Jun. 22, 2019 11:03AM ET / Jun. 22, 2019 10:59AM ET
CHICAGO—The real star of opening night of the Rolling Stones’ “No Filter” tour here Friday may have been Mick Jagger’s fitness tracker.
If he was wearing one on his wrist, it surely tallied more than 50,000 steps over the two hours the band played at Soldier Field, the first of two nights and the launch of their new North America tour. Yet this show, and tour, almost didn’t happen. In early April news broke that Jagger had emergency heart surgery, an unexpected event that paused the tour and created expectations the band finally reached the end of the road.
Recovery was swift. The next month Jagger released an Instagram video showing the 75-year-old performing an aerobics routine most men a third his age couldn’t perform. The message: Time was still on his side and the tour was happening.
The incident, served as a reminder, however iconic, that the phenomena of the Rolling Stones is their continued perseverance as a band with global drawing power and multi-generational appeal after six decades. In a way, Jagger’s health crisis gave purpose to what could have been just another nostalgia trip. For the band and audience both, Friday wasn’t supposed to have happened. That it did, made for a celebration that went beyond the music.
Unlike past tours, the role of supporting vocalists and other musicians were scaled far back. They were used but sparingly, like when French horn player Matt Clifford walked onstage briefly to play the opening bars of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Instead of hanging back, guitarists Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards played out front far more than they have in recent memory. With their instruments dialed to maximum volume, Wood and Richards drove the majority of songs with soloing and dual leads. “Honky Tonk Woman” now was an exercise in craftmanship with both Richards and Wood slicing through the signature riff together and later, Richards turned the song in a new direction with a blues solo that bounced through different tempo switches. Richards also abandoned “Happy” as his requisite solo spot. Instead, he quieted down, sharing “You Got the Silver” — a mournful acoustic version—with Wood. Next he brought on the horns for “Before They Make Me Run,” a raucous blowout.
Even Daryl Jones, the Chicago native who has locked down the bassist role for 26 years, seemed free to experiment, creating inventive basslines to make the songs strut.
The best evidence of the Stones’ rejuvenation was a two-song acoustic set the four core members played in the center of the field. Jagger, Richards and Woods each played acoustic guitars on “Angie” and “Dead Flowers” with Jagger and Richards sharing one microphone at one moment for some tight country harmony. Later, as Jagger sang lead, Richards and Woods turned to face drummer Charlie Watts, each man beaming to the other with broad smiles. The buoyancy of their performance relayed satisfaction for a moment that, above all other things, was about friendship and survival.
Unlike any other city in the world, Chicago has played an important role in Stones history, starting with the day in 1961 when Richards spied Jagger carrying two albums—“Rockin’ at the Hops” by Chuck Berry and “The Best of Muddy Waters”—on a train platform. The records, both on the Chicago label Chess Records, led to a conversation between the two strangers about their mutual love of both men and the electric sound they were innovating in Chicago.
Only later did the Stones travel to Chicago for the first time to record an EP at Chess, home to Waters, Berry, and a legion of 1950s-era blues artists the Stones worshipped as young men and continued to carry the torch over decades. The band’s very name is lifted from a Waters song, “Rollin’ Stone,” and their 1964 instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue” is the address of the Chess building, which still stands just a short walk from Soldier Field.
As the Stones grew more famous, the band often shifted the spotlight to older blues performers, most notably when they introduced singer Howlin’ Wolf to a national television audience in 1965, a performance where band sat at the towering singer’s feet. Decades of tour stops in Chicago have included visits to area blues clubs, starting in 1981 when they ducked into a South Side club to jam with Waters and his band. More recently, as older men themselves, the Stones rekindled a more natural relationship with the blues through a 2016 covers album, “Blue & Lonesome” (Interscope), that featured songs from Chicagoans Wolf, Magic Sam, Little Walter, Otis Rush, Little Johnny Taylor, Eddie Taylor and Jimmy Reed.
Jagger acknowledged that Friday was the band’s 38th show in Chicago since 1964. Before welcoming the recently-elected Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was in the audience, Jagger polled the audience for advice on the local cuisine: “I still haven’t eaten an Italian beef—should I have it dry or should I have it wet?”
Maybe it’s best Jagger keep the beef off his plate because, at present, his lithe body never stopped moving. Crouching, wiggling, playing 88 invisible keys in the air with both hands—all of it evidence that he is determined to keep moving forward, no matter what age or the obstacle staring him down. To open “Midnight Rambler,” he channeled Little Walter on harmonica, blowing through distortion while Wood answered him with his slide.
The song wouldn’t quit and at one turn, Jagger flipped his hoodie up and stalked down a runway that led into the audience. His vocals moans summoned Muddy Waters until the song turned into “You Gotta Move,” the blues spiritual popularized in the 1960s by Mississippi Fred McDowell. The song is a warning that the fate of man is in the Almighty’s hands, not their own. For Jagger and the Stones, it’s evident that, so far, they’re still good with God.