Stripped down and gimmick-free, the Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary trek eliminates the spectacle element that has framed their tours for the last 30-odd years. Their focus for two hour and 20 minutes Friday at Staples Center, the first night of the tour, was musical and celebratory, a spirited romp through one of the greatest songbooks of the rock 'n roll era against the simplest of backdrops -- a massive screen obstructed at times and, for the first third of the show, the upper lip of the Stones' tongue logo.
The Stones launched into "Get Off of My Cloud" when they hit the stage -- the UCLA marching band ostensibly opened the show with a rendition of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" on the arena floor aisles - performing as a sextet with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ron Wood, Chuck Leavell and Daryl Jones. In that configuration, the Chuck Berry roots of their material were front and center, a reconnection for the band with their grittier musical selves. The anthems remain, but the tone has been changed.
The 23 songs in the Staples set covered a wide swath of their career. They performed the two new songs from last year's "GRRR" compilation, "Doom and Gloom" and "One More Shot," played the first single Jagger and Richards wrote ("The Last Time"), referred to "Factory Girl" as a rarity despite playing it on tours in the 1990s, moved "Start Me Up" deep down into the playlist, and more than any other album, emphasized 1969's "Let It Bleed" with the inclusion of four songs. Yep, not a clunker in the bunch.
The song selection, by and large, is material that has aged extremely well and plays to Jagger's vocal strengths, in particular "Wild Horses" with guest Gwen Stefani, "Midnight Rambler" extended via a three-way jam between former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, his replacement Wood and Richards, and an elasticized reading of "Paint It Black" that enhanced the tune's ominous tone. Jagger finds logical spots to rest his voice and maintain a song's impact: backup singers Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler take on the "It's all right" portion of "Jumpin' Jack Flash," for example, allowing Jagger to firmly land the "it's a gas" line.
Naturally, with ticket prices as high as $600, the crowd upfront hails from well-to-do neighborhoods and is likely funneling each performance through memory's gauze. For Jagger and the guys, their must be some sense of triumph or discovery in performing "Emotional Rescue" for the first time ever on a tour. For the audience, it's a trip back to school days or that first professional job and long nights in clubs; unlike so many of the others songs, its significant time in the spotlight was short and specific to 1980, but judging by the enthusiastic response, it retains a certain level of gravitas.
This year will see Jagger and Richards joining Watts as septuagenarians and their powerful opening night show proves they need not apologize for attempting to recapture their youth. ("The Last Time,"though has comically become a musical "Waiting for Godot.") It's Jagger's show right now, his non-stop prancing and flailing about the mainstage and a loop that cuts through the audience and creates a spacious mosh pit. The others largely keep their distance -- Fischer and Fowler and saxophonists - Bobby Keys and Tim Ries discreetly slip on and off the stage -- as Richards and Wood don't wander the runway until late in the evening.
When the tag of "greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world" was bestowed on the Stones it owed to swagger, songs and personality. Today, they maintain it through the repertoire, Jagger's kinetic energy, Richards' charisma and Watts' impeccable drumming. Filmed testimonials from Iggy Pop, Perry Farrell, Johnny Depp, uber-fans and other celebrities are shown at the beginning of the concert talking about the band's impact and memories. Fortunately, it's the only obvious piece of nostalgia in the entire night.
Get Off Of My Cloud
The Last Time
It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)
Paint It Black
Wild Horses (with Gwen Stefani)
Respectable (with Keith Urban)
Doom and Gloom
One More Shot
Honky Tonk Women
Before They Make Me Run
Midnight Rambler (with Mick Taylor)
Start Me Up
Sympathy for the Devil
You Can't Always Get What You Want (with choir)
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction