It's remarkable what more than ninety million dollars in ticket sales and the cheers of nearly two million fans can do for a band's confidence. Playing the last U.S. show of their Bridges to Babylon world tour Thursday night at the United Center in Chicago, the Rolling Stones were a looser, cooler, more playful and more adventurous group than when they launched the tour here seven months ago to the day.
Last September, with a horde of international press covering the tour's opening night and a chorus of doubters suggesting the fifty-something Stones were too old for such a venture, the band played not to lose, delivering a sturdy but slightly workmanlike performance. Thursday, with the band well road-tested and the tour assured a place in the concert success history books (in 1997, the band sold more than 1.5 million tickets and grossed more than $89 million, according to Pollstar), the Stones were a nearly unstoppable rhythmic juggernaut.
No longer relying on bells and whistles for support, the Stones abandoned the elaborate stage they used for their outdoor arena shows, with its towering gilded female figures, huge inflatable dolls, massive video screen and sprawling runways. Instead, the group performed for more than two hours on a spare stage flanked by two video monitors, and they let the music sell the show.
Although they opened with a salvo of fleet, grinding rockers -- "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," "Let's Spend the Night Together" and the new "Flip the Switch," -- the band's fourth song, "Gimme Shelter," set the tone for the performance. Keith Richards' echo-laden guitar arpeggios and Charlie Watts' behind-the-beat drumming drew out the songs' haunting opening, while Chuck Leavell sprinkled in dreamy keyboard runs. With Mick Jagger singing in punchy phrases and backing vocalist Lisa Fisher cooing like a siren as she draped a red cape around herself, the song changed from a conflagration to a reverie, a meditation on destruction and deliverance.
The Stones worked variations on this style time and again, substituting laid-back grooves and passionate instrumentation for driving rock force. Watts slyly shuffled even as Darryl Jones, asserting himself as a full-fledged force in the group rather than Bill Wyman's passive replacement, prodded songs' momentum with his surging bass lines.
That approach occasionally made for sluggish moments, particularly a dragged-out version of "Miss You" that found Jagger licking the staggeringly sexy Fisher's shoes while Richards, Ron Wood and back-up singer Bernard Fowler literally flopped down on the stage. More often, though, the relaxed tempos let the Stones stretch out and delve into the material, breathing new life into obligatory crowd-pleasers. Richards and Wood filled "Tumbling Dice" and "Honky Tonk Women" with all manner of junkyard guitar riffs, and Jagger sang with the insolence of old, particularly on "Sympathy for the Devil."
The band's reckless abandon enhanced their new songs as well, which were more plentiful than on the Stones' classic-rock opening night playlist. If Jagger's melodramatic delivery during "Out of Control" suggested an epileptic seizure, his swampy harp playing heated the songs' closing jam to a raging boil, and during "Saint of Me," Woods' pretty slide guitar leads and Richards' raunchy chords played off each other like sweet and sour sauce. "Thief in the Night" provided the evening's most sensual music, as Richards' ragged croon floated over Watts' rustling, swinging backbeat, supported by lush backing vocals and a dreamy horn section.
If this tender-hearted moment pointed the way for the band to age gracefully over the next twenty years, "Jumpin' Jack Flash," with Richards pulling rending, roaring notes from his guitar, and "Brown Sugar," with Jagger hopping on one foot as he sang, showed the Stones still can rock with massive force anytime they want.
In keeping with the evening's stripped-down, mid-tempo emphasis, though, the band saved their rawest music for the small second stage located on the far side of the main floor, where they ran through tough-as-nails renditions of Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie," Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You," and Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." Richards and Wood tore the songs apart as Watts hammered away and Jagger, arms reaching for the crowd, feet apart, rocking side to side, sang at his most cocksure. For a few moments, the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band was Chicago's best blues band, as the Stones brought their tour, and their music, full circle.
The band will head north of the border to play Toronto on Sunday, then kick off their European tour in Berlin on May 22.