What a difference four decades can make. The last time—also the first time—the Rolling Stones played in London’s Hyde Park was in 1969. The show, which was free, was a memorial to recently deceased founding member Brian Jones and the debut of Jones’ replacement, another blond, much fresher of face, the 20-year-old Mick Taylor. The band hadn’t played live for some time, and their performance was tentative and shaky.
Fast forward to July 2013, and the Stones return to Hyde Park for the last two gigs of their 50 and Counting tour. This time the punters had to pay—£95 (about $148) for a regular ticket and £299 ($464) for “hospitality packages”. (That still was a lot cheaper than the US prices, which topped out at $600, with “VIP packages” available for up to $2,000.) The 65,000 tickets for each show sold out within minutes, proving that after 50 years there still was much love for the hometown band that started out playing blues covers in London’s divey bars and clubs.
This time there was no sloppy, unfocused playing: The Stones, fresh from the US leg of their tour, were tight and polished. They’re now a slick show band, the three remaining original members, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, and the “new guy” (since 1975) Ronnie Wood, augmented by bassist Daryl Jones, keyboardist Chuck Leavell, backup singers Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer and Bobby Keys and Tim Ries on horns. Mick Taylor, no longer looking like the ingénue in a crew of louche reprobates (as the other Mick once observed, “time waits for no one”) was a “special guest” on the tour, playing on two or three numbers per show, “Midnight Rambler”, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’”.
So, with Hyde Park Live (compiled from both shows) as our touchstone, how does “the greatest rock and roll band in the world” sound these days?
Let’s break it down.
The Lead Singer
Mick Jagger, at 70, is singing remarkably well, taking care with his lyrics and only occasionally lapsing into camp mannerism. (Unfortunately one of those lapses is “Honky Tonk Women”.) His high notes are intact, maybe stronger than ever, which he attributes mostly to having given up smoking. (A vocal coach helps, too.) You wonder what Bob Dylan, only two years older, might sound like these days if he had followed Jagger’s example and given up the coffin nails. As the master of ceremonies, Jagger sounds relaxed and jovial, joking while introducing the musicians and singers who comprise the Stones’ touring outfit, “I feel a little like Jools Holland.”
Before The Stones embarked on the 50 and Counting tour, rumors abounded that Keith Richards might not be up to the rigors of the road. In a May 2013 Rolling Stone interview, Jagger acknowledged that he was one of the doubters. It was said that Richards’ playing was hampered by arthritis, that he hadn’t completely recovered from the serious head injury he suffered in a fall in 2006, and that he’d become an alcoholic who sometimes was too drunk to play onstage, as a Swedish journalist charged in his review of a show on their previous tour, eliciting a furious response from Richards. But as the Hyde Park gigs proved, he can still deliver those indelible riffs he created when he began using five-string open G tuning—“Honky Tonk Women”, “Brown Sugar”, “Start Me Up” and others.
On Live at Hyde Park , however, his lead work doesn’t always cut it, a case in point being “Sympathy for the Devil”, where his solo falls short of the taut, stinging break he played on the studio version, from Beggar’s Banquet. (The two best live versions are from The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus and Get Your Ya-Yas Out.) Richards’ sparring partner Ronnie Wood seems to be handling most of the solos, and, if he’s no Mick Taylor, he’s good enough.
The Rhythm Section
To say that there would be no Rolling Stones without Charlie Watts is to both state a fact and acknowledge just how central he is to the band’s sound. Watts, rooted in jazz (he has said that he originally thought “rhythm and blues” meant Charlie Parker played fast) and in the no-frills, funky style of New Orleans R&B drummers like Earl Palmer, makes the Stones swing – something few rock bands do. He sounds terrific on Hyde Park Live, whether supplying the tom-tom thunder reminiscent of Moroccan darbukas on “Paint It, Black” or the samba swing of “Sympathy for the Devil”. And after working with Darryl Jones for nearly 20 years, since the departure of original bassist Bill Wyman, Watts has developed a solid rapport with him, an American who played with Miles Davis.
The Set List
In the 2006 New York shows that Martin Scorsese filmed for Shine a Light, the Stones dipped into their vast songbook for some surprises: “Lovin’ Cup”, “She Was Hot”, and joined by bluesman Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer”. The setlists for 50 and Counting were much more predictable, with very few deviations from the Greatest Hits, among them, “Emotional Rescue” (never previously included in their shows) and “Under the Boardwalk” (likewise). Keith Richards has complained about Jagger’s conservative, take no chances approach, but “Her Majesty” (one of Keith’s hilariously bitchy nicknames for Mick, revealed in his memoir, Life) is the boss. At Hyde Park, they played only the best-known numbers (with the exception of “Emotional Rescue”), opening with “Start Me Up” and closing with “Satisfaction”. The 19-song set is well-paced and there’s less of the bloat—mostly overlong guitar soloing—that made for tedious moments on previous tours. (“Midnight Rambler” justifies its nearly 12-minute length; the seven- and eight-minute versions of “Gimme Shelter” and “Satisfaction”, not so much.) But with the Stones’ expansive catalog, why always the same selections? Given how many live albums they’ve released over the decades, who really needs yet another in-concert version of “Satisfaction” or “Brown Sugar”?