2 Hours/23 Songs/50 Years -- Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ron Fuggedabout Age and Rock Brooklyn for the First Time
"It's great to be here in Brooklyn, in this great new arena," Mick Jagger said early in the Rolling Stones' first-ever show in the borough Saturday night. "We rode the subway here, I sat next to a guy named Jay Zed," he said, playing tourist by using the British pronunciation of the letter. "I mean -- Jay-Z."
When even Mick Jagger shows some Brooklyn pride, it's hard not to get into the spirit of things. And the Stones were nothing if not spirited on the first of four New York-area performances this month (in addition to two shows at the Prudential Center in Newark next week, they were just added to the "12-12-12" Hurricane Sandy benefit at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday). But most importantly, even with the four principals ranging in age from 65 to 71, they're a powerful, primal, world-class rock band who are still masters of many disciplines they wrote the book on -- particularly performing in large venues, pleasing a crowd, and just plain rocking.
While crowdmembers ranged in age from upper-single-digits to the bandmembers' generation, the median age was probably somewhere around 45 -- and people were in varying stages of acting it. We saw one more-than-slightly inebriated, provocatively dressed 40-something woman wipe out hard while leaving a ladies' room, erupting into giggles as she splayed on the floor (and this was before the show started); several graying or balding people lit up joints when the lights went down. On the other hand, two friends we saw were accompanied by their dads, and we sat next to a very nice family -- dad plus three teens -- all wearing matching Stones T-shirts, like a living advertisement for the timelessness and multi-generationality of the band's hits.
And make no mistake, even though the set included the two new songs featured on GRRR! -- the latest in a seemingly endless line of greatest-hits albums -- this was a hits show. After a self-tribute video featuring Iggy Pop, Martin Scorsese, Elton John, Pete Townshend Johnny Depp, Perry Farrell, Nick Cave, Cate Blanchett (huh?) and others testifying about the Stones' legendary-ness, the band took the stage and charged straight into "Get Off of My Cloud," Mick clad in tight black pants and a sparkly black jacket, guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood chugging out the riff side by side. The group then eased into a short showcase of '60s highlights, leading with their second single and first British hit, the Lennon/McCartney-penned "I Wanna Be Your Man" (you know a band's got confidence in its catalog when the second song in the set is a Beatles cover); following with their first American hit, "The Last Time" (Keith messed up the song's signature riff no less than four times -- dude, you wrote it); then going darker with "Paint It Black," following a groove slower and more laid-back than the familiar version.
The crowd erupted at the opening chords of "Gimme Shelter," but the band willingly let special guest Mary J. Blige steal the song - her soaring high notes were one of the night's many goosebump moments. The evening's other special guest, rising star Gary Clark Jr., joined the band for "Going Down" not long after, and they willingly ceded the spotlight to showcase his formidable blues playing, although Wood and Richards took solos on the song as well. (Let's just take a moment to recognize just what a mark of respect it is for a guitarist to perform onstage with the Rolling Stones: that's Clapton/Beck territory, Gary.)
The best Stones shows have an edge, an element of unpredictability about them, and tonight's edge came in part from some comic uncertainty about the setlist: Jagger introduced the new single "One More Shot" (people began heading for the bathrooms) but the band went into "Miss You" instead (those same people made a mad rush back to their seats); before "Going Down" he said "It's blues time! [he turns around, looks at Keith] … Oh, it's not? … [more conferring] .. It's blues time!"
But despite those minor miscues, the show's pacing was masterful: the new songs were followed by "It's Only Rock N' Roll" and "Honky Tonk Women," then Jagger got a bathroom break when Richards took center stage for "Before They Make Me Run" and "Happy," both of which curiously found him singing with more strength than we've heard him in decades.
The latter end of the show focused overwhelmingly on the band's late '60s/early '70s glory days, and the evening's musical highlights were the darker, more primal songs from that era: "Gimme Shelter," "Sympathy for the Devil" (which closed the main set), and especially "Midnight Rambler," which found Jagger blowing some fierce harmonica and, during the song's chugging middle instrumental section, had him, the two guitarists and bassist Darryl Jones hunched together in front of Charlie Watts' drumkit, pumping out the pulsing rhythm like it was 1972 instead of 2012.
"People ask us why we're still doing this," Jagger said to the audience late in the show. "It's for you." While the cost of the tickets (floor seats exceeded $800; obstructed views $150, including service charges) and the merch (cheapest t-shirt: $40) makes that statement feel maybe a little disingenuous, the Stones still give a crowd its money's worth. Sure, there are several supporting musicians - two keyboardists, two singers, two horns - but the core four still do the bulk of the work, and while Jagger isn't running the onstage triathalons he was 30 years ago, he's a physical marvel who had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the jump. He's got the energy and physique of a man at least 20 years younger - and, especially when he's doing that undulating-letter-X dance he's been working since the '60s, there's never any question who you're watching. (Besides, how many 69-year-old men can shake their asses and not look preposterous?)
Yet for all of Mick and Keith's supremacy, there's no question that the heart of this band is and will always be Watts: At 71, his whipcrack snare and preternatural sense of swing drive the songs with peerless authority, and define the contradictory uptight-laid-back-ness that's at the heart of the Stones' rhythm.
For the encore, the band was joined by the Trinity Wall Street Choir (who scored a Grammy nomination earlier this week) for "You Can't Always Get What You Want," which got a refreshing charge toward the end when Watts briefly shifted into a double-time gospel-style rave-up before downshifting.
And the show ended, predictably, with a double shot of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Satisfaction" that found Jagger, Richards and Wood taking one last turn around the circular walkway that reached into the crowd before saying goodnight at a very civilized 11:10 p.m. - and any hope of a backstage bacchanal was quickly quashed as the crowd was politely but firmly shooed out of and away from the Barclay's Center by venue staff and, outside, a blaring announcement from a police car.
Not that most people seemed to mind: It had been an enormously satisfying two hours in the hands of masters, and babysitters, bedtime and deadlines beckoned. And for all the controversy around the borough's new billion-dollar arena, this writer was one of many Brooklynites who crossed Flatbush Avenue after the Rolling Stones concert that just took place in our neighborhood and walked home, even though it was raining -- because we could.
THE ROLLING STONES setlist: Brooklyn, 12/8/2012
Get Off of My Cloud
I Wanna Be Your Man
The Last Time
Paint It, Black
Gimme Shelter (with Mary J. Blige)
Going Down (with Gary Clark, Jr.)
All Down the Line
One More Shot
Doom and Gloom
It's Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)
Honky Tonk Woman
Before They Make Me Run
Start Me Up
Sympathy for the Devil
You Can't Always Get What You Want
Jumping Jack Flash