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The Rolling Stones: Just Another Rock Band?

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The real limits of these performances, though, weren't technical but conceptual. Jagger can claim that the band does new material to avoid repeating itself, but that's a little silly considering that "Respectable," for instance, is just a rewrite of "Rocks Off," and that "When the Whip Comes Down" is only a reworked "Hand of Fate." What the program really did point up is how much the quality of the group's material has slipped: anyone who can listen to "Star Star," hardly the greatest Stones song, back to back with "Whip," which is near the top of the new crop, and not think the band has lost a great deal in the past five years just isn't paying attention.

Many of the selections from the past made little sense. Since "Happy" only works because it focuses our attention on Keith Richards as a symbol, why not do "Before They Make Me Run," which has a far more current application? And why dispense with the amusing medley of "If You Can't Rock Me" and "Get Off of My Cloud" and keep "Love in Vain," which hasn't had a proper solo since Mick Taylor quit?

Probably because Mick Jagger sings "Love in Vain" exceptionally well. This isn't the band's show, it's Jagger's, something that's made most clear by the six songs on which he plays guitar. And it gets worse when the Stones do a song as out of place as "Far Away Eyes." Almost anything from "Not Fade Away" to "Memory Motel" could take this space with better results, and almost anything would have been more in keeping with the band's tradition.

But there's danger of little more than lip service being paid to the attitudes and music that earned the Stones their reputation. Jagger wears blazers and golfing caps onstage these days, which is reminiscent of nothing so much as Bob Hope – or Jerry Lewis, in The Delicate Delinquent. This is a gesture to maturity, just as "Love in Vain" is a gesture to the blues. Everything here is a gesture, included for pose and posture, which is fine enough, if all that's at stake is entertainment.

It's easy to say that the Rolling Stones are still the greatest, or that they've become silly and dismissible. I wish one of these were true. But the fact is that Jagger is right when he says he's just another singer in another rock & roll band. There isn't anything here to make you dispute him.

And so I found myself moved only once during these two shows: after Keith Richards had been flailing away at the crashing chords of "Jumping Jack Flash," the Palladium show's final song, and was sagging from fatigue at its conclusion. Mick came up and hugged him. It occurred to me then that we might never see this man onstage again and that, however lackluster it all may be right now, that would be a very great loss. Boring and indulgent as the Stones have become, the fan inside me wants to know how they will cope with the Eighties. Without much hope, I wish them well.

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