I can't think of a tour that's kicked off with such wonderful enthusiasm," raves guitarist Keith Richards, twenty shows into the Rolling Stones' A Bigger Bang tour. "It usually takes more time than this to hit it," he says during an off night in Philadelphia, "But we're flying. All of the planets are in alignment."
That doesn't mean the notes are always in the right place. During the October 10th show in Philadelphia, Richards hit the riff to "It's Only Rock and Roll" — as the rest of the band jumped into "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." "They're in different keys, too," he notes, laughing. "But somewhere in the first verse or two, it all segued into 'Satisfaction' — without falling apart.
"But we are not up there playing by rote," Richards insists. "Even at this late date, this is an adventure."
The tour — which ends in the U.S. in mid-March, then goes to Japan and Europe — is on course to eclipse the Stones' record-breaking $126.4 million ticket gross from their 2002-2003 trek. "By the time we finish [in the U.S.], we'll have done sixty shows, where we did forty-nine last time," says the tour's promoter Michael Cohl. "And we've done more stadiums this time. There were a couple of shows where we set out to do 40,000 and went to the wire: 39,900, 39,600. But in general, we're at one hundred percent."
"The thrill of starting the tour is done," Mick Jagger says. "So I'm messing with the set list every night, putting different numbers in." Among the songs the Stones have added since opening in Boston on August 21st: "Angie," the Otis Redding cover "Mr. Pitiful" and the Sticky Fingers ballad "Sway," which "Keith had never played before," Jagger says, "because I played guitar on the original. He had to learn it."
The Stones are also performing at least four songs a night from A Bigger Bang, including "Rough Justice," "Oh No, Not You Again," the dirty blues "Back of My Hand," Richards' showcase "Infamy" and "Rain Fall Down." While the album debuted at Number Three on the Nielsen SoundScan chart and has sold 277,039 copies to date, Jagger is more pleased by the audience response to the material — "They actually seem to be listening" — and Richards says the new songs "feel like old friends. When I play 'Rough Justice,' it's as if I'm playing something I've known all my life."
Jagger admits he "was tempted" to perform the controversial "Sweet Neo Con" at the October 3rd show in Washington, D.C.: "But we only rehearsed it a couple of times. I thought, 'Oh, God, not now.'" He did have some fun at the expense of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. "She's had a busy week," he told the D.C. crowd, "She looked high, she looked low . . . she looked in the mirror and said, 'Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest judge of all?'
"I'm not going to turn into Bono," Jagger says of his stage raps. "I stick to a few jokes, wind 'em up a bit if they've got a football team that's lost."
Cohl has not yet spoken to the band about the possibility of more U.S. shows next fall. "But I'm still getting calls from local promoters," he says, "who are going, 'I'm sorry I didn't come in earlier. Can I get a show? Are you coming back?'"
Richards probably would not object. "This is akin to heaven," he says of the tour. "Without the seventy-two virgins," he adds, cackling. "I couldn't handle it."
This story is from the November 3rd, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.