By Mark Guarino
To survive as long as the Rolling Stones have, there are many chapters to go through, from early inspiration to later innovation, from personnel changes to reinventing the wheel they helped create. Fighting your past versus using it to your own advantage.
The Stones are stepping into yet another new phase, 43 years after the band formed. At Soldier Field Saturday, the Stones delivered a crowd-pleasing set of almost all old chestnuts. In the 21-song setlist, there were only three new songs (plucked from their latest album, “A Bigger Bang”) and no covers except for “Night Time,” a nod to the late Ray Charles.
In 2002, the last time they come through town, the band booked itself into three vastly different venues: the United Center, the formerly named Comiskey Park and the Aragon. In order to give their audiences a window into their inspirations, the setlists were peppered with covers of songs by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Muddy Waters and others, as well as songs that are deep inside the Stones catalog but remain some of their best. They usually reserved these for the second stage segment, where the band regroups to a tidy club stage located mid-stadium. Those blazing performances have silenced critics who insist the Stones are crusty players since hovering around retirement age.
But the Soldier Field show did not have such nuances. Instead there was a setlist that clung to just the expected fare, from “Brown Sugar” to “Ruby Tuesday.” Midway through the two-hour show, a portion of the stage moved to center field where the band, huddling together, knocked through “Satisfaction,” “Miss You,” “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Oh No, Not You Again,” a new song. While it would be foolish for the band to ignore the songs that, by now, make up the canon of early garage rock, the continual note-by-note rehashing did feel mechanical and too safe. Even “Sweet Neo Con,” the first politically charged song in the Stones’ career, didn’t make the cut, another sign the Stones are less a band and more a franchise that is not against censoring its own creativity.
Each song was performed so exactly and without rough edges that even sax player Bobby Keys made a cameo simply to recreate his solo in “Brown Sugar.” Attending to every familiar detail was like a celebration shared between band and audience of the songs’ enduring traits
At certain times, the band switched gears against the constant familiarity. The main credit is due to guitarist Keith Richards. “Sympathy for the Devil” was extended long past its recorded version by his dirty-sounding guitar lines. On “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” he turned it into a long jam by digging into the speedy guitar fills of Chuck Berry.
This new tour is touting specialty seating on the stage, which was not strictly on stage. Divided by a single four-story video screen, the stage was buttressed on both sides by four tall layers of extended booths that made each side look like it was being stalked by an office tower.
Although fireworks ended the show, blasting off from the stands long after the band left the stage, the real larger-than-life spectacle was Mick Jagger. Even at 62, he remains rock’s most engaging lead singer. With every strut, wiggle, bounce and writhing arm motions, he exhibits an obvious joy in performing, remaining true to selling you a song, even if you paid for it long ago.