It's been a hell of a year," Keith Richards told 60,000 fans on opening night of the latest leg of the Rolling Stones' A Bigger Bang tour. The September 20th show, at Gillette Stadium, in Foxboro, Massachusetts, was Richards' first U.S. performance since he suffered a serious head injury last spring. "It's great to see everyone — and now I really mean it," he said, before kicking into Let It Bleed's "You Got the Silver." The song, which the Stones rarely play live, was an appropriate choice: The Bigger Bang tour is on its way to becoming the highest-grossing concert tour of all time, with nearly 2 million tickets sold for a total of $256 million in revenue, according to the trade magazine Pollstar.
The band has played more than 100 shows in twenty countries so far since the tour kicked off in August 2005. "It seems to be an endless tour," Richards says a few days later. "Nobody can quite put a stop to it." The band has already set a record with last year's forty-three dates, pulling in $162 million. So this fall's tour — which consists mainly of stadium shows, plus a few arenas — could be considered a victory lap, extending to less-traveled parts of the States. "We're kind of looking at it like we're Lewis and Clark — we're playing the Wyomings and Montanas," says Richards, who is handling the autumn chill onstage by dressing in a gunslinger-style full-length overcoat. For the first half of the show in Foxboro, Richards seemed less energetic than usual, mostly sticking to the same spot on the stage, even as Mick Jagger displayed ageless athleticism, racing across its 200-foot length.
At age sixty-three, how docs Sir Mick do it? "It's discipline," says Jagger, "and keeping myself together, and training a bit before the tour, and a lot of really good luck." For his part, Richards says he's feeling fine after his injury. "The only thing I notice is that my appetite has improved — I don't know what that means. What I love about my body is that I never think about it, unless I sort of bust my head open," he says. "I feel no different onstage now than I did thirty years ago."
Despite the elaborate production in Foxboro, the Stones performed with improvisatory, occasionally messy insouciance, especially in newly added songs like "Paint It Black" and "Sweet Virginia." "We wouldn't play any different in a garage than we would in Giants Stadium," says Richards.
Richards fell from a tree in April while on vacation in Fiji, suffering a head injury that led to brain surgery. "Everyone imagines it was a fifty-foot-tall palm tree." he says, laughing. "It's embarassing, really: I was sitting on this gnarled shrub about six feet off the ground. I was wet — I'd been swimming. I hit the ground the wrong way, my head hit the trunk, and that was that." Richards approved the surgery without hesitation: "It had to be done. I couldn't believe it when I said it — 'You're going in, baby, now.' To me it was just a little stumble along the way — I healed up real quick. It's not the first brush with death I've had. I guess what I learned is, don't sit in trees anymore."
In between stadium and arena dates, the Bigger Bang tour will hit the 3,000-seat-capacity Beacon Theater in New York on October 29th and 31st. The band gave 1,000 tickets for the first show to Bill Clinton's charity foundation as part of the former president's sixtieth birthday celebration. The rest of the tickets will sell for extraordinarily low prices — fifty and thirty-five dollars. Martin Scorsese will film both shows for a movie that, according to Jagger, will be released in some theaters and on DVD next year.
Tickets are still available for most shows on the tour, which is scheduled to conclude November 22nd in Hawaii. Promoter Michael Cohl notes that ticket prices have been lowered on this leg (average prices are down ten to fifteen percent, though the best seats are $500) — and the band is offering student discounts as well. "There's a lot more young people coming than the past three or four tours," he says. A Bigger Bang may continue into 2007, though no dates are scheduled. "I don't want to spend the whole year doing shows," says Jagger, adding that he'd like to start writing new songs. "I've got children and they need looking after, and I need some peace and quiet."
Richards says he hopes to go back into the studio soon, adding that there "quite probably" could be a new Stones album next year. But Jagger sounds surprised when he's informed of Richards' plan. "He'll talk to me about that one day, maybe," he says.
This story is from the October 19th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.