Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels Tour Stutters, Then Rolls

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

Rolling Stones Mick Jagger Steel Wheels
Rob Verhorst/Redferns
Mick Jagger performs on stage at the Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on August 31st, 1989.
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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.

And then there were the hits. "Ruby Tuesday," one of Jagger's less convincing moments in concert, and a soaring, gorgeously lyrical "You Can't Always Get What You Want" both inspired stadium-wide sing-alongs. An improvisatory falsetto burst from Jagger while he vamped with the two female background singers ignited "Miss You," and Charlie Watts propelled "Paint It Black" with relentlessly churning rhythms. "Honky Tonk Women" — during which two enormous blowup dolls of bar floozies provided the show's hokiest, most distracting element — and "Tumbling Dice" both were delivered with a raucous, appealing looseness.

As usual, the Stones saved the best for last. Jagger emerged at the top of the scaffolding, shrouded in smoke, as the Stones tore into the percussive introduction to "Sympathy for the Devil." Lit from behind and standing more than a hundred feet above the stage, Jagger cast a dark shadow across the entire stadium, providing a gripping visual corollary to the song's exploration of how evil infects the world. Once back on the stage, Jagger danced into a Bacchic frenzy, and Richards unleashed a mean, winding, angular lead that constituted his strongest playing of the night.

In what seemed to be an edgy reference to the Stones' tragic 1969 show at Altamont Speedway, in California, at which a young black man was killed, a taut, sinewy version of "Gimme Shelter" — on which background singer Lisa Fischer turned in a torrid duet with Jagger — followed "Sympathy for the Devil." After that, the mood lightened as the band leaned into "It's Only Rock'n Roll" while on the video screens appeared footage of the pantheon of rock greats, including Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix and, in a funny aside, the young Rolling Stones.

Richards then lit the fuse on the opening chords of "Brown Sugar," during which Jagger climbed down into the photographers' pit and slapped fives with ecstatic fans and Bobby Keys blew his patented sax solo. As soon as "Brown Sugar" wrapped, Jagger, who seemed to be adrenaline incarnate at this point, said, "Okay, here we go," and Richards launched the band into "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Jagger spiced up "Satisfaction," the last song of the set proper, with a host of R&B flourishes, largely borrowed from Otis Redding's cover of the song. A one-song encore — a fierce, no-frills reading of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" — ended the show.

The concluding segment of the show — running from "Sympathy for the Devil" to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" — was particularly notable because it did not pitch into accelerated, deafening chaos, as Stones shows sometimes have done in the past. For the most part, the Stones worked closely from the recorded arrangements of the songs and recognized that a touch of restraint would only heighten the impact of their fervor. The result was a hard-hitting close that capped, but never overwhelmed, all that had preceded it. Then, after the Stones and their fellow musicians took their bows and left the stage, a fireworks display lit the sky as "Toreador Song," from Bizet's Carmen, played over the sound system.

From Philadelphia — where Richards' former girlfriend Anita Pallenberg made a stylish appearance at the second night's show — it was on to Toronto for two dates. In 1977, Mick Jagger and Ron Wood's high jinks with Margaret Trudeau, then the wife of Pierre Trudeau, who was the Canadian prime minister at the time, and Keith Richards' arrest for heroin possession electrified Toronto and made headlines around the world.

This time the Stones lay relatively low, though Jagger slyly alluded to the previous decade's scandal when he quipped onstage the first night, "I was a little bit worried when I saw Mrs. Mulroney [the wife of Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney] backstage, but everything's cool." Meanwhile, Toronto Star columnist Rita Zekas reported that a woman who identified herself as Margaret Trudeau drove up to the El Mocambo club, the scene of the Stones' 1977 revels, and left in a huff when told that the Stones were not on the premises.

In Toronto — where the Stones have added two more shows, on December 3rd and 4th (they've also added two Detroit shows on December 9th and 10th) — Jagger turned up at a party at the Squeeze Club, tossed by one of the club's owners, Marcus O'Hara, the brother of comic actress Catherine O'Hara. Producer Lorne Michaels, who is filming a documentary of the Stones' tour, and singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O'Hara — another O'Hara sibling — also were on hand. Dan Aykroyd and his wife, Donna Dixon, who attended both Stones shows at the 60,000-seat Exhibition Stadium, had dropped by the Squeeze Club the previous night, along with Richards and Watts. A few days later, on the night before the September 6th show at the 62,000-seat Three Rivers Stadium, in Pittsburgh, Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall slipped out to a movie theater in Squirrel Hill, a suburb of the city, to catch sex, lies, and videotape.

As for the Stones' own impressions of the tour, Richards could not be happier with how the shows have been proceeding. "They're going well, man, so far," he said, before going onstage at Alpine Valley, in East Troy, Wisconsin, on September 11th. "We're keeping our fingers crossed, and I'll hit the wood here, but, yeah, they're getting better every day. The band's really winding up now." Given the success of the tour and the initial response to Steel Wheels, Richards said, "this has been a dream year for the Stones as a band."

And according to Richards, the dream year might extend into 1990 — and take the Stones around the world — even though the last date currently announced for the Steel Wheels tour is December 14th in Montreal. "There's this inevitable thing when you wind something like this up — you've got the whole organization ready to go — it's kind of dumb not to take it into next year and see where you can get in around the rest of the world," Richards said. "The whispers are getting audible now. That's really all I can say about it right now, but it looks like the boys are going to continue for a bit."

Even with the prospect of a world tour in the offing, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Stones' early shows is the degree to which — despite the money and the spectacle, the commerciality and the media assault — they are still playing like a band. The core of the group — Richards, Wood, Wyman and Watts — are as gritty and rhythmically raw as ever, and Jagger is the very definition of a frontman. More than a quarter of a century down the line, the Stones are not anachronisms. They are still able, at will, to tap the unruly, anarchic essence of what their music has always been about.

The greatest rock & roll band in the world? Even the Rolling Stones themselves are sheepish about making that claim at this point. But with the power they're displaying this soon on the tour, you won't get me to say they're not.

Additional reporting by Mitch Potter and Karen Morrison, in Toronto, and John Young, in Pittsburgh.

This is a story from the October 19, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 563: October 19, 1989
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