Stacking the Rolling Stones’ Best Shows

The From the Vault series adds infinite layers of the Rolling Stones' performances for diehard and casual fans alike.
The Rolling Stones
Eagle Rock Entertainment

Being in a classic rock ‘n’ roll band is often an exercise in repetition, and therefore requires a willingness to appreciate nuance. To be a fan of the Rolling Stones requires a similar mentality to that of being a member of the band itself. In short: how many versions of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” have you lived through, and how deeply can you delight in their tiny differences?

Riding high on the Zip Code Tour and the 50th anniversary of their debut, the Stones and their fans must be feeling a bit nostalgic. It’s been fully ten years since they’ve cut any new material together, and the past decade has been jam packed with a dozen live album releases from the very well-received Shine a Light Scorsese documentary soundtrack to a half dozen CD/DVD sets of their most historic ‘70s and ‘80s shows.

Throughout 2012, the band released five concerts exclusively on Google Music that span three decades of tours: L.A. Friday (Live 1971), Hampton Coliseum (Live 1981), Live in Leeds (Live 1982), Live at the Tokyo Dome (Live 1990), and Light the Fuse (Live 2005). Light the Fuse was a short set of 15 tracks recorded in front of a mere thousand people in Toronto, and it didn’t do very well. The other four recordings charted in Germany, but seem to have done more for Google Music in the US than they did for the band.

Some diehard fans likely snapped up those albums. Most of us missed the boat on that, and fortunately, we’re getting a second chance to take a look with the From the Vault series.

Thanks to Eagle Rock Entertainment, those two albums now have DVD accompaniment with restored footage from the shows plus official new audio mixes courtesy of Bob Clearmountain. The beloved, Emmy-winning engineer has worked on many projects for the Stones and is absolutely the best man to bring something special to this reissue. He worked on the Tattoo You studio album, which served as the impetus for the tour that resulted in Live in Leeds. That tour also resulted in Still Life, the live album on which he worked that reached #4 in the UK charts and #5 in the US.

He also worked on Stripped, which included live tracks from the band’s Tokyo shows during their 1995 Voodoo Lounge Tour, and Live Licks, which covers a range of 2002-2003 Licks Tour stops promoting the Forty Licks retrospective album. Clearmountain’s been on top of the band’s live recordings, drawing out those little changes in a long line of greatest hits on repeat, for more than 30 years now. His other live mixing work includes Bruce Springsteen’s massive Live/1975-85 box set and the Woodstock ’94 Bruce Gowers documentary soundtrack.

With a thorough knowledge of both how gritty and how slick the Stones can be, Clearmountain gets the job done properly for the 1982 Leeds show and the 1990 Tokyo show. The audio lets in enough noise for listeners to feel the energy in the venue, but keeps the guitars and vocals laying clearly on top with firm, precise layers in the surround sound.

When Mick Jagger is out of breath or Keith Richards is scratching the neck of his guitar, the mix permits many quirkier moments of this hotly human band to ring through with easy leveling in the audio that pays attention to detail without exaggerating what the shows must’ve been like. The recordings are clean, but not so pristine that they deny a realistic rendering of each concert. Clearmountain leaves the muddying up to the band.

The Rolling Stones have a very deep greatest hits selection from which to choose their set lists, and as the decades fly by, the choices only increase. In comparing the two live albums from 1982 and 1990, the first thing to do is consider the track listings. There are several songs that appear on both albums. “Start Me Up” is part of the finalé work in 1982 and then it’s the opening song in 1990. Astonishingly consistent, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is track #13 on both albums, ending the first CD of both double-disc sets.

“Tumbling Dice” arrives two-thirds of the way the 1982 show and fifth in the 1990 show. In another weird coincidence, “Miss You” is sixth from the end in 1982 and sixth from the beginning in 1990. “Honky Tonk Women” starts the wrap-up in ’82, but appears in the middle of the set in 1990. Both sets finish with some configuration of “Brown Sugar”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. Across the four CDs with 24 or 25 songs in each concert, there are only eight common songs. If you’re considering ponying up for both concerts, that lack of overlap on two-thirds of the tracks allows pretty excellent bang for your buck.

However, the endless hit parade repetition is more of a problem for the Live in Leeds 1982 show. The 1981-82 tour in support of Tattoo You had an American leg and a European leg. The last show on the American leg became the album. The last show of the European leg became the Live in Leeds (Live 1982) album. This poses an obvious problem. The 1981 American show briefly charted in the US and did a very nice turn for Google Music, so a fair number of people stateside have that album already. Eagle Rock also released that 1981 show as part of its From the Vault series in 2014, and the setlist for the 1982 European show is pretty much identical.

Here’s the “pretty much” qualifier: Hampton Coliseum includes “Waiting on a Friend” and “Let It Bleed”, whereas Live in Leeds includes “Angie”. The “Angie” track is nice because Jagger first briefly mentions that this is the last gig of their biggest tour ever and says with a homely British vibe that Leeds is “quite a nice place to end up”, but the rest of the set list is exactly the same songs in precisely the same order. So if you’ve already got the Hampton Coliseum album, Live in Leeds will serve as proof of how just much more tired the Stones were six months later, unless you’re indeed keen to cogitate on the infinite and infinitesimal possible differences of the two identical set lists.

The better concert video is going to be Hampton Coliseum, because the show was just so much more crazy. Keith Richards turned 38 that night. When Jagger is introducing the band at the top of disc two, they end up singing “Happy Birthday” just before Richards steps forward to sing “Little T & A”. Then during the big finalé, about one minute into “(I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, some idiot fan runs onstage and rushes Jagger and Richards under the cover of the ongoing colorful balloon drop. Richards doesn’t even blink. He sees the guy coming, whips off his guitar and swings it solidly in self-defense three of four times. Jagger keeps watching and singing the whole time. The fan is chased offstage by guards and Richards continues to play with his guitar somehow not at all out of tune.

The Live in Leeds DVD is really good, though it doesn’t have the sick rock ‘n’ roll drama of the American show. The Live at the Tokyo Dome (Live 1980) DVD is also excellent, and when taken side by side with Live in Leeds, the two DVDs provide an interesting historical perspective. For starters, the Leeds show is outdoors and the Tokyo show is indoors. The difference is both a literal and figurative one of day and night. On top of that, the Leeds show’s sensibility is full of that which was considered awesome in 1982, while the Tokyo show highlights a different type of stylish shenanigans and more attention to stagecraft in line with what other giant tours did in the 1990s.

In 1982, it was costumes galore, bizarrely fashioned instruments, running around the stage like maniacs and drinking Jack Daniels straight from the bottle, a cigarette dangling from every lip except Jagger’s. In 1990, it was fancy jackets, a more robust horn section, chewing gum instead of cigarettes, and really only Jagger running around while trying to avoid the blindness accompanying such intense rainbow strobe lights and centerstage pyrotechnical effects.

I could tell you about Gene Barge’s masterful sax solo on the band’s cover of “Just My Imagination” in 1982, or Jagger’s very excellent blues harp on “Midnight Rambler” in 1990. I could tell you about how the Leeds show is very significant in retrospect because it was the last show they did with Ian Stewart, who died in 1985. Stewart was a co-founder of the band subsequently pushed out by management because he didn’t sell the band’s image as well as the other fellows, but he went on to be their road manager and often played piano on select songs at their shows.

I could tell you about how the Tokyo show was among their first ever in Japan and how it’s very significant in retrospect because it was their last tour with Bill Wyman, who quit the band in 1993. Wyman’s slyly sour thousand yard stares in the direction of drummer Charlie Watts are some of the funniest moments in the Leeds concert DVD. That Leeds DVD pays a lot of attention to close-up focus on faces, not so much to instruments. The Tokyo DVD gives the more complete concert experience, but is less useful in creating a portrait of the band members and their relationships.

We can go on and on like this for a very long time, because hey, it’s the Stones — and they have been going on and on like this for a very long time. This is the stuff of which doctoral dissertations are made. But the bottom line is that you can either stack several of these From the Vault series DVD/CD combos in a way that adds flavor to a diehard fan’s consideration of one of the world’s most excellent bands, or you can pick one in the series practically at random and have an amazing experience with it that will easily stand alone.

You think the Rolling Stones are amazing in concert now? Yeah, they do far and away much better in terms of live energy and length of setlist than any other band collectively approaching such an old age. But the best thing about Live in Leeds and Live at the Tokyo Dome is that they are an immediate and thorough reminder of the fact that the Stones were simply always the greatest—during times when there was actually real competition for that title.

RATING 7 / 10
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