Fifty-one years ago to the day, the Rolling Stones took to a Texas stage for the first time in San Antonio. It was their first foray onto American soil, the second date of the tour and they were playing several shows at the Texas State Fair. “It seemed at last we were going to play for the people who really knew our kind of music,” Bill Wyman wrote of the experience. “But it was a disaster. When we arrived, we didn’t have a hit record or anything going for us … we had nothing except that we were English.”
When the band flew into Dallas for the fourth date on their 2015 Zip Code tour a few days ago, they had plenty of stage experience behind them, twenty-four original studio albums, several live recordings, collections of hits, videos, solo albums, documentaries and best-selling books under their belts. It can easily be said that they are the greatest rock & roll band in the world, rivaling only The Beatles in popularity. But The Beatles are long gone while the Stones keep rolling along.
A well-oiled machine, obviously, but with still enough spirit in their tanks to put on an exciting two hour show in the sweltering heat, breathing life into songs they have performed hundreds of times. The band has changed here and there over the years – Brian Jones and Ian Stewart have passed away; Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor left to pursue other adventures – but the core of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood remain. Chuck Leavell has been tickling the ivories since the early eighties; Darryl Jones now handles the bass, adding a deliciously funky groove; while backing singers Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler add the sizzle that sprinkles over Jagger’s overly-Cockney intonations. It’s easily a band that could sit back on it’s laurels and sing karaoke versions of their biggest hits while puffing on big fat cigars. But they choose not to. That’s not how this band works
A short roller coaster ride through their history vignette that kicks into “Jumping Jack Flash” is how the Stones kicked off their hit-laden set outside of Dallas in the football stadium Jerry Jones’ ego built. With the roof open, there were fans all the way to the highest of the nosebleed seats down to the rails near the stage. Most people stood, most people sang, many danced, all had merchandise. The lips logo was everywhere.
From my vantage point, floor near the stage, the sound was very good and Jagger’s bits of humor between songs were clear enough to legitimately know what you were laughing at: Joking about not remembering the name of the stadium he was standing in (“Verizon? T-Mobile?”) and tossing on a cowboy hat to sing a snippet of “All My Ex’s Live In Texas” before introducing the By Request song (“We thought you might like this one.”). Visually, the Stones were peacocks: Richards in a bright neon green shirt for most of the night; Jagger going from black & gold to blue to green to purple to red; Wood interchanging black and bright yellow; leaving Watts to downplay in his simple blue t-shirt.
Clearly the stage belonged to Jagger. Never standing still for one moment he hit all corners of the elongated stage and the furthest regions of the catwalk that extended out into the middle of the crowd, estimated to be over 40,000 people, determined to reach out to each one. “He is as active now as he was when they started and that’s crazy,” Fowler told me in a recent interview. The other guys were not as mobile, preferring to stick to centerstage or venture only onto to a portion of the catwalk. And that was a shame for those who were sitting further out on the sides in front of the giant video screens who craved more personalized doses of Richards. On his first foray onto the far right side, the crowd erupted so loudly that Richards’ smile literally split his face in two. With a pat to his heart upon hearing chants of his name, you would think he would step over more but he was literally joined at the hip with Wood in front Watts.
But the music was definitely there, definitely cooking. From the iconic opening licks of “Jumping Jack Flash” to that dirty melody introducing “Brown Sugar,” it sprung up from the stage with a familiarity known to young and old alike. Thirteen songs into the nineteen song set, the music just exploded, like a jolt of B12 had been inserted into their veins, conjuring up the fire the Stones were known for in the late sixties/early seventies when the music was still blanketed in that dark mysterious juju that permeated their every tune. Starting with “Miss You,” when Jones pushed the funk button at Jagger’s request (“Sometimes I want to play the bass like Darryl”), when Fischer sashayed down the catwalk belting “Gimme Shelter,” when Jagger put on the red robe with flames bursting behind him on the screen as he conjured up “Sympathy For The Devil,” and when Leavell infused “Brown Sugar” with a dose of boogie woogie, it was like lightning had struck and it was 1972. THIS is why you come see the Rolling Stones fifty-plus years after they formed. Even “Satisfaction” had an extra oomph which closed down the night.
Not to be left out is mention of Richards two-song vocal spotlight in the middle of the set, when he sang “Before They Make Me Run” and his signature “Happy.” It was also Richards who touched upon the sentimentality of playing in Texas, it being the birthplace of longtime Stones sax player Bobby Keys who passed away in December. Fifty-one years ago to the day, at that state fair in San Antonio, when the Stones were playing with teen idol Bobby Vee, the young Keys was his sax player and he met the craggy-voiced guitar player for the first time. As he related in Richards’ autobiography, “We were headlining the show until THEY came on and then they were headlining the show.” It was only after hearing the Brits play that Keys changed his tune and a friendship was born. “I want to take a moment to remember a great Texan who we lost a few months ago,” Richards announced to the crowd. “Let’s get a round of applause for Bobby Keys.”
Grace Potter and her band opened up for the Stones at their Arlington show. A flaming hot set that more people should have seen instead of dawdling around the merch and beer stands, Potter tore through “Hot Summer Night,” “Medicine,” “Nothing But The Water,” a smoking hot “Paris (Ooh La La)” and “Empty Heart” from her upcoming August release, Midnight. The Tina Turner of her generation, it was spot on perfect that she would be called upon to open a few dates on the Stones tour. She should have opened every show. She is that good and that good for the Stones.
So with the pyro cooling down and the band long gone from the venue, it was left to the fans to keep the vibes from flaming out. Walking to exits, they were singing, shouting, imitating Jagger’s hip-shimmying moves. And although songs like “Paint It Black,” “Under My Thumb,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Ruby Tuesday” and “Angie” were missing from this night, what they did give us was a heavy duty dose of why they can wear their greatest rock & roll band sash with pride – because they simply are the greatest rock & roll band in the world.
Little Things You Might Have Missed: Jagger getting both Richards and Watts to laugh during “Start Me Up;” Jagger running up behind Watts and pulling him closer to the front during band introductions; Wood’s guitar strap spelling out the name of wife Sally in studs; that Jagger is actually a very decent harp player; that they skipped the verse about the Kennedys in “Sympathy For The Devil;” that Richards was flipping lots of guitar picks into the crowd; that “Rocks Off” beat out “Street Fighting Man” and “Heartbreaker” in the fan vote; that the choir singing on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was from the local University Of Texas Arlington; and that age is only a number.