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By Alan Behr

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY, 25 DECEMBER 2012 — If they are to endure, improvisations that arise from communal experiences will refine themselves into ritual.  So it was at the penultimate concert in The Rolling Stones’ tour celebrating the band’s first half century together.

After extensive rehearsals, the 50 & Counting tour had started with two surprise performances in Paris, the first was before 600 clubgoers at Le Trabendo; a few days later came a second show at the Théâtre Mogado, which holds 1,800 (for a Stones concert, still a small house).

The mini-tour moved on to two nights in The 02 arena in London and would end with three arena performances in the New York area, with a two-song set at a benefit concert Madison Square Garden squeezed in last minute. When The Rolling Stones perform and do so in such a limited and selective way, ordinary expectations of value and proportion are forgotten.  Some tickets were offered in the aftermarket for five and even six figures in US dollars.

On the second-to-last night, at the Prudential Center in Newark, just over the river from Manhattan, a number of concertgoers, having somehow managed to score tickets but with family and business obligations back home, had arrived hours before the show and would fly home at breakfast time, without need of baggage or even a hotel.

Because just joining the crowd is part of the fun, nearly all ticketholders arrived on time for the concert, many sporting the band’s stuck-out-tongue shirts, even though true Stones followers know full well that the performance always starts late.  It would do so tonight despite the fact that no lesser musical light would be subjected to the humiliation of opening the show — of attempting, that is, to warm up an audience already primed with anticipation.

Outside, scalpers and those eager for last-minute bargains softly called out their respective bargaining positions. Inside, those hovering over the tables selling souvenir Stones apparel formed a layered wall of backs, cutting off all view of what they huddled together to purchase.

An old women was rolled in a wheel chair to her seat, positioned above four fashion models, all dressed just so. The models stood out not only for their beauty and their chic but for that characteristic look of cool self-possession that comes to women who have spent their dangerously short adult lifespans pretending not to notice that they are constantly being noticed.  Seated behind the models, a middle-aged woman with dyed black hair and gold lamé pants passed Stones concert etiquette down to the next generation in the form of a preteen daughter in leopard tights, her hair streaked violet.

Near them stood a thin, bald man who, trying not to show he was leaning on a cane, insisted that “Honky Tonk Women” was the one pop song that accurately chronicled of his nimbler years.

There then arose a great swell of “Sympathy for the Devil”-inspired drumming as dozens of drummers wearing gorilla masks marched through the aisles, and the show began with “Off of My Cloud.” Within seconds after Mick Jagger stepped forward in his zigzag silk jacket and matching Stephen Jones hat and started to sing, another Stones ritual began: the band’s hits are so much a part of the pop music canon that all their concerts are sing-alongs.

It was as if the Prudential Center, which typically hosts gladiatorial hockey games, had been repurposed for karaoke en masse.  Then the faint smell of marijuana arose briefly, perhaps for old times’ sake.

Part of Jagger’s role is to serve as the link between the band and the audience, prompting all assembled to, on cue, sing, dance, wave arms, wave shirts, and simply exalt in a night of rock and roll.  As The New York Times reported online only the day before, after The Stones had played at the benefit concert, Jagger, who is sixty-nine years old and the grandfather of four, made the frontmen of the other bands in that show look lazy.

Part of The Stones tradition is that Jagger will step off for a few minutes to cede the lead spot to the other surviving original bandmate, Keith Richards.  That gives Jagger a discreet chance to rest and allows the audience another participatory ritual: as Richards stepped forward this evening, he was roundly and affectionately booed—a welcome that, by his broad smile, Richards clearly accepted as flattery.

The Rolling Stones

The wild man of a band that built its reputation on being wild, Richards somehow survived famous bouts of substance abuse — either by a miracle of science or by prayers for intercession to a departed rocker long deserving of beatification.  He is surely the only man on earth capable of making international news out of a head injury suffered from falling out of a tree in Fiji.

Richards’ sometimes unexpected continuation among the living has allowed him to age into what may be his finest role in the popular imagination: the kind of the troublesome grandfather who is eagerly awaited at Christmas by grandchildren whose parents dread having again to extend him the invitation.

John Mayer played guest guitar on “Respectable,” and because this was an anniversary concert, Mick Taylor, who had been a member of the band for a comparatively brief period (between shortly after the departure of Brian Jones in 1969 and his own exit in 1974) returned to join in a performance of “Midnight Rambler.” That song, one of the darker passages in a shaded repertoire, is purpose built for blues guitar showmanship, and on this night Taylor demonstrated why many think of him as the best guitarist who has called himself a Rolling Stone. His appearance and perhaps his reputation produced a primal fanny wiggle in his direction from his own replacement, Ronnie Wood, but the total performance was fluid and memorable.

During “Honky Tonk Women,” two of the models stood and sang along far too decorously for full participation; the other pair sat, neither apparently familiar with the song nor the fact that it celebrated a more advanced version of themselves. For the first encore, the Grammy-nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street sang the choral portions of “You Can’t Always Get What you Want,” the church-choir women swaying in their black evening gowns.  (The night before, the choir’s program had consisted of Handel’s Messiah, at Lincoln Center, accompanied by the Trinity Baroque Orchestra.)

The Rolling Stones and Choir of Trinity Wall Street sing
“You Can’t Always Get What you Want.”

Photo: Alan Behr

What does it all mean musically at a ticket price that, even if bought at face value for the arena performances (in the scant minutes they remain available once sales begin), would likely exceed what you would expect to pay for the best seat at the most coveted performance at any opera house in the world?  Consider that, long ago, Leonard Bernstein said he would rather hear The Rolling Stones sing “Paint it Black” than anything then being composed in the classical idiom — a statement that, if perhaps intended as exaggeration, has been shown by time to represent sound judgment.

The musical Leitmotiv of The Rolling Stones is the broken rhythm. It runs through many of their hits — so much so that, during the final encores at the Prudential Center, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” you might have thought at times that you were hearing the continuation of the same song.

That is one of the reasons that, by consensus, The Beatles were greater: so many Beatles songs are not merely excellent but bear little or no relationship to each other. Like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones were innovators, but they were also careful at times to slipstream though trends, embracing or just toying with styles from psychedelic rock to disco and soul.  They have also skillfully colored many tracks with jazz influences, but what they continue to do better than anyone else is blues-based rock and roll.

The great American musician Wynton Marsalis has said that the blues is about “optimism without naiveté.” The blues carries none of the flippant good cheer of most of the popular music that came before it or that has choked the soul from radio channels and movie soundtracks in recent decades. With its standard chord changes, it is simple, even simplistic, but from such a basic musical structure primed for lyrics about struggle, survival and all facets of love and loss, an emotional depth lacking in many other musical styles has emerged. It was largely the accomplishment of young Englishmen, many of them middle class and a surprising number of them art students, to turn American blues-based rock and roll into an international musical style.

Although hard to imagine back when it was first popularized by the likes of a truck driver (Elvis Presley), a hairdresser (Chuck Berry) and a poor farm boy (Jerry Lee Lewis), and the typical listener was an American teenager of Eisenhower-era impressionability, when middle-class English boys finally got hold of rock and roll, it would be pursued as an art form. Together with like-minded Americans, they created a body of music that paradoxically still sounds fresh even as it recalls a bygone era, one that is seemingly as far removed from contemporary pop music as Brahms is from contemporary classical music. It is music from a time in which music mattered to a generation deeply absorbed with being its own generation, a time when a pop song was expected to be more than just clever, romantic, danceable or simply fun.

It was music you enjoyed as something more profound than what your unknowing parents thought was so much better, stuck as they were with their collections of ballads and smart tunes sung by Dean Martin, Perry Como and such. The esthetics and the business of music have changed once more.  Could a band become a world phenomenon now with new songs with the musical and lyrical qualities of, say, “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Bitch”?  Wish all you want, but do not grip your chair in anticipation.

Once decried by parents as rebels, The Rolling Stones are now more respected by mainstream society than most parliaments and nearly all banks, the occasional indiscretion notwithstanding.  As widely reported, their average age exceeds that of the quintessential American institution of aged rectitude — the Supreme Court.  Looking behind the hyperbole about time and endurance, however, it is plain that they are effectively semi-retired.

The 50 & Counting concerts were The Rolling Stones’ first since 2007, and the two new songs featured on the tour were the first original compositions recorded by the band since even before that.

Even rebels need a quiet old age. Charlie Watts wears T-shirts to play his drums on stage but Savile Row suits for going about town; he and his wife of forty-eight years raise Arabian horses on their farm in Devonshire. Mick Jagger, who, after all, only pretended to be working class, began in music while studying at the London School of Economics; he spoke easily in French to his Parisian audiences and is properly addressed as Sir Michael.  Keith Richards and his wife of twenty-nine years live in suburban Connecticut in a comfortable house amid a large collection of books. Ronnie Wood has kicked alcohol (again), recently become engaged, and continues to exhibit his paintings, drawings and prints; on the side, he co-owns an art gallery in London.

True, most rock and roll songwriters do their best work before they reach forty (for many, it slows down before thirty), but so have any number of great mathematicians and American novelists.  Performance by rock bands has proven, however unexpectedly, to be as ageless as performance by jazz ensembles and string quartets. But a good quartet formed at any point in history can play Mozart. Like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones have seen their songs covered uncountable times, and as with Beatles songs, few interpretations of Stones classics by others can match the originals for quality and consequence. Who, we must now wonder, will sing “Brown Sugar” to us once The Rolling Stones are gone?

Which helps explain in part why so many will do seemingly anything to get to a Stones concert for perhaps “One Last Shot,” to use the title of one of the band’s new songs. And because The Rolling Stones know that people who are spending their rent checks for two and one half hours of music are there to hear and sing along to the greatest hits, artistic risk taking is not the key feature of their arena performances. No matter: a Rolling Stones concert is a papal mass in the cathedral of rock and roll, and you do not come to church expecting great surprises. As each of The Stones loyalists in the audience in Newark was deeply aware, for him or her (to borrow from a Stones lyric), his could be the last time hearing The Rolling Stones perform live. And if each knew so well what to expect and was pleased to hear and to see the familiar redone so well, after fifty years, who could can find fault with that?