The Rolling Stones
Sunday, May 5, 2013
Oracle Arena, Oakland
Better than: Bands that don't bother building an aura in the first place.
The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band is fallible.
In theory, the Rolling Stones may be perfect. But onstage in Oakland last night, they were not. On the second stop of their 50 and Counting Tour, the Stones played 23 songs, most them hits, like "Gimme Shelter" and "Brown Sugar." They brought out Tom Waits to duet on an old Willie Dixon tune with Mick Jagger, and let former member Mick Taylor show off his superior guitar skills on "Midnight Rambler."
In many ways it was excellent. The Stones supplied another night of reliable classics, Jagger moved like Jagger, and the crowd got a couple of semi-surprises. But the show also made it clear that the Rolling Stones' most valuable product right now is the idea of the Rolling Stones -- and that's what fans paid stratospheric sums to consume last night. The idea of the Stones is certainly more important and special than the band members' actual performances, which were loose bordering on sloppy, sometimes irretrievable, and often swamped over by Oracle's boomy acoustics.
The band's music was never allowed to stand on its own, simply as songs. If it was, the charade of charging such insane sums (awful upper-level seats starting at $170, lower-level seats at around $650 including fees) would be far too obvious. Even great songs played live once are plainly not worth $28 each, and a concert of them is not worth $4.50 a minute (the cost of last night's show as calculated from our comped press seat in Oracle's roughly $650-per-ticket tier).
Aura, however, might be worth that much. So before the band came on, video screens buttered us up with a short film of famous people (Iggy Pop, Pete Townshend, Martin Scorcese) and non-famous people testifying to the powers of the Stones: Hearing the band for the first time, their first Stones concert, which member they'd have sex with, the band's singular place in music and history. Throughout the show, video footage on the LCD screens showed past concerts, many of them far larger than last night's. Attendees hadn't just bought tickets to one night -- they'd bought into a legacy.
Framed by these constant reminders of the band's long history -- and the rumor that this might be its last tour -- every song arrived as if in the past tense. Each was a return to some period decades ago, a pretense to nostalgia for many, or, for others, a history lesson. The concert as souvenir: Here's one more piece of evidence for the idea of the Rolling Stones as the World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band, one more memory-artifact/cellphone video you can take with you to brag about later. Hope you got your money's worth!
The setlist did supply plenty of opportunities for future boasting. Sadly, Oracle's din-producing cement swallowed "Get Off My Cloud" and much of "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)." The saddest casualty was the first half of "Gimme Shelter," with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts lost and confused-sounding in the reverberant soup. But backup singer Lisa Fischer saved it, trading off vocals with Jagger at the front of the stage and making the performance somewhat resemble the desperate blare we all know as "Gimme Shelter."
Then things started to get good. Jagger announced a slow blues song, and suddenly there onstage was Tom Waits in sport jacket and fedora, with his battered croak busting through verses of Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster." In contrast to Waits, Jagger sounded slick and tame. Waits also proved to be a spirited showman, engaging in a weird bow-walk and raising his arm high in the air as he sang.
After a better-sounding "Dead Flowers," the Stones played an old song they debuted on the live stage only two nights earlier: "Emotional Rescue," a post-disco hit that went over much better in person than it does on recordings. A fantastic take on "All Down the Line" brought things back to the blues before a pair of new songs ("Doom and Gloom" and "One More Shot") left us looking at our watch. "Honky Tonk Women" had Jagger out near the crowd on the so-called tongue stage, conjuring background vocals from a willing audience. Then it was Keith Richards' turn to sing on "Before They Make Me Run" and "Happy." Richards, who often wore the zonked-out expression of a zoo gorilla on barbituates, finally grinned for his turn at the mic -- but he also forgot to sing into it quite often.
Mick Taylor showed up for "Midnight Rambler," and the guitarist got plenty of time to show, in lyrical, dextrous licks, why Richards never liked him. It began the best run of the night. But even "Tumbling Dice" and "Brown Sugar" threatened to fall apart at times, and often lacked the sinewy adhesion that makes them work. The Stones are not known for being ultraprecise musicians, and some looseness would have been fine. But Richards and Watts often seemed not to know where they were in any given song, with Watts letting the rhythm stutter or cave-in, and Richards forgetting to supply a needed chord or guitar lick.
Things didn't get perfect until "Sympathy for the Devil" -- the final song of the main set -- where Richards' Les Paul cut through the mix like a flaming pitchfork. Jagger shuffled out cloaked in some sort of feather cape and shuddered alone at the front of the stage, with every light around him tinted an eerie red. It was the night's sharpest reminder that, once upon a time, the Stones were a dangerous rock band, upsetting to mothers, governments, and well-meaning, respectable people. Nowadays, those are the only kinds of people who can afford to go to Stones concerts. Nowadays, all that once made the Stones dangerous -- loud guitars, open drug use, unhinged libido -- just seems like plain ol' conspicuous consumption. Even their sense of rebellion is dated.
But that's the thing about the Stones: You do not seek the present at one of their concerts. You romanticize the past and prepare for the inevitable future in which these rock elders no longer exist. You consume the idea of the Rolling Stones, more than the music itself. To watch them costs a fuckload of money, and offers no small amount of joy, along with a little frustration. In the end, what you've really paid for is the chance to engrave your tiny name on the giant tongue-shaped time capsule of their career -- to say forever of the World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band: I saw it, I was part of it, I was there. Maybe it doesn't matter if the performance wasn't perfect.
Not many: Early on in the set, Jagger sarcastically asked the crowd, "How many people are actually from Oakland?"
Most valuable 'Stone: Would obviously be Mick Jagger, who glided, skipped, hopped, slid, and even ran -- but never walked -- all around the stage. But the second MVS award would go to lead guitarist Ron Wood, who sounded tight and solid pretty much all night, even when his bandmates didn't.
Celebrity sighting: It's always fun to see who comes to big shows like this, and while last night's crowd couldn't match the star-studded L.A. audience (Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson, etc.), we did spot Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett sitting right next to the tongue stage.
Get Off My Cloud
It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)
Live With Me
Paint It, Black
Little Red Rooster
All Down the Line
Doom and Gloom
One More Shot
Honky Tonk Women
Before They Make Me Run
Start Me Up
Sympathy For the Devil
You Can't Always Get What You Want
Jumpin' Jack Flash
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction