Rolling Stones Tour Kickoff Review: First Show Without Charlie Watts - Rolling Stone
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Rolling Stones Honor Charlie Watts, Power Through Their Hits at 2021 Tour Kickoff

“We all miss Charlie so much, on the stage and off the stage,” Mick Jagger told the crowd, “and we’d love to dedicate this tour to Charlie”

Ronnie Wood, from left, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Steve Jordan of the Rolling Stones perform during the "No Filter" tour at The Dome at America's Center, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in St. Louis. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

The Rolling Stones played their first official show without Charlie Watts on Sunday in St. Louis.

Amy Harris/Invision/AP

Two songs into the launch of the Rolling Stones’ No Filter Tour 2021 at the Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis on Sunday, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards stepped to the front of the stage, clutched their hands together, and addressed the intense sorrow hanging over the event. “I just want to say that it’s quite emotional seeing those images of Charlie up on the screen,” Jagger said, referencing a video montage of the late drummer that had kicked off the evening. “This is our first tour that we’ve ever done without him.

“The reaction from you guys, everything you’ve said and we’ve heard from you, has been really touching,” he continued. “And I want to thank you very much for all your appreciation. We all miss Charlie so much, on the stage and off the stage, and we’d love to dedicate this tour to Charlie. Here’s to you, Charlie!”

Discounting a private warmup gig the Stones played for Robert Kraft and his guests six days earlier in Massachusetts, this was the first concert they’ve done without Watts since he joined the band in January 1963. At that time, John F. Kennedy was president, the Beatles were just beginning to make a name for themselves outside of Liverpool, and Lawrence of Arabia was in movie theaters.

In other words, this was an absurdly long time ago. And to some fans, the Stones launching a tour just a month after Watts’ death felt a little callous. But the band played London’s Hyde Park just two days after founding guitarist Brian Jones died in 1969, and they soldiered on past the defection of Mick Taylor in 1974, the death of Ian Stewart in 1985, and the resignation of Bill Wyman in 1993. This latest blow is particularly devastating, but Watts approved of their decision to tour with replacement drummer Steve Jordan before he bowed out of the run due to illness, and he’d be the first one to say that the band should carry on now.

The show opened with an explosive rendition of “Street Fighting Man.” It was a momentous moment for Jordan, who has been in the band’s orbit since the Eighties, and toured and recorded with Richards in his side project the X-Pensive Winos. With his sunglasses and gold chains, Jordan has a lot more flash and charisma than the notoriously stoic and expressionless Watts, but he’s a student of Watts’ drumming and played his parts with precision, power, and respect.

Thanks to the pandemic, the band hadn’t played a proper show in two years, but as they powered through “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (but I Like It),” “Tumbling Dice,” and “Under My Thumb,” it was clear that they hadn’t picked up any rust during the downtime. Jagger was in particularly fine form, singing and gliding across the enormous stage like it was 1975. It’s almost impossible to believe he’s 78 when you watch him in action. Richards let his hair grow gray during the forced hiatus and Ron Wood successfully fought cancer for the second time, but their guitar interplay remained as sharp as ever.

It’s tough to stray too far from familiar hits when you’re playing a place as large as the 50,000-seat Dome, but the Stones did debut their 2020 single “Living in a Ghost Town,” and broke out their 1966 classic “19th Nervous Breakdown” for the first time in 16 years. It crackled with life and had the whole stadium singing along. For most bands, a song that beloved would be a staple at every concert. For the Stones, it’s just another tune in their ridiculously vast catalog.

The highlight of the night may have been “Midnight Rambler,” which lasted for an incredible 12 minutes and gave Jordan the best opportunity to show off his chops. The song grows in scope on every single tour, but it’s never sounded this devious and menacing. It also went through more distinct sections than an early-Seventies Yes song. Amazingly, the crowd held on through the entire ride and never seemed bored.

The acoustic B-stage set that’s been a feature of the show for several years was cut, and the band skipped “Brown Sugar” for the first time in ages, but Richards played his standard two-song set after the band introductions. He opted for “Happy” and the Steel Wheels ballad “Slipping Away.” “It’s been a while,” he told the crowd. “Thank you all for coming. It’s been a bit of a ride to get here, but we can all make this happen.”

(It should be noted that the venue didn’t require a vaccine card or negative Covid test for entry. Fans were asked to stay masked when not eating or drinking, but only around 15 percent of them, at best, complied. To the Stones’ credit, they did offer free vaccines at the show and they’ll continue to do that at every stop of the tour.)

The main set ended in familiar fashion with “Paint It Black,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” The encore of “Gimme Shelter” gave backup singer Sasha Allen to chance to show off her pipes, replicating Merry Clayton’s bridge to chilling effect. The show ended with an inevitable “Satisfaction” and some indoor fireworks.

Charlie’s absence was felt through the entire set, and it was hard not to get a little misty-eyed when just three men as opposed to four stepped up at the end of the night to take a special bow. As they walked off, a photo of the latter-day Watts, dressed impeccably as always, filled the screens to thunderous applause.

This tour will keep the Stones on the road through November 20th, and there are already rumors of a 60th-anniversary run in Europe next year. In an ideal world, they would have reached that landmark year with Watts behind the drum kit. But they’d been working on a new album for several years when he died, so his final recordings will hopefully be heard at some point in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, this is the start of yet another new chapter for the Stones. Let’s hope it’s another long one.

Rolling Stones Set List

1. Street Fighting Man
2. It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (but I Like It)
3. Tumbling Dice
4. Under My Thumb
5. 19th Nervous Breakdown
6. Wild Horses
7. You Can’t Always Get What You Want
8. Living in a Ghost Town
9. Start Me Up
10. Honky Tonk Women
11. Happy
12. Slipping Away
13. Miss You
14. Midnight Rambler
15. Paint It Black
16. Sympathy for the Devil
17. Jumpin’ Jack Flash
18. Gimme Shelter
19.  Satisfaction

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