In ‘American Psycho,’ Bret Easton Ellis’s vicious jab at yuppie degeneracy, Patrick Bateman, the novel’s antihero, loathes live music. A Wall Street power-monger and a serial killer, Bateman is jazzed by only the sickest thrills – hacking up women and homeless men, accumulating megabuck consumer goods and high-fashion duds to lay a glossy surface over his emotionally dead soul. It’s fitting, then, that the zestiest of arts – musicians sharing vital heat onstage – repulses him. He’d hate this album.
Ferociously live, Flashpoint thunders against the cynical Zeitgeist of which Ellis’s monster is but the darkest example. Now, with concerts packaged as lip-syncing stunts and MTV pantomimes, it’s startling to hear rock & roll so craftily passionate – and from players whose ages hover near fifty and who come trailing chains of history, myth and cash.
Chronicling the Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle World Tour – one of the most lucrative tours in rock history – the Stones‘ fifth live set finds them both faithful and fresh. From the house-quake riffs of “Start Me Up” to a joyous “Brown Sugar,” the record is a textbook of rock & roll guitar. Relentlessly symbiotic, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood trade blues, R&B and Chuck Berry motifs with ageless conviction; not only is the solo work deft (slashing on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” dangerous on “Miss You”), but Richards’s mastery of end-the-verse filigrees and fretboard commentary matches the soaring brio of any great bluesman. Even guest ace Eric Clapton, on “Little Red Rooster,” rouses himself from his usual tastefulness to blast the fierce pyrotechnics of old.
As for the vocals, Mick Jagger astonishingly plays it straighter than he has in years. A hint of trademark campiness colors a lovely “Ruby Tuesday,” but mainly he’s singing like he means it. Alternating the suave huskiness of a jaded dandy with gleeful monkey-man yelps on “Miss You,” he brandishes the wit that has made him one of rock’s ablest and most dramatic performers; on Flashpoint’s nicest surprise, a tough take on “Factory Girl,” the working-class valentine from Beggars Banquet, he musters true affection for the song’s hard-bitten heroine.
While the numbers from Steel Wheels gain power in concert (particularly “Sad Sad Sad”), Flashpoint’s triumph is the cluster of classics that ends the record. Propelled by the galloping drums of Charlie Watts, “Paint It Black” leads into a “Sympathy for the Devil” whose mix of Bo Diddley beat and elegant keyboards (courtesy of Chuck Leavell and Matt Clifford) nails the poetic menace of Jagger’s sharpest lyrics. “Brown Sugar” simply rocks, and “Jumping Jack Flash” remains Jagger’s signature raveup. With horns pumping, “Satisfaction” not only works the Stones hardest but recalls Otis Redding’s funked-up version as well.
Two new studio songs, “Highwire,” an editorial on the gulf war, and “Sex Drive,” an Ohio Players-ish slice of funk, round out the record. They’re competent songs but a bit distracting when compared with the live material.
Finally, Flashpoint underscores a truth: The Rolling Stones are hardly an oldies act, not one more dinosaur pack led out to stadiums to graze. Instead, they’ve become what they’ve always aspired to be – rockers with the staying power of roots musicians, veterans who continue to practice their art with skill and verve and undiminished soul.