Any new Rolling Stones tour is met with the requisite commentary regarding the band member's collective ages, the record-breaking ticket prices, the three generations of fans attending the shows and what kind of new stage effects are in place to top the previous spectacle. It's safe to say that the boys haven't gotten any younger, the tickets aren't any cheaper and their fans span five-plus decades. As for stage effects, well, for Sunday night's opening of the Stones 2005-06 world tour at Boston's Fenway Park, a giant inflatable and some lascivious tongue animation made appearances, not to mention a gondola-like small stage that seemingly sailed atop the crowd. But as the band raged into perennial stadium opener "Start Me Up" with enviable vigor, the other constant elements of a Stones' tour were also present: a band that commands a stage better than any other, and which plays nearly two-and-a-half hours from a rock & roll canon no one else can touch.
Few, if any, of the fans in attendance appeared to remember, or care, how much their tickets cost by the end of the twenty-two-song, hits-heavy set, having witnessed the Stones' ascension to the status of "champions," according to vocalist Mick Jagger's prediction while he paid homage to Boston's recent Super Bowl and World Series titles -- also claiming those victories as the reason the band chose to open its second straight world tour in the city.
While the Stones' stadium shows focus on safe ground in terms of song selection, the band challenged itself by introducing four tracks from its new album, A Bigger Bang (due September 6th). The familiar comfort of "Shattered" and "Tumbling Dice" couched the premieres of the raunchy rocker "Rough Justice" and the droning Muddy Waters-esque "Back of My Hand," with the ever-reliable Charlie Watts and bassist Darryl Jones laying down a sparse beat underneath a three-guitar riff-off, including dueling slide work from Ronnie Wood and Jagger himself. Later, on the floating stage, the new "Oh No, Not You Again" slid in between "Miss You" and "Satisfaction." Keith Richards provided the final debut during his two-song interlude, offering a meandering "Infamy" alongside "The Worst" from 1994's Voodoo Lounge.
The band chose not to perform the controversial "Sweet Neo Con," with lyrics apparently critical of George Bush. However, Jagger did reference another political figure -- the "Governor of California" -- being in attendance. "Apparently he's been fundraising outside, selling bootleg T-shirts and scalping tickets," Jagger said. Richards later added, "Hey Arnold, don't forget our cut on the T-shirts."
Midway through the set, Jagger introduced a number by "someone who's music we used to cover when we were just starting out" and then launched into Ray Charles' "Night Time Is the Right Time." The Stones, with support from assembled support players on keyboards, horns and backing vocals, captured the spirit of Charles' signature blend of jazz, R&B, and gospel styles -- including Jagger's standout vocal duet with Lisa Fischer, whose bluesy wailings spurred the crowd to its largest reaction of the evening.
Along the way the Stones peppered in solid performances of "Beast of Burden," "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)" and "You Got Me Rockin'," a second-tier single -- again from 1994 -- that has grown into a reliable crowd-pleaser replete with standout solos from both Wood and Richards. The same can be said for the warmed-over Motown of "Out of Control" (from 1997's Bridges to Babylon), which explodes like a modern "Midnight Rambler" with its harmonica and guitar solos grinding through the last half of the song. Both were delivered with an energy and tightness that encompassed the entire show, along with a sound mix that cleared most of the muddiness of past tours and focused on the sharp guitar interplay of Keith Richards' clawed twanging and Ron Wood's lead and slide jabs.
Jagger commanded the walkways and catwalks in his typically successful attempt to create "stadium intimacy." However, per the pre-tour promotional campaign, the several hundred fans seated "on stage" -- or, rather, above the stage in what amounted to balconies built into the set -- received only a quick walk-by and a few waves throughout the night. The silver stage set was a more scaled-down concept from tours past and functioned well at framing the band and providing the necessary space-filling visual elements (including one centered video screen) while not challenging the focus on the performance.
Jagger tried to make light of the band's nerves in an early comment from the stage, but no opening night is without its glitches. "Infamy"'s straying was joined by an abrupt ending to a rejuvenated take on the nearly forgotten "She's So Cold" (though not quite as forgotten as when Jagger claimed it as a "song we've never really done before," apparently overlooking the entire 1981-82 world tour, where it appeared every night). Neither, however, distracted heavily from the well-played and well-paced set that clearly topped their less-than-flawless 2002 Licks Tour opener in the then-titled Fleet Center.
The Stones closed with the usual barrage of mega-hits -- "Sympathy for the Devil," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Brown Sugar" -- plus a double encore of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "Its Only Rock 'n Roll." All were played sharply, and most were reigned in to tighter arrangements than in the past where sing-alongs and crowd amping frequently took over the performance.
Familiar territory? Sure. But, even at their advanced age and ticket price, the Stones did what professional teams have been doing in Boston stadiums lately -- they delivered.
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