Liking the Rolling Stones is the same as liking the air.
It’s such an obvious, simple conceit to be a fan of this 50-year rock institution — one that has crafted some of the most memorable, influential and apocryphal songs and albums of this genre, while somehow surviving drug addiction, deaths and cultural changes — that pretending otherwise would be ridiculous.
Sometimes, however, it is important to be reminded of unparalleled excellence. On Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium, Mick Jagger, Keith “Keef” Richards, Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts and the rest of the Rolling Stones crew asserted, for the millionth time, just why they’ve been calling themselves the greatest band in rock ‘n’ roll all these years. For some two hours, this band of septuagenarians transformed a dull, vast, corporate setting into a vibrant, dynamic venue that somehow felt intimate and electric.
For a band with such an immense discography, the Rolling Stones will never be able to play a setlist that appeases everyone, but the group has an innate sense of knowing which one of their classics to play. They wasted no time on Sunday, starting their set off with 60s-era hits “Jumping Jack Flash,” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” somehow making those songs feel relevant and lively some five decades after their creation. The group also dipped into their classic 1972 double album, Exile on Main Street early on, playing the boozy “Tumbling Dice,” and the perennially underrated “Rocks Off” among their first batch of songs.
A staple of Rolling Stones live shows for years, the band then transitioned to a smaller stage setup, where they performed more stripped down, less bombastic tracks, such as “Sweet Virginia,” (another Exile classic), “Let it Bleed,” and “Sympathy for the Devil,” the latter sounding as sinister as ever. The small stage has always been the moment for Richards to shine, and on Sunday he swayed the crowd with memorable renditions of “You Got the Silver” and “Before They Make Me Run,” — two of his finest lead-vocal contributions to the band. “Before They Make Me Run” in particular showed the unlikely pathos of Richards’ trembling, plaintive voice — for someone who has often been a cliché of rock ‘n’ roll excess, the legendary guitarist still gives the impression that he’s a scrappy underdog, constantly looking for vindication.
While Richards had his moments, the night truly belonged to Jagger. Still lithe and limber, with his patented array of hip-swiveling and finger wagging moves intact, Jagger wowed the masses throughout the show, particularly on the longtime Stones’ live staple, “Midnight Rambler.” Like any good frontman, Jagger knew how to give the hometown some love, giving shoutouts to Buena Vista Café and Alcatraz while also endearingly praising some of Northern California’s lesser known locales like Modesto and Stockton.
The band capped off the night with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” because seriously, what else could they finish their set with. Of course it was predictable, but dazzling nonetheless.
Everyone has a Rolling Stones phase in their life. Mine came when I was 14 years old and entering high school. I was introduced to Hot Rocks, the peerless greatest hits album, which I subsequently listened to on repeat every day for a year. That introduced me to the Stones’ legendary discography — albums like Exile, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Some Girls. Inevitably, I found myself drawn drawn to less iconic bands, such as Pavement, Guided by Voices and Built to Spill, but I could always return to the Stones (unlike some of their 60s-era contemporaries.)
The Rolling Stones are a staple of life at this point, something as fundamental as food, water and shelter. People may trash these old geezers for cashing in on another massive tour, but those same detractors will miss these guys when they’re gone. It may sound obvious, but you need oxygen to survive, and dammit if the same can’t be said for the Stones.