The Rolling Stones Give Cubans What They Need, A Two-Hour Free Concert

AP Photo/Enric Marti
Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones performs in Havana, Cuba, Friday March 25, 2016. The Stones are performing in a free concert in Havana Friday, becoming the most famous act to play Cuba since its 1959 revolution.

The Rolling Stones gave half-a-million Cubans what they needed Friday night at Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana -- a free outdoor concert that lasted for more than two hours, starting with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and ending just before 11 p.m. with “Satisfaction,” which got the crowd literally jumping from the familiar opening chords.

And just like anywhere in the world, cell phones went up to capture the band on video, especially for the songs they knew the most. The difference was there was no service on site and Cubans can’t easily upload photos and videos online; Internet is dial-up speed. But they knew the rock concert protocol, even if they hadn’t experienced it before.

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Fans had waited a lifetime to see the legendary British band play in the Communist country, and this evening marked a historic occasion for the band and for Cuba: It was frontman Mick Jagger, guitarist Keith Richards, drummer Charlie Watts and guitarist Ronnie Wood’s first-ever concert there since the band formed in 1962.

The Cuban government has relaxed its restrictions in recent years, and this grand gesture foreshadows more freedoms for the Cuban people. Once upon a time, the Rolling Stones' music was banned because the government considered it an “ideological deviation.”

Still, security was relaxed, even with the sheer numbers who flocked to the giant field. Attendance numbers reached 700,000 people, with another 500,000 on the perimeter who were trying to get into the event or were just there to hear the music, according to a rep for the band. But fans didn’t run, jostle or get in fisticuffs over spots. There was the usual event staff in bright yellow shirts, plus dozens of Cuban police and Interior Ministry officers, but none were aggressive. It was the way all fans and authorities should behave.

The massive grounds -- used for sporting events from baseball to football -- were divided into sections, but were filled with people as far as the eye could see. The front, which still held thousands, was reserved for people who held a special ticket -- a small square of white paper that read: “Concierto RollinG Stone” (si, the G was capitalized), then in a black block “INVITACION” and underneath the date, time, place, and a number, followed by the word “PERSONAL” and above it a guitar colored in black.

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Some people were selling the free tickets. Vancouver’s Glenn Latta and Andy Polo told Billboard they paid 5 CUC ($5 USD) each for theirs.

The atmosphere was super chill in the hot sun, as people waited hours for the 8:35 p.m. start time, some opening umbrellas to provide shade. Clouds and a light breeze came later in the day. Between Stones songs piping through the speakers — as well as ones by various acts from Deep Purple to Eric Clapton -- there was plenty of video footage on the screens to kill time: clips of the band rehearsing and playing onstage, while interviews with Mick and the boys could be heard (in English, of course).

The crowd was assorted, some sporting T-shirts as varied as Cannibal Corpse, Misfits, Slipknot and The Beatles, and every age from children to those of the Stones members’ generation. Mick is 72, going on 50; Keith, 72; Ronnie, 68; and Charlie, 74. But you wouldn’t have known it by watching them onstage.  

The 18-song set consisted of many of the same hits and classics they've been playing in various sequences on their América Latina Olé Tour — “Jumpin' Jack Flash,” “It's Only Rock ‘n Roll,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Paint It Black,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Midnight Rambler,” “Miss You,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Start Me Up,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Brown Sugar,” and the two-song encore, “You Can't Always Get What You Want” and “Satisfaction.”

Cuba marked the tour finale -- which included four shows in Brazil, three in Argentina, two in Mexico, and one each in Uruguay, Chile, Peru, and Colombia -- and was filmed for a future Eagle Rock Entertainment DVD, to be titled Concert for Amity.

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But many of the songs probably weren’t familiar to the Cubans who don’t have easy access to their music. One entrepreneur sold MP3 “Coleccion” bootleg CDs for 1 CUC ($1 USD) just outside the venue in plain view of the policia. And many fans made their own Stones merchandise -- drawing the tongue and lips logo on their bodies, creating their own shirts, and designing posters. No merch was for sale at the venue; the price would exceed what most Cubans make in a month (shirts are now for sale on the band’s web store for $40-45). The foreign fans, who had traveled from far and wide, boasted Stones tour T-shirts from all over the world.

Jagger spoke a considerable amount of Spanish throughout the show, and did so quite well, judging by the reaction to his comments. He gave it his all, as usual -- prancing, pointing, and engaging the crowd in a sing-along for “Midnight Rambler” and  “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” He ran from one side of the stage to the other, and often went to the end of the runway that jutted into the audience, easily getting the thousands to join him in overhead claps.

For the newish (1998) song “Out of Control,” the band gave it a working that, even for people who didn’t know it, brought it to life. Jagger also played blues harp and dueled with Richards’ guitar playing. The song that won the online fan vote to include in the Cuba set turned out to be “All Down the Line,” and then they dipped right into “Angie,” with Jagger saying something in Spanish that included the word “romántico.” They changed the melody a bit, but when he sang the words “Where will it lead us from here?” one couldn’t help but think that it could mean how will this concert impact the future of western rock tours in Cuba?

“Paint It Black” was given a bit of a slight Latin flavor, and “Honky Tonk Woman” kicked off with keyboardist Chuck Leavell’s cowbell, got all the cell phones lit up in the air. Jagger then said something else in Spanish, of which English-speaking folk caught just the words “whiskey” and “fish and chips.” He then introduced the whole band, which is rounded out by bassist Darryl Jones; backing vocalists Sasha Allen and Bernard Fowler; and horn section Tim Ries, Matt Clifford and Karl Denson.

Then, after Jagger introduced “mi compadre” Keith Richards, the guitarist fist bumped him then stepped up to the mic.

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“Cuba… and the Rolling Stones. This is amazing,” he said. “This is really good to be here, you know? It’s great to see you guys,” he added, strapping on an acoustic guitar and accompanied by Ronnie. “Yes, indeed. This one’s called ‘You Got the Silver.’”

After, he switched to electric. “Muchos gracias,” he said, his only Spanish words. “Hey, hey guys. I’m gonna live here, baby [laughs]. I’ve got one more for you. It’s called ‘Before They Make Me Run.’”

A lengthy “Midnight Rambler” followed with the crowd singing along, and “Miss You” revved them up into a dancing mode. Jagger even wiggled his butt as Jones did a funky bass solo, and like all Stones audiences around the globe, this one did the “woos” on cue. “Gimme Shelter” showed off Sasha Allen as an able replacement for Lisa Fischer (who currently has a number of solo tour dates lined up), and then the show wound down with “Start Me Up,” “Sympathy for the Devil” (for which Jagger sported a black cloak adorned with red feathers) and “Brown Sugar.”

“Muchos gracias. Buenas noches,” he said, walking off stage with the band.

The encore started with Cuba’s Entrevoces choir, and those lines from "You Can't Always Get What You Want" which meant so much this evening: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you just might find you get what you need," and Jagger cheekily got the crowd to sing the first line over and over. (People can't always get what they want under the restrictions placed by the Communist government in Cuba, although -- as evidenced by the Stones being allowed to perform there for the first time -- things are slowly changing.) The French horn signaled the start of the vocal, and Jagger appeared wearing a Russian Bolchevique hat, popular in Cuba. The night ended with “Satisfaction,” and the half-a-million who orderly filed out of the venue got it. Satisfaction, indeed. And it was a long time coming for both parties.

Setlist:

"Jumpin' Jack Flash"
"It's Only Rock 'n Roll"
"Tumbling Dice"
"Out of Control"
"All Down the Line"
"Angie"
"Paint It Black"
"Honky Tonk Woman"
"You Got the Silver"
"Before They Make Me Run"
"Midnight Rambler"
"Miss You"
"Gimme Shelter"
"Start Me Up"
"Sympathy for the Devil"
"Brown Sugar"

Encores:
"You Can't Always Get What You Want"
"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"