I had the good luck to see the Rolling Stones show at the Fabulous Forum, with 18,000 people ushered by high-school football players in orange rayon togas. The arena was swirling: strings of blinking, multicolored lights were hung all over. It looked like Shanghai. The audience flickered with reflected light and colors. A gauze curtain, lit in purple, hung over a stage with star-shaped points upright like closed flower petals.
With the first notes of "Honky Tonk Women," the petals lowered and we saw Mick Jagger hanging on the forward tip of the star. He was instantly dancing and was constantly moving from then on, whether he was singing or not. He is a nearly perfect showman. It was impossible to take your eyes off of him. That is presence.
At the end of the first song I was wiped out. You could detect the Stones working with each other onstage — glances, moves, kicks, cues — realizing they were into one of their hottest sets, determined to keep it going. At the end of each number I was screaming at the person in the next seat: "We're seeing the best show of the tour!"
Within the wall of lights glowed a bank of amplifiers like a campfire around which shadows were whipping out "Tumbling Dice," "It's Only Rock 'n Roll" or "Rip This Joint" in a classic rock formation of three guitarists, a singer, a piano with drums in back, hitting a deep-down groove, the rock & roll beat. This could be 1966, Mick Jagger twirling his sports coat as if he might throw it, teasing and exciting the crowd.
There are no two ways about it in rock & roll — either you is or you ain't. They still is. They will probably never not be.
Then the show slowed for a few songs: "Wild Horses" — Mick and Keith soloing together, bathed in red lights; "Fingerprint File" — Mick offering a petite ballet, curling up to sleep at its conclusion, this time swathed in blue; and "Angie" — wherein Keith's guitar weeps with the improvisations.
Mick Jagger is the Queen of the Hop. He is also absolutely controlled and calculating — as in the nightly dousing, with buckets of water, of himself and the audience. It is a gesture designed to self-deprecate and thus endear the audience to a showman of the highest, rarest order.
Yet it is Keith Richard who clinches the performance. He is proof that older age — whether of performer or audience — has nothing to do with it. All it really means is more experience and greater strength. Jagger runs the performance — always watching from the corners of his eyes, coaxing, building and leading — but it is Keith's guitar that is the key to the Stones sound. The band's deepest strength is the rhythm section and Keith runs it; in fact, everyone onstage, except Mick — up to seven men — is the rhythm section. (A nod of the hat to dour-faced Ian Stewart, the piano player without publicity, a true master of funk and the nasty rock & roll.)
Keith is the musical heart of the band. Without him, there would be nothing. It is the power of his guitar and his beat that, on this tour, make a horn section usually unnecessary. It's a guitarists' band; the percussion suits it better than a full-time brass section.
On the opening in L.A. they were disappointing; I thought brass would have made the difference — and it might have — particularly for my friends back East who saw the Madison Square Garden shows or other middling performances. How disappointing to find that the greatest are often merely great.
But interesting things happened on Friday night in L.A. They did a three hour show — a long one by anyone's standards. Billy Preston was an ideal second act coming from within the group, picking up the audience with hard-porn R&B licks and tricks, almost making you forget the Stones. So toward the end of Preston's second and final number, Jagger re-emerged onstage (from which he had subtly retired when Preston began), dancing wildly around the rim of the stage, entirely circling it, playing to the whole audience. Then he circled Billy Preston and engaged him in 16 bars of a disco bump and overtly intimate grind.
As if that didn't bring the show reeling back to Mick, suddenly he was on a trapeze, like Peter Pan, flying over the first 50 rows and back to the stage. Preston was superb but Jagger took no chances. It was his show, and the trapeze was followed by "Brown Sugar," and the Stones were back on top, rocking like mad. They were in a groove and their show got better every minute. You could watch them realize this onstage: Everything was working.
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