The Rolling Stones at United Center, 2006

By Mark Guarino

Before the Rolling Stones walked onstage at the United Center Monday, the crowd witnessed its opening act: a miniature version of the Zeppelin aircraft, motoring into the upper tiers of the stadium advertising the wares of a mortgage company.

It’s only rock and roll? Well, no. The Stones are no longer defy rock expectations and really, the pressure is not on for them to rise to the challenge. According to Nielsen Soundscan, the band is the second most successful revenue generating musical act in 2005, earning $152.3 million for albums, downloads and ticket sales.

“A Bigger Bang,” the tour, is an efficient servicing of what makes the Stone still so endurable. They deliver the hits, proud and loud. Monday’s show, the first of second in Chicago that continues tonight, was top loaded for maximum appeal. For anyone hungry to sing along to “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Brown Sugar,” or about any song on the 20-song setlist, the Stones readily complied. They performed as if maintaining an eye for supply and demand. In the beginning, this kind of checklist did feel labored, but less than halfway through, on a “Tumblin’ Dice” of all songs, the band hit its stride. The gospel choir vocals coupled with Ron Wood’s greasy slide guitar was sublime, setting the tone for what followed, which included early Stones gems, “As Tears Go By” and “Get Off My Cloud.”

This current tour is efficient on the eye as well. Unlike previous Stones tours featuring inflatables and heavy visuals, this one is particularly slimmed. It’s as if the band realized they are the truest spectacles. This was especially true during the requisite set performed on the club stage that floated from the front of the house to the opposite end of the stadium. This has become the highlight of recent Stones tours, where you can watch the band transform from a wide berth of guys playing instruments on a space most aircraft can safely land on into, well, a killer garage band. By forcing themselves to share the small space, the Stones seemed to relish the interplay on chestnuts like “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Miss You.”

That was excitement many levels above the thrills of just being in the same room as the world’s famous rock band. It made you wonder, if this is their strength, why all their tours weren’t designed this way. The same is true considering the songs chosen from “A Bigger Bang” (Virgin), the new album. Although it is considered a return to the raw sound of the band’s glory years, the songs played — “Oh No Not You Again,” “This Place is Empty” and “Rain Fall Down” — are the least stellar of the 16 new tunes.

But even if the Stones largely strive for safety, the most rewarding of their recent tours is to witness what have to be some of the most individual characters in rock. Keith Richards continues to sling guitar riffs with casual ease and when he joins Woods, they define rugged partnership. Jagger is best with a partner and when it wasn’t the rest of the band, it was singer Lisa Fisher who helped inject steam into “Gimme Shelter,” still erotic.

While vamping during “Satisfaction,” the last encore and right before confetti dropped, Jagger injected lyrics from “Mustang Sally,” a tribute to originator Wilson Pickett, who died last Thursday. That’s another Stones staple that remains a constant over these 40-plus years: while looking back has been something other rock bands sniff at, for them, it continues to be something you do in honor.

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