
Not that they confined themselves to the hits. “We're gonna have a good bash at this one,” Jagger announced before the Stones lit into “Can't You Hear Me Knocking,” which they had played live only once before, and other relative obscurities — “Loving Cup,” “If You Can't Rock Me,” “Stray Cat Blues,” “Neighbors” — also found their way into the set. The band even worked in an uproarious cover of the O'Jays' “Love Train” and debuted one new song, “Don't Stop,” which will be included on their forthcoming best-of collection, Forty Licks.
Throughout the night, Richards' and Wood's guitars fired sparks as they alternately clashed against each other and tangled up together, until one or the other player wrenched himself free to unleash a solo. Watts, as always, was a study in deft restraint, and Jones' thunderous bass balanced the high-end din of the guitars. Jagger sang with force and, fully a part of the band, reached for maracas, a guitar or a harmonica when he wasn't dancing.
In short, this was a band that, after four decades, still refused to simply go through the motions. Having defined so many of our notions about what live rock & roll is supposed to be, the Stones are now performing exactly as they should: as if they had both nothing, and everything, to prove.
This is a story from the October 3, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone.