Can a rock show ever be just a rock show when it’s the Rolling Stones?
The band’s appearance Saturday night at the brand-new Barclays Center in Brooklyn – one of only five live dates in their 50th-anniversary celebration – was a lot of things: A history lesson, a victory lap, a possible swan song, and most of all, a strange sort of meta experience, a living diorama of rock & roll legendry.
In some ways, the concert itself almost seemed beside the point. For many of the fans who had paid hundreds and even thousands of dollars for their seats (yes, tickets were famously expensive, but almost no one in the very full house looked like they regretted the outlay) just being in a room that held Mick and Keith and Ronnie and Charlie together onstage seemed to be its own giddy reward. Did the band also want to play a few songs? They did? Fantastic!
And so they delivered the 2012 version of the Stones Experience – a long string of some of the most iconic songs of the last half-century, with only a few brief nods to new material (“One More Shot,” “Doom and Gloom”).
On a set unadorned aside from a backdrop of giant lips framing a video screen that alternated between live and vintage footage, the band emerged and shot straight into “Get Off My Cloud.” At 69, Mick Jagger is still a tiny dynamo, an impossibly waify wafer of a man with the famous Mick hair and the Mick hips and the “Pointin’ my fingers at you” semaphores fully intact.
After the band had charged through straight-ahead takes on “The Last Time” and “Paint It Black,” he stopped to greet the audience and tell a little story: “We came by subway, and met this really nice bloke who didn’t know who we were… Turned out to be Jay-Z. I gave him a ticket, he’s there in B-4.” (Some didn’t seem to get the joke. Though a later reference to the band’s first New York appearance in 1964, when Jagger asked who in the audience had also been there, elicited a roar that seemed unlikely to match the number of people in the room who actually attended that show 48 years ago.)
At different points, the night brought featured guests out: Mary J. Blige for a passionate (though oddly, a little off-rhythm) “Gimme Shelter,” and the prodigiously talented young blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. on “I’m Going Down.”
But mostly, the band barreled uninterrupted through a litany of greatest hits: “Miss You,” “Wild Horses” (Mick: “It’s hand-holding time now”), “Start Me Up,” “Tumbling Dice” “Brown Sugar,” “It’s Only Rock & Roll” – and Keith Richards, laconic and eminently Keith-y in a red headband and turquoise leather jacket, taking over the mic to sing “Happy” and “Before They Make Me Run” like he was in his own living room.
It’s hard not to be impressed that the band is still going 50 years on, and that they still look and sound as well-preserved as they do. (Is there anyone more simultaneously dapper and Zen than Charlie Watts? Even at 71, the man makes a black t-shirt look like a bespoke suit.) But it was hard too not to miss the elements that weren’t there on that clean, brightly lit stage in that sparkling new venue, despite the pervasive cloud of weed smoke that hung fragrantly over the audience throughout the night.
The sex and danger and darkness that is as much a part of the Rolling Stones myth as the music has, understandably, worn away after five decades. How could it not? Once or twice though, echoes of that old satanic majesty came through: On “Sympathy for the Devil,” when Mick emerged in a feathery black cape looking like a malevolent bird, howling as the guitars buzzsawed and the backup singers “woo-woo“ ‘d, it even felt like something close to raw.
The band may have booked these shows just for the money, or out of contractual obligation. But Jagger sounded completely sincere when he told the audience, “People ask us, why do we keep touring… You’re the reason we really do this. Thank you for buying our records and coming to our shows for the last 50 years. You’ve been amazing.”
That the three-song encore was book-ended by “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (with the Wall Street Trinity choir) and “Satisfaction” felt fitting. Can you get the Stones of 1964 or 1972 or even 1989 in 2012? Of course not. But it was hard to find a face filing out of the stadium last night that didn’t look giddy, maybe a little bit stoned, and yes, satisfied.