With all the outlaw command of a loaded Saturday night special, Keith Richards took the stage November 29 at the Beacon Theatre, in New York City, pulled the trigger on the opening chords of “Take It So Hard” and fired ninety minutes of definitive, essential rock & roll.
By the time he reached New York, the fourth city on the tour, Richards had whipped his band, the X-Pensive Winos, into a fearsome unit of rhythm killers. The core group – guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Charley Drayton, keyboardist Ivan Neville and drummer Steve Jordan – was augmented by saxophonist Bobby Keys, an erstwhile Rolling Stones sideman, and singer Sarah Dash, formerly of LaBelle. Spontaneous and loose, but never out of control, the band ripped open the eleven songs on Richards’s solo album, Talk Is Cheap, expanding the grooves into charged, grinding jams and swinging with irresistible abandon.
Looking quite the vampiric aristocrat in a black jacket and white tuxedo shirt, Richards was an entirely compelling presence onstage. Smoking continually – an ashtray conveniently attached to his mike stand – he cheerfully stalked the stage, stirring the band to more intense heat, kicking his legs to emphasize a beat or flailing his arms while crunching chords.
Richards’s voice was a ravaged, wartorn croak – the upper register that lit up songs like “Happy” or “Before They Make Me Run” is completely lost, a memory. But that hardly mattered, and no conventional singer would have fit the music quite so aptly – Richards’s singing is appealing because it is as raw and natural as his playing.
At this point, not even Richards takes his vocal chores – or melody of any sort – seriously. Rhythm, groove and feel are his sole interests; lyrics are little more than catch phrases – verbal riffs and fills. If an off beat caught Richards’s attention while he was singing, he’d drop into a crouch or swing away from the microphone, losing the lyric line but giving himself over to the visceral pleasure of the instant. By implication, his audience was meant to do the same.
Along with performing all the tunes from Talk Is Cheap, Richards displayed wit and flair in his borrowings from the Rolling Stones song book. Reaching back to the band’s earliest days, he hauled out “I Wanna Be Your Man,” the song John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote for the Stones in 1963. “That’s one for John,” he said, after the song crashed to a close.
The first song of the encore was “Connection” – a jaunty, little-known rocker from 1967’s Between the Buttons – which alluded both to Richards’s history of drug problems and his alienation from the man who sang the song the first time around (“I just can’t make no connection/All I want to do/Is to get back to you”). Richards also turned in a gritty, sticky version of “Too Rude,” the reggae tune the Stones covered on Dirty Work, and exuberant renditions of “Little T & A,” “Before They Make Me Run” and “Happy.”
Arguably, the evening’s pinnacle came when Sarah Dash – her rich, resonant voice providing sweet honey in contrast to Richards’s vinegar – led the band through a churchy reading of “Time Is on My Side.” Dash’s soul-stirring performance served as a fitting tribute to Irma Thomas, the R&B singer whose version of the song the Stones covered in 1964.
In their explosive power, street-gang camaraderie and raucous grace, the X-Pensive Winos repeatedly called to mind the Rolling Stones, leaving little doubt about who constituted the backbone of what was once called the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World. Mick is put on notice: Keith’s got live – and then some – if you want it.
This story is from the January 12th, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.