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Hearts of Stone

Rolling Stones, 1st Mariner Arena, Feb. 1

Jefferson Jackson Steele
LIVE LONG ROCK . . . : Mick Jagger struts at 1st Mariner

See a gallery of Stones concert photos by Jefferson Steele.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/8/2006

At 9:15 p.m. last Wednesday, a giant red tongue was projected onto a two-story-tall scrim covering the stage at 1st Mariner Arena; the opening riff of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” blasted out, the scrim fell, and there they were: the Rolling Stones. The song was 38 years old, and the four musicians were between 58 and 64, all four marked by cracked-leather faces and thin-as-straws limbs. But they still sounded good. Playing a piece of cultural history they’d played thousands of times before, the Stones were like a magnificent machine, every piston firing on cue.

Like a machine, however, it was all a bit mechanical. If you’ve seen the Stones more than once, you begin to notice how rote the rituals can become. When Mick Jagger, wearing a gold lamé jacket and shiny black pants, did his fashion-model strut and melodramatic arm flings on the second song, “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” you realized how calculated and lacking in spontaneity every move and vocal was. If you looked over at Keith Richards, silver medals dangling from a black headband that pushed his hair up in a ratty tangle, he looked a bit bored himself.

The third song, “Oh No Not You Again,” though, was from the new album, A Bigger Bang—not a great Rolling Stones album but the best one in 22 years. The new material seemed to awaken Richards; he sidled up to Ron Wood and Charlie Watts, and they began to push and pull at the rhythm. On the fourth song, “All Down the Line,” the basic sextet (the four official Stones plus bassist Darryl Jones and keyboardist Chuck Leavell) was joined by four horns and three backup singers.

When Richards picked up a 12-string acoustic guitar for sixth song, “Wild Horses,” he screwed around with the chords and threw off Jagger’s vocal. But the raggedy nature of the performance jolted the band out of business-as-usual and set up the evening’s highlight: a long, exhilarating version of “Midnight Rambler.” Jagger launched the song with some impressive blues harmonica and sang a few verses; then Richards took over. Bent over so low that his yellow Gibson hung down around his knees, he gathered Wood and Jones by his side at the drum riser and gave an astonishing demonstration on how guitars and bass can become extensions of a drum kit. Richards played the song’s scratchy guitar riff over and over, but each time with a little variation, maybe shifting a note within the chord, maybe anticipating the beat, maybe delaying the beat. Soon, Wood, Watts, and Jones were doing the same, creating several minutes of rhythmic voodoo as Jagger was out on an extended ramp, blowing kisses to the crowd.

The energy and looseness unleashed by “Midnight Rambler” sustained the band through impressive versions of “Tumbling Dice,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Happy,” “Miss You,” “Start Me Up,” and “Honky Tonk Women.” These old war-horses sprang to life again as Richards played on the front edge of the beat and Watts on the back edge, creating the delicious tension that is the Stones’ signature.

But eventually the energy faltered. A prerecorded conga sample opened “Sympathy for the Devil,” and Jagger led the crowd in sing-along “woo-woos.” Richards grew visibly detached again, and suddenly it was back to the ritual, back to the machine.

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