The Rolling Stones at Barclays Center
Chad Batka for The New York Times
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: December 9, 2012
In a filmed montage of celebrity adoration before the start of theRolling Stones show on Saturday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Iggy Pop had a good line. He was remembering seeing the band play in the late ’60s, and he said, approvingly, that hearing Keith Richards’s guitar sound back then felt like being hit with a dead mackerel.
Chad Batka for The New York Times
A few times during the concert you kind of knew what he meant. The sound arrived in most of “Midnight Rambler” and parts of “Sympathy for the Devil”: dull-toned, loud, heavy, resonant, forceful riffing. It didn’t happen during Mr. Richards’s processions around the stage, which took him halfway into the arena floor. (The stage fit inside a pair of giant open lips, from the band’s logo; the rounded runway jutting out of it, encircling part of the audience, represented the tongue.) It happened when he stayed local, when he and Ron Wood, the band’s other guitarist, came in close to Charlie Watts’s drum set.
What is a Stones show? Musically, now that they’re in their 50th year and a long time before now, it doesn’t seem to be so much about the performances you’re actually hearing in real time. It’s an oldies show that can become a flickering re-enactment ritual: momentarily you hear a sound that’s both well-worn and alive, with a huge amount of meaning attached to it — it’s almost always a guitar riff or a drum fill — and then it’s gone, pulled under into a more functional or starchier or sometimes sloppier passage. And visually it’s about Mick Jagger’s stamina. Saturday’s show was the start of the American part of the Stones’ “50 and Counting” tour; as long as he was on stage, during the show’s two and a quarter hours, he never stopped. In running shoes and stretchy black clothes he bounced on his toes with knees slightly bent and swinging independently of each other, like a woman in high heels trying to walk in more than one direction.
Obsessively he kept the crowd engaged, looking at him, feeding back to him — the sign of an expert skill, and also a need. He thanked the audience, semiformally, a few times. “People always ask us, why do you keep touring?” Mr. Jagger said to the audience at one point. “You’re the reason we really do this.”
This concert improved on the last one I saw in New York, seven years ago. It contained a lot more of what Mr. Richards has called “weaving” — two lead guitars circling around and cutting through each other — but kept falling slack. This one felt careful by comparison, in tune and on point.
Mr. Wood often came through unostentatiously as an anchor, playing the right phrase to pull the song together. The rest of the touring band was as it’s been for more than a decade — Darryl Jones on bass, Chuck Leavell on keyboards, Bobby Keys and Tim Reis on saxophones. (For “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the Choir of Trinity Wall Street sang the introduction.)
It also gained much from two outsiders: Mary J. Blige singing on “Gimme Shelter,” and Gary Clark Jr. playing guitar leads and singing, a little, on a version of the hammering blues “Going Down,” written by Don Nix and recorded by Freddie King in 1970. In both cases the band seemed to inhale the energy of the guests and make them charge harder — especially, demonstrably, Mr. Jagger, who faced Ms. Blige and followed her, inciting her, almost directing her wails. Aside from the full mackerel of “Midnight Rambler,” these were the show’s best parts.
Up close the concert had a sense of purpose. From a distance perhaps less so. The set list, mostly full of the 1968-78 Stones repertory, contained few surprises, outside of “Going Down.” There were the two negligible new songs from “GRRR!,” the Stones’ 50th anniversary greatest-hits package — “Doom and Gloom” and “One More Shot.” (Obviously the tour is an opportunity to move product: never will you see such a lavish assortment of tour T-shirts for one band at one concert.)
And there was Lennon and McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man,” which the band long ago played in a fast jitter, and has now slowed down and shaped into its familiar mid-tempo formula, with the discrepant cross-chopping of guitars and drums. Formulas are inevitable for 50-year old bands, not that there are many of them to prove the point. The trick, which the Stones figured out long ago, is making them imperfect.