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Rolling Stones, Madison Square Garden, NYC: If you can’t rock me somebody will January 16, 2003

Posted by Anton A in British music, Rolling Stones.
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Being a Stones fan these days is something like being a Deadhead, I think. You either feel that unique pulse and get caught up in it, or you don’t. And it’s no harm no foul either way, I’m not trying to win any converts here, I’m just contemplating last night’s show and marveling at the fact that I can spend $164 on a ticket and come away from the show feeling everything but “I’ve been had.”

Part of it has to do with the sheer resonance of the Stones in 2003. This is a band that’s always been playing somewhere in the background of my life for the last 40 years, since I was 15. No one else can evoke such a sense of temporal depth and touch on a span of memories on that scale. There was a particular poignance underlying last night’s show that came from what may be the sad demise of the Who following the death of John Entwistle last year; suddenly the Stones are the last ones standing from an age where, for a lot of us, it all began.

But that would all be simple nostalgia if the Stones couldn’t still take a stage and work their particular brand of rock & roll tension, and God bless ‘em, they still do it with a vengeance. They’re a unique collection of tones, with Jagger’s voice, Keith’s chordal sense and Charlie’s clean precision at the heart of that. They also inhabit the beat like no one else; with every song, they seem to stretch some kind of sonic rubber band and pull it to varying degrees of tautness until it either relaxes or snaps and slaps you in the face.

Jagger NEVER stops moving while the band is playing; even when he goes to the back of the stage for some swigs of Poland Spring during an extended instrumental, it’s always a strutwalk or a little dance to get there. Nor does he ever crack a smile, which makes him more enigmatic than ever. He works his ass off for 140 minutes, keeps the entire Garden on its feet every second he’s on stage, and you keep wondering what’s driving him.

Keith is all business when he’s playing, apart from the occasional quick grin at the other musicians, but at the end of every song he breaks out a huge shit-eatin grin & it’s so apparent that he just loves doing what he’s doing. When he walks back to the drum set in the middle of a song and stands facing Charlie, feeling the thump of the bass drum right in his chest, you always want to keep your ears focused on their interplay, some rhythmic magic always happens then. Several times Keith would hit a chord and just let it fade while the rest of the band cranked and you think Omigod, the drugs have finally taken their toll, he’s gone into a fugue and doesn’t have a clue as to what to do next. But it’s just his way of playing with the rhythm of the song, suddenly he’ll dive back into it, maybe on an unexpected eighth note in mid-bar, and that part of the song is suddenly refreshed and rejuvenated.

The Garden stage was clean and spare, like their music seems to have become on this tour; no ornate trappings, just the amps, instruments and mikes, a stepped platform at either side, and the usual catwalk across the floor to the small stage at the other end. In spite of the size of the entourage – 2 keyboardists, the inimitable Bobby Keys on sax, a full horn section for some songs, 2 backup singers – the sound was rarely messy or garbled; the arrangements seemed designed to give every voice space to shine through.

The arena went totally dark just after 9:00. Suddenly there was a lone spotlight on Keith, black leather jacket & jeans, turquoise & teal tunic under the jacket, whanging out the opening chords to Street Fighting Man. Then the lights came up, Jagger bounds out, open white shirt with a duck on back over black T-shirt with seagulls, and they were off.

Here’s your setlist:

Street Fighting Man, Start Me Up, If You Can’t Rock Me, Don’t Stop, Monkey Man, Angie, Let It Bleed, Live With Me, Midnight Rambler, Tumbling Dice, Slipping Away, Before They Make Me Run, Gimme Shelter, You Got Me Rocking, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Honkey Tonk Women, Satisfaction

parade to small stage

It’s Only Rock & Roll, When The Whip Comes Down, Brown Sugar

encores on main stage

Sympathy For The Devil, Jumping Jack Flash.

Highlights for me were that first 3-song blast, Let It Bleed, an intense Midnight Rambler, Keith’s pair of songs, You Got Me Rocking, Hear Me Knocking, It’s Only Rock & Roll, and Jumping Jack Flash. Left me well satisfied.

Ronnie Wood gets slagged a lot by some critics; on a few songs I can almost understand that. But I thought he did beautiful work on Start Me Up and Tumbling Dice and quite a few others. Darryl Jones, Chuck Leavell and of course Bobby Keys are exceptional musicians.

And I have to give a nod to Mick’s harmonica playing on Midnight Rambler and Can’t You Hear Me Knocking. Keith once said that Mick is at his very best when he’s wailing on the harp, that is “the purest Mick Jagger you’ll ever see.” Last night I was ready to buy that.

During Let It Bleed, a tall, slim, grey-haired black fellow in a brown suit and horn-rimmed glasses appeared on stage. He had a gold guitar and proceeded to lay down a series of nasty blues runs that seemed to come from that same crossroads where Robert Johnson paid for his licks. Keith spent most of the song in this man’s corner urging him on. My friend Mike immediately recognized him as Hubert Sumlin, longtime sideman for the legendary Howlin’ Wolf. For me that remains the abiding image from the night. And that’s why I’ll do all I can to catch the Stones next time around.