Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels Tour Stutters, Then Rolls

Start me up: Rolling Stones kick off American tour in Philadelphia

Mick Jagger performs on stage at the Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on August 31st, 1989.
Rob Verhorst/Redferns
October 19, 1989

The Rolling Stones' 'Steel Wheels' tour got off to a somewhat shaky start on August 31st in Philadelphia when, during "Shattered," the third song of the evening, the entire sound system at Veterans Stadium went dead. Given all the hoopla that had preceded the tour's kickoff, it was an oddly disconcerting moment.

The Stones and their support musicians milled around confusedly for a time and then left the stage while the crowd — 54,500 strong — which had been whipped up to a froth by the double-barreled shot of "Start Me Up" and "Bitch" that opened the show, remained good-natured, if a tad mystified, by suddenly being left quietly unentertained in the dark. For about five minutes the huge, industrial gray, black and orange stage set — a hulking structure that, in its assemblage of steam pipes, nets, catwalks, stairways and scaffolding, resembled a refinery — loomed forlorn and empty.

Finally, the problem — apparently a blown generator — was resolved. A visibly displeased Jagger offered a terse apology, and the band lit into "Sad Sad Sad," from Steel Wheels. From that point on, the Stones were in complete control, demonstrating a command of rock essentials that made it clear that this tour, far from being merely a nostalgia-fest or a money grab, would stand proudly on its own contemporary terms. In a move that seemed almost superstitious, however, the Stones dropped "Shattered" from the set the following night in Philadelphia and from subsequent shows in Toronto and Pittsburgh.

That deletion was the only musical change in a set that, through the tour's first five dates, ranged with idiosyncratic ease through just about every phase of the Stones' twenty-six-year career. On opening night, following an explosive and well-received fifty-minute set by Living Colour, the Stones took the stage as the sound system blasted out the whirling Moroccan strains of "Continental Drift," from Steel Wheels, which features the Master Musicians of Joujouka. Fireworks exploded, turrets on the massive stage set shot out flames, an intent Keith Richards cranked out the opening chords to "Start Me Up," and for the first time in eight years, the Rolling Stones were on the road again.

It was clear very early on that Mick Jagger was prepared, even determined, to carry the weight of the Stones' stage show — and to give the lie to the perception that as a live performer, he had sunk irretrievably into self-parody. Decked out in a white shirt, green tails and skintight black pants, Jagger was in superb voice and danced with grace and a flawless sense of the right move for the moment. His arsenal of steps and gestures seemed to be as much derived from ballet, mime and the clubs as from the repertoire that he himself has created as one of the most incendiary showmen in the history of rock. And apart from the half dozen songs on which he played guitar and the time he spent offstage as Richards led the band through "Before They Make Me Run" and "Happy," the forty-six-year-old Jagger was continually in motion.

Although there seemed to be remarkably little interaction between the two men, Richards seemed to feel that he had Jagger right where he wanted him — that is, fronting the Rolling Stones and doing it with zeal. Consequently, Richards himself was content during the Philadelphia shows to anchor the band, crouching down low and locking in a solid groove with drummer Charlie Watts, sauntering over to bond with his buddy Ron Wood and lending encouragement to this tour's three auxiliary Stones: saxophonist Bobby Keys and keyboardist Chuck Leavell — both veterans of past Stones tours — and additional keyboardist Matt Clifford.

As usual, Bill Wyman, who is a stately fifty-two, stood stock-still and let his bass generate a fire down below. Three background singers — Lisa Fischer, Bernard Fowler and Cindy Mizelle — are also on board for the Steel Wheels extravaganza. The four-piece Uptown Horns, who played with the band in Philadelphia, will join the party on other selected dates.

The show, which consisted of twenty-eight songs (twenty-seven, of course, on the second night, when "Shattered" was omitted) and ran over two and a half hours, was not short of surprises. A fervent "Undercover of the Night," with Jagger howling the choruses, a savage "One Hit (to the Body)" and a wonderfully sinuous "Harlem Shuffle" seemed designed to claim credibility for Undercover and Dirty Work, two largely discredited Stones albums of the Eighties. "Sad Sad Sad," "Mixed Emotions" and "Rock and a Hard Place," which was accompanied by a rather aimless video, were the only tunes from Steel Wheels that the Stones played, though more songs from the record may be added as the tour continues.

The band dusted off and streamlined "Midnight Rambler," the long set piece from Let It Bleed, and rocked it out with surprising conviction. Happily, Jagger refrained from removing his thick leather belt and whipping the stage with it a staple of Stones shows for too many years — during the song's ominous midsection.

The evening's least predictable inclusion — "2,000 Light Years From Home," a psychedelic souvenir from the Stones' 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request — hit home with unsettling contemporary force. Jagger's dramatic rendering of the song's themes of alienation and loneliness seemed to have more to do with modern-day urban living than with the song's dated lost-in-space scenario.

A brooding version of "Play With Fire," a ballad from the 1965 album Out of Our Heads, featured evocative folk-style guitar playing by Richards. The eerie barnyard blues of Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster" seemed strangely out of place in a 1989 stadium show, but the lazy slur of Jagger's vocal, Leavell's apt, soulful piano and Wood's screaming slide guitar made for a riveting performance.

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