Solo first, bridge later!" Mick Jagger yells, turning to the rest of the Rolling Stones as they come to a messy halt behind him. Jagger, guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood, and drummer Charlie Watts are rehearsing for their 2005-06 world tour – dubbed A Bigger Bang, after their outstanding new album – in the gym of the Greenwood College School in Toronto. They are grappling with a song they have not played live since 1982, "Hang Fire," from the album Tattoo You. Unable to agree on which parts go where, the Stones collide in the middle of it on the first pass.
It's a split-second crash. Watts hits a hard, fast roll on his snare, and the entire cast – including bassist Darryl Jones, keyboard player Chuck Leavell and background singers Bernard Fowler, Lisa Fischer and Blondie Chaplin – jumps back into the song at full speed.
But the crossroads of energy is at the foot of the drum riser. As the Stones charge through the last choruses of "Hang Fire," Jagger sings facing Watts, shimmying in place as the drummer swings with perfect, racing tension. Richards and Wood also pull in tight, almost toe-to-toe as they riff and solo like dueling swordsmen. This is the spot where lightning strikes again and again: tonight in the surging finale of "Let It Bleed" and the slow boil of "Some Girls," and every night, no matter how big the stage. The Rolling Stones are the biggest rock & roll band in the world, an unstoppable institution still setting tour-gross records in stadiums and arenas after forty-three years. But Jagger, 62, Richards, 61, Watts, 64, and Wood, 58, spend a good part of every performance in that airtight formation, making their best music in close quarters.
That is why A Bigger Bang, the Stones' first studio album in eight years, is their finest since Tattoo You. Jagger and Richards wrote and refined many of the songs literally side by side, and the Stones recorded all of them with no special guests and no excess garnish, from the carnal romps "Rough Justice" and "Oh No, Not You Again" to the dirty, crawling blues "Back of My Hand" and the political brickbat "Sweet Neo Con," the last two featuring the bare-bones trio of Jagger, Richards and Watts. Things could have turned out a lot differently. In June 2004, just as Jagger and Richards began working on new material, Watts was diagnosed with throat cancer. But the operation was successful. After six weeks of chemotherapy, the drummer received a clean bill of health and was soon back at his kit, proving again that for the Stones, mortality is not an issue. It's an irritant.
"There is a certain feeling on this one, an excitement," Richards says, with his crusty swashbuckler's laugh, of the album before rehearsal one night. "There were no huge obstacles to overcome, like, 'What about that tuba part?' These songs lend themselves to live work. They are beautifully ready to play, and everybody's ready to play them."
By the time the Stones sit down for these four interviews – two weeks into rehearsals, in their respective dressing rooms (except for Watts, who prefers the quiet comfort of his hotel suite) – they have run through much of the new album, including "Back of My Hand," Richards' smoky vocal feature "Infamy," and the R&B ballads "Streets of Love" and "This Place Is Empty." In fact, there are nearly 100 different titles, written in colored marker on the large whiteboards on the gym walls, listing the songs the band practices each night. There are vintage surprises ("The Last Time," "It's All Over Now," "Little T&A"); the expected hits ("Tumbling Dice," "It's Only Rock and Roll"); even a pair of Ray Charles tributes, "Lonely Avenue" and "(Night Time Is) the Right Time."
"A lot of these things we do very occasionally," Jagger says. "We try them in different ways. In the end, I'm trying to collect a group of eighty tunes for the whole year." He laughs. "That way, I can say, 'We rehearsed those in Toronto. C'mon, let's have another go at this.'"
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