The Rolling Stones’ Licks tour.
LIVE: The Rolling Stones
October 16, 2002
Air Canada Centre
The first time I ever encountered The Rolling Stones was at the home of one of my father’s biker drinking buddies. As a curious 10 year old, I’d rifle through the biker’s records, judging them almost solely on the look of the album covers. It’s when I got to The Stones’ Goat’s Head Soup that my impression of the band was forever calcified.
Musically, the album’s best moment is the melancholy ballad “Angie,” but what really struck me was the pull-out poster sleeve of actual goat’s head soup. I stared at that photo for a long time. It was kinda gross, but also compelling, dangerous and very, very evil. It was also the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
As I continued to learn more about The Stones and music in general, their mystique continued to grow. Maggie Trudeau. Heroin busts. Sympathy For The Devil. Brian Jones. Hell’s Angels. Altamont. Exile On Main Street. It all swirled together to create a vision of one of the most vital and nasty rock ‘n’ roll bands in history.
But that is history and this is 2002. Some 40 years after their inception, The Rolling Stones are a different band. The danger is now clouded in a thick fog of nostalgia and that rambling, rollicking rock band has morphed into an efficient, effective touring machine, a cash-hoovering monster trading in on waves of feel-good familiarity.
And therein lies the dilemma. I knew going into the Stones show at the Air Canada Centre that this wasn’t going to be the barroom romance of Love You Live or the vital near-punk of Got Live If You Want It. But I was certainly hoping for more than a slap-dash of the hits, count the money and prep-the-next-set-of-suckers run-through.
Things got off to a dubious start. With the exception of what appeared to be every aging stripper in the G.T.A., the crowd was well-heeled, well-lubricated, well-greyed and well-girthed. More disturbing, however, was Keith Richard’s dramatic tumble across the stage to kick-off set opener “Street Fighting Man.”
Watching any near senior citizen take a tumble is unsettling, but seeing Keith Richards do so to start a show is even worse. Still, considering the audience shared what was likely a knowing sympathy, there was little in the way of gawking, audible gasping or otherwise.
As the band went into “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll” Richards still seemed off his game, which only served to reinforce how valuable Ron Wood is. As the Richards jester routine began to right itself, Woods held down the fort going into song three, “If You Can’t Rock Me.” Sublimely cool, through the course of the evening Wood’s solos and slidework would polish and refine Richards’ antics and Mick Jagger’s posturing.
The pairing of “Don’t Stop” and “Rocks Off” would introduce the multimedia portion of the show, with the first of many lip/tongue montages displayed on a huge screen backdrop. That was followed by a lurid short film featuring young, nubile and sexually ambiguous model types getting drunk and feeling each other up. Up until this point everything was rather perfunctory and a not just a little bit embarrassing.
Then came “Love In Vain.” Slow and dirty, this song was a breakthrough. Where up until then The Stones were aging hit-peddlers, here they were world-wizened blues-rock masters. “Let It Bleed” and “Monkey Man” continued to fuel this resurgence. By this point Jagger was in full frontman mode, strutting and cocky.
Richards came to life as well, playing particularly vibrantly on “Monkey Man.” The plodding audience clapalong in “Gimme Shelter” and Jagger’s fumbling faux sex-up with backup singer Lisa Fischer brought things back down again, but this wasn’t the lowlight of the evening. That was reserved for the Richards-sung double-shot of “Thru And Thru” and “Happy,” followed by “Start Me Up” and “Honky Tonk Woman.”
The fault with the Richards songs is obvious and my distaste for “Start Me Up” is a strictly a personal idiosyncrasy. But “Honky Tonk Woman” was a whole different set of weird. The band were incidental to what could be described as Stones anime porn flashing on the big screens, where a topless Betty Page-type lewdly rode a pierced tongue. That may pass for dangerous in the ‘burbs, but it was more just embarrassing.
Still, in what was slowly developing as the theme for the evening, a moment of bad was framed by a moment of sublime. In this case “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Once again returning to their roadhouse roots, this song, faithfully rendered and stretched out with Jagger harmonica and Wood guitar solos, recaptured the vitality that represents the best attributes of the Stones.
“Satisfaction” was a crowd-pleaser, but the true highlights came when the Stones shifted operations to an “intimate” stage set up in the middle of the floor. Packed together and shorn of the high walls and barricades that quash intimacy, the band tore into “Mannish Boy,” “Neighbours” and a singalong “Brown Sugar.” This was clearly the Stones at their most fiery. Charismatic, swaggering and mere inches from their audience, the band ended their regular set in dramatic fashion.
By the time band returned to the main stage for the encores of “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” many of the evening’s earlier transgressions had been forgotten. Having taken it all in, I realized you can’t go back. Heck, I wasn’t even there in the first place — I was still a baby when many of the Stones most dangerous moments actually took place. But for a few minutes I was transported back to some bygone era. There I was in a dingy, smokey club, strange goats head and tongue images were all around. Brian Jones was there, too. “The Last Time” and “Bitch” were also miraculously playing at the same time. In this haze I got to witness Mick, Keith and the boys at their most rocking and most world-beating.
And because of that I can understand everyone who woo’d to “Brown Sugar” and sung their hearts out to “Satisfaction.” And, frankly, that’s enough.
This review was originally published October 17, 2002 via Chart Communications.