By Mark Guarino
Woolly mittens are not rock ‘n roll. There is nothing glam about snuggly winter scarves. North Face jackets are warm but not, you know, hot.
Yet these were the items Rolling Stones fans — and, come to think about it, the Rolling Stones themselves — were forced to haul out of the hall closet Wednesday when the band played Soldier Field in meat locker temperatures. The challenge for all involved was to endure what was, “quite frankly,” said Mick Jagger, a “horrible and freezing cold night.”
Chicago has it charms. Its weather is not one of them. Temperatures dropped about 30 degrees below normal, into the mid-30s, with 40 mph winds barreling in from the Lake. Soldier Field was only two-thirds full and those who showed up were dressed as if looking for the Luge race. Even the band piled on more layers — hats, gloves, overcoats, sweaters, a pair of UGGs on Ron Wood — as the night shuddered on.
The unusual weather proved to be a sweet elixir. This is the third visit to Chicago by the Stones on “A Bigger Bang,” the band’s world tour that kicked off 15 months ago. Playing 104 shows (and becoming the highest grossing U.S. tour in 2005) resulted in boilerplate setlists. That wasn’t the case Wednesday. Half of the 18 songs played were new additions, one of them (“She Was Hot”) never performed by the band live. The cold clearly played a role in instigating the band to shake off routine and create a night that won’t be remembered just for its chattering teeth and muted, gloved applause.
From the start, the Stones injected songs into the setlist, most ignored since honing tours down to just familiar hits. Songs from their halcyon days (“Live With Me,” “Sway,” “You Got the Silver,” “Little T&A”) were surprises and the band played them with sweet affection as if rediscovered. The highlight, “Midnight Rambler,” became the most improvised moment of the night. Jagger, on harmonica, took it on and off course, summoning the banshee yelps of blues hero Muddy Waters with Wood echoing him on slide guitar and drummer Charlie Watts keeping things on edge by abruptly switching up tempos.
Richards mostly hung in the back. Suffering head trauma after a reported fall from a tree in April, Richards left the solo leads to Wood who accompanied him on “You Got the Silver,” his most tender vocal. Coming alive at the end, and after the band returned from its signature second stage retreat, Richards became fully engaged, extending “Satisfaction” with a chugging, hangdog solo.
Although protesting once (“I can’t feel me feet!”), Jagger was the single force on stage that seemed to defy the deep freeze. His twiggy body was apparently immune, sliding and strutting and — on the last song — running the length of the football field and back. At 63, he exhibits an athleticism and charisma that remains infectious.
Elvis Costello opened the show backed by his three-member band the Imposters. Not pausing for chitchat, the band played as if racing to a nice, toasty fireplace somewhere. The sped-up songbook proved a good tempo to shake off the cold. Costello closed with “Pump It Up.” Meaning the heat, please.