Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Rolling Stones play Pittsburgh

I had no intention of seeing the Rolling Stones this past weekend. They're old, the tickets were expensive, I'd already seen them once, in 1998 at the Tokyo Dome  and so on. I was in Pittsburgh to see my father for Father's Day, and that was that. Their only effect on my trip, I thought, was that their fans had soaked up every hotel room in town, pushing my Airbnb booking out to Regent Square. 

Mick on the big screen at Heinz Field, June 20, 2015.
But Dad and Carol keep early hours these days, and by 8 p.m. Saturday, we were all done. WDVE-FM, true to its muse, had been playing nothing but Stones all day. Heinz Field is a "C" shape opening onto the river, and if you drive over the Fort Pitt Bridge, you can catch a glimpse of the stands. It was only a few minutes out of my way. Why not have a peek? So I did.

My first thought was "That stadium is not full."* My second thought, as I zipped into the tunnel, was, "It's been raining all day. That has to have kept at least a couple of people away." My third thought was, "You'll kick yourself for weeks if you don't go over there and at least try to get in." So I drove back into town, parked, walked over the Roberto Clemente Bridge and made my way toward Heinz Field. Twenty minutes later I was settling into peanut heaven, also known as section 527 in the upper deck, as the opening chords of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" rang out.

Never have I been so glad to part with an unreasonable sum ($98.50) for an evening's entertainment. Sure, they played songs I've heard hundreds of times before. Sure, from where I sat, Mick Jagger was half the height of a fingernail. No matter. The Rolling Stones are The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World (tm) and they put on the best goddam show you will ever see.

In support of which assertion I offer a Top 10 list of notable points about Stop No. 15212 on the Zip Code Tour:

10. Hello, Cleveland!: Sure, it demonstrates nothing more than the canniness of their marketing team, but from Mick's cheerful, "How yinz guys doin'?!" to Charlie's black and yellow bumblebee socks, the Stones made a point of stoking Pittsburgh's hometown pride. The black-n-gold tongue logo was an especially nice touch. As was Keith's pithy economium, which went roughly like this: "Nice to be in Pittsburgh. Great town!" Pause. "I remember when it was hell."

9. Big Hits ... : The tour I saw in '98 was for "Bridges to Babylon," and as I recall, we got three songs from the new album, all of them mediocre and forgettable. On Saturday, apart from a perfunctory "Doom and Gloom," it was nothing but the old, good stuff.

8. ... and Fazed Cookies: The old, good stuff included some deep cuts, most notably "Moonlight Mile," which they're doing in honor of the Sticky Fingers re-release. (Mick duly gave a shout-out to Pittsburgher Andy Warhol, who designed the cover.) We also got "Bitch" and a killer (so to speak) "Midnight Rambler," dusted off and every bit as vicious and weird as it was on the '72 tour.

7. You Got the Gold: The Keith-on-vocals portion of the show is always a crapshoot. Half the time he can't be bothered to sing, and when he does try, he can barely carry a four-note tune he penned himself. On Saturday, though, he gave us "Before They Make Me Run" and "Happy," probably his two best songs, and he spared us the Andy Kaufman/Bob Dylan routine and played them straight. "That's rock n' roll," he said after "Happy." Damn right.

6. Moves Like Jagger: I have no idea how he does it. No matter how carefully he eats and exercises (there's a rock lifestyle for you), no matter how carefully he husbands his energy, a man his age should not be able to put on a show like that. His voice sounds better than it did in the 1980s. My goal when I turn 50 in a couple of years is to be in as good shape as Mick Jagger is at age 71.

5. Lisa Fisher, et. al.: As soon as you hear the opening notes of "Gimme Shelter," you know Lisa's voice is going to head into the stratosphere on the "Rape! Murder!" bridge, but it still makes your hair stand on end when she does it. She is the most coruscatingly impressive of the Stones' backup musicians (RIP Bobby Keys), but they are all brilliant.

4. Believe It Or Not, They Can Still Play: OK, Keith, not so much, but Ronnie surprised me with his solos on "Before They Make Me Run" and especially "Midnight Rambler." There were some fast, clean licks in there, and they weren't just the notes off the record. There was music being made in real time.

3. Even Their Stumbles Are Cool: For my money, they've never gotten "You Can't Always Get What You Want" right live. Most of it sounds listless, then the last part goes too fast. This time, the main part sounded better than usual (Nice job, Penn State Choir), then everything went off the rails for a good five seconds getting into the double-time part. No matter: It's how you know it's the Stones.

2. They Can Still Play, Part Two: I've heard enough Stones covers to have learned that the music is more subtle than you think. Keith and Ronnie play guitar like an old married couple telling stories and finishing each other's sentences. Keith is constantly toying with those famous riffs, dropping a given chord in here, then there, finding interesting spaces between the notes. Last December I heard Joe Grushecky  no slouch of a musician  play a cover of "Brown Sugar," and it sounded flat, a little boring. Too much on the beat. When the Stones play "Brown Sugar," it sounds supple.  Keith has said that Charlie follows him, not vice versa, so there's a tension in the rhythm that you don't hear in bands where the drummer sets the pace (which is most bands). It's a free-floating bar-band groove, and it fills a stadium. No mean trick, that.

1. They Invented It: The "Satisfaction" riff. That cowbell at the start of "Honky Tonk Women." The "Woo Woo!" that 55,000 people started singing on Saturday the moment the rhythm track began on "Sympathy for the Devil." Those guys on that stage down there created all that and more, defining rock stardom for a generation, influencing artists from Jack White to Cassandra Wilson. It should be kids' music, but they anchored it in the blues, and against all odds it and they have turned out to be surprisingly ageless. In their hands, on a good night  and June 20, 2015, in Pittsburgh was a very good night  those songs come extraordinarily and stunningly alive.

*I was wrong about that, of course.