Three decades or so after the Rolling Stones were first hit by a wave of jokes questioning whether they were too long in the tooth to keep rocking, a funny thing has happened: It’s the old jokes that got old. We now take it for granted that Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood will be a formidable live combo well after 30 Seconds to Mars are on their second hip surgeries. As for Mick Jagger, the singer did not appear to be wearing a Fitbit or Apple Watch on stage at San Diego’s Petco Park, but if he had, we might have seen black smoke pouring out of it, as even our best wearable tech might struggle to keep up with the number of steps Jagger still puts in in a single evening. The question is no longer how long rockers can rock; it’s how long they can get away with skipping and sprinting.
It would be a disservice to talk about a Stones show strictly in terms of athleticism, but the analogies do come to mind. Because there’s not much — well, anything — new that the band brought to the table as their 2015 Zip Code Tour officially opened Sunday. This 15-city stadium jaunt is essentially an extension of their longer 2013 arena tour, complete with the emphasis in the set on warhorses over wild horses, except for a fleeting mini-set of Sticky Fingers material. But if the music and moves are all beyond familiar, getting churlish about that feels kind of like complaining about seeing Carl Lewis do the 100-meter dash… especially if Lewis were still doing it as a septuagenarian. That they are still this ferociously fiery at this stage in the game makes it feel like we’re in the twilight zone’s zip code, because, live, anyway, the band that once titled an album Sucking in the Seventies could hardly be farther from sucking in their 70s.
“It’s great to be back here at Petco Park,” Jagger told the crowd early on. “We were the first band ever to play Petco Park when it was named that back in 2005. Nice local company. The Petco people have been kind to us. They provided all of our backstage catering. I particularly liked the chicken and venison tin. Keith liked the shepherd’s pie flavor. Ronnie likes the T-rex and tortoise formula, though we’re worried about him going back into his shell.” Later, Jagger made a quip about the Chargers leaving San Diego and added that Charlie Watts had spent the week there surfing, which may have been an Apocalypse Now gag.
Two years ago, the Stones were touring behind GRRR!, a greatest hits package, from which “Doom and Gloom” is still around as the lone token post-‘80s song. This time, they’re ostensibly promoting an imminent deluxe reissue of 1971’s Sticky Fingers, but doing “not the whole album, which we did the other night in Los Angeles — I think we got away with it — but a few.” The full-album rendering at the Fonda Theatre show four nights earlier turned out to be a one-time thing, not a tour-length exercise, as earlier rumored, which is a shame for the millions of Stones fans who failed to get into that awesomely good, once-in-a-lifetime show. But if Jagger felt compelled to half-apologize at the Fonda for the preponderance of “down” material on Fingers, you can imagine how he’d feel about doing “Sister Morphine” for 50,000 people every night.
So what San Diego got from the album, and the next 14 cities may as well, is the two barnburners that would be part of any decent Stone show anyway — “Bitch” and “Brown Sugar” — plus the dreamy “Moonlight Mile,” which historically was only ever played on the 1999 tour, and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” which might be No. 1 on most Stones fans’ lists of Deep Tracks. “Almost jazz,” Jagger said — dismissively or admiringly? Hard to tell — following the extended instrumental “Knocking” coda… a worth-the-price-of-admission moment that had Wood going outside his comfort zone to recreate Mick Taylor’s bluesy guitar solo and new sideman Karl Denson replicating the late Bobby Keys’ classic sax work.
Since Richards is apparently loathe to imitate Taylor’s guitar work himself, Wood took on most of the other solos from the Taylor era, too — which accounted for the better part of the set list, since “Satisfaction” was the only pre-1968 number performed, and only five songs post-dated Wood’s mid-‘70s entree into the group. (Darryl Jones’ bass solo on “Miss You” allowed Wood to finally take some drags off that cigarette he seemed to be holding between the fingers of his strumming hand all night.) The interplay between the two guitarists remains a delight to watch; Richards and Wood are the real twins of the band, while Richards’ other Glimmer Twin, Jagger, is often far out on the ramps or mega-catwalk.
Which is not to say that the singer is alone out there. Jagger’s real “glimmer twin”? Us, the audience — any audience… he was apparently separated from us all at birth. Over the course of two hours and 15 minutes, he might have smiled three times, but the perpetually sullen look on his face is scant disguise for an eagerness to wow, with a constancy of movement that ranged from his menacing, arm-waving stomp in “Midnight Rambler” or his ability to let his shoulder blades do the equivalent of jazz hands. Singing? Yes, he’s still quite good at that, too, actually, bringing some sensitivity to “Moonlight Mile” amid the aggressively affectless drawl that is his stock-in-trade.
Design-wise, the Stones’ team has not gone all-out this time. Which, honestly, is perfectly fine. It was funny last time around when the production put a SRO pit in the middle of a semi-circular ramp in the shape of the lips logo. But does anyone go to a Stones show to see just how steampunk, or steely-wheely, their set design can get? No, and so it’s almost a relief that the Zip Code stage mostly consists of some framing that looks a little like a gothic driveway gate, beyond the usual T-shaped expanse for Mick to do his anaerobic finest… and to bring the sexiest woman in rock, Lisa Fischer, out into the middle of the stadium with him for “Gimme Shelter.”
As on the last tour, a local choir was brought out for the encore of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” — in this case, a not-quite-local ensemble from Cal State Long Beach. The long-forgotten gag of even having a choir on that song was how the Stones were making a joke out of preaching the gospel of pragmatism, as if it were a spiritual thing. If you’re a diehard Stones fan hoping for more obscure song choices than they’re going to give you on this tour, it helps to be a little pragmatic about that and accept that they are playing to the more casual listener, who will find that, for his or her triple-digit fee, you can always get what you want, at least for the next eight weeks, if what you want are the greatest hits of the 1968-78 era performed as if they were written yesterday.
By coincidence, the music of the world’s consensus three greatest rock & roll bands —the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones — all have their music being toured in arenas or stadiums this summer. But only the last of that holy triumvirate can claim a lineup with more than two members on board, which could earn this the title of Miracle Tour, if they were just a little less humble. Of course, the Stones stand out from Paul McCartney and the half of the Who that are out on the road by virtue of a sheer lack of earnestness to the end. While Macca is singing “Blackbird” every night in honor of the civil rights movement, the Stones are ending their main set with Sticky Fingers’ sensitive exploration of race relations, “Brown Sugar.” In the end, perhaps it’s the cheeky that will inherit the earth.