Ohio Stadium, Columbus, OH – May 30, 2015
The self-coined appellation is an inherently tricky business. Nicknames are one thing – a fun trifle, maybe, or a calculated way to push a promising career – but capital letter Designations, as if the artist’s name alone is insufficient to possibly contain his, her, or their grandeur, imminence, or supremacy, are quite another. As promotional tools, they might be laughable or they might be unforgettable. The air these artists occupy, and the heights they signify, are generally too rare to allow a third option. Was Elvis Presley, in fact, the “King of Rock and Roll”, a name that resonates decades after his death (and is still often abbreviated to, simply, “The King”), or Michael Jackson the “King of Pop”? You tell me. At their heights, I’d say almost certainly, and those honorifics have since followed them into immortality. Was Aretha Franklin really the “Queen of Soul”? Yes, indeed, unless you can produce a better contender (and you can’t). Was James Brown truly the “Godfather of Soul”? All that and then some…of soul and, frankly, a few other genres. No one self-applies these kind of titles lightly, but as an almost aggressive kind of proclamation. Whether, in fact, you believe the hype is almost beside the question. Hype is eventually recast as legend, and legend is what endures. Yes, but can it surprise? You’re in the presence of the King, after all, the Queen, the Godfather… How about the Greatest? Imagine the temerity, the chutzpah, the terminal self-confidence, edging the needle from black into red, of declaring yourselves “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band”. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Rolling Stones, who, some forty years after trumpeting themselves thusly, may no longer embody the primal energy and thrust of rock and roll the way they did in, say, 1971, but exist instead on a more exalted, plainly mythic level, which – considering their unmatched, overstuffed songbook/battery/gauntlet of indelible music, and the kind of auras that can best be contained on a fifty-foot video screen – is arguably just as intoxicating to witness.
If I engage in some literary flights of fancy in what follows, I apologize. Anyone who knows me well also knows I wear my heart on my sleeve. You could chalk it up to extended authorial license, though I’ll come right out and state unequivocally that I’m still, in many ways, processing the fact that I saw The Rolling Stones at all, five days now after the fact. The idea that, if for no other reason, one should still see the Stones just to be able to say he/she saw them was one that placated me conceptually for the many, many, many years during which my own opportunity was a personal pipe dream. One day, I’m going to be there, thought the East Tennessee kid, wistfully, (approximately) 114 years ago. One day I’m going to come full circle. On the last Saturday in May, 2015, in the upper reaches of Columbus’ fabled Ohio Stadium (known locally, and, increasingly, nationally, as “The Horseshoe” for its open-ended oval architecture), I finally came full circle, not just as a fan of the Rolling Stones, but as a fan of rock and roll music, an art form the pursuit of which I’ve dedicated more hours of my life to than almost anything this side of breathing. To me, The Rolling Stones are rock and roll, the singer and the song indivisible. The first rock song I remember ever hearing may well have been Queen’s “We Are the Champions”, but that doesn’t mean the first riff I ever jammed to wasn’t, in fact, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, with which the band closed its Horseshoe show, or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, with which it opened. The Stones unironically proclaimed themselves “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” a handful of years before I was born, at a moment – Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street – when they unequivocally were. Several decades have passed since. Thousands of careers have risen and fallen. Tens of thousands of songs have hit the pop charts yet fallen short of “Satisfaction”, and many hundreds of artists have been enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which, unlike satellite operations for soul, or blues, or country, was engineered to accept all comers. And The Rolling Stones are still the world’s greatest rock and roll band, a status they cemented for me, personally and likely for all time, on a routine tour stop in front of 60,000 fans at Ohio Stadium. That all this is routine for them is something I had to keep reminding myself, something I can barely fathom even now. So kindly forgive my established tendencies to overreach. I paid my money, and waited my time, and I have no obligation to be the least bit impartial. I’m possibly going to tell some tall tales here, since for the moment my mind is still operating almost exclusively on that scale. Just know that I came by them honestly.
The first thing to know about The Rolling Stones is that no moment is ever bigger than they are. The stage at the Horseshoe, a vast but surprisingly utilitarian structure custom built over the course of the preceding week, reflects this in its design. A stage area for the larger band grafted onto a cross made up of two long ramps on which Jagger can vamp, one stretching the full length of the stage plus the two giant video monitors that flank it, the other extending far out into the crowd on the repurposed football field and ending in a bulbous mini-stage where one or more Stones might venture for a more intimate moment of the current song. Abundantly well-lit without being overlit, and just flashy enough – with its two behemoth video monitors contrasting the more understated one above Charlie Watts’ drum kit and the whole setting outlined in illuminated, interlocking geometric patterns – without risking overstatement, it was, in other words, a standard stadium show stage. If anything, the comparative lack of bells and whistles on display helped keep attention right where it should be, fixed on the band. And, boy, did they deliver. There’s really no need to beat a Rolling Stones audience over the head with spectacle, or attempt to dazzle it with cheap slight of hand. That’s Mick Jagger in the flesh down there, after all, the consummate showman and hyperactive, 71-year-old cheerleader, moving with an unflagging energy level and strange native tenacity that openly defies his much-discussed age. There’s Keith Richards, headscarf flying, cigarette burning and omnipresent, contorting himself into drunken yoga poses mid-riff or solo, and pausing periodically to smile or laugh at the joy and wonder and absurdity of it all. 50+ years. There’s Charlie Watts, the outward stoic who might appear a mechanical drummer but plays with as much soul and heart and feel as anyone. In the Horseshoe, I noticed him smile more than in the previous close to thirty years of fandom, which was wonderful and appropriate, since this concert, for me, was not just a celebration but a culmination. Those are The Rolling Stones. Can’t you hear them knocking? Their sound is massive, their presence is palpable, and no matter which twenty songs they might play on a given night, fifteen or more are among the very greatest songs rock and roll has ever produced, guaranteed. The songs do all the heavy lifting required, and render cheap, ancillary thrills not only unnecessary but irrelevant.
Not to belabor this point in a review already brimming with belabored points, but what songs these are! After an opening video montage depicting the iconic “Lips & Tongue” logo undertaking a colorful, cross-country road trip (from San Diego to Texas to Nashville and on to Ohio Stadium’s 43210), the second stop of the 15-show “Zip Code” tour roared to life with a quartet of songs – “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “It’s Only Rock and Roll”, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, and “Tumbling Dice” – engineered to elicit maximum energy and excitement while simultaneously underlining that thought lingering in the back of every audience member’s mind. Yes, you’re here, and this is happening. The Stones are ever a step ahead in the game of commerce, of course, and their recent expanded reissue of the 1971 hallmark Sticky Fingers warranted the live inclusion of a couple of only slightly underplayed classics, the gorgeous “Wild Horses” and the swaggering “Bitch”. A brief detour, however upbeat, came in the form of the Stones’ most recent single, 2012’s “Doom and Gloom”, and Keith Richards played his normal mid-set mini-set whilst Jagger took a much-deserved breather, featuring a ragged but celebratory rendition of Exile on Main Street’s “Happy”. Otherwise, it was bombs away and all systems in overdrive. “Honky Tonk Women” became a joyful, marvelous, stadium-spanning singalong. “Midnight Rambler” ably recalled the bluesy danger of the Stones’ aforementioned late-‘60s/early ‘70s zenith. After faking out the delighted crowd with the news that the “Fan’s Choice” song of the night* was Ohio’s state rock song (and beloved OSU Buckeye party/rally perennial) “Hang on Sloopy”, Jagger announced the real winner, the rumbling, simmering “Paint It, Black”. I remarked to my 33-year-old friend a little later that we probably (improbably) represented the median age of the 60,000 gathered. There were 12-year-old kids walking with their 40ish parents; there were 20-something frat boys and 30-something party girls, on their feet from the start and plugged into the show; there were 65-year-old couples wearing shirts from the 1980 Tattoo You tour, the 1989 Steel Wheels tour, the 1994 Voodoo Lounge tour, the 1997 stopover that represented the Stones’ most recent trip to Columbus (years before I moved here, let alone had the chance to absorb the culture or develop legitimate love for my adopted home town), or any number of other Stateside jaunts in the interim separating the nebulous “then” from the spectacular “now”.
*Lest you think the set list emerged unblemished, allow me a moment’s lament over the San Diego “Fan Choice” winner, the stirring, inimitable “Street Fighting Man”, which is one of a handful (along with “Bitch” and “Gimme Shelter”) of my very favorite songs, by the Stones or anybody. In the end, they just have the songs. You could scoop any random twenty out of a carefully curated songbook of fifty and still be guaranteed that evening, any evening, would be transcendent.
Over fifty years into what seems an unending, and perhaps unendable, tour, people must by now think of Mick Jagger as little more than a glittery, sentient cash register that periodically struts across a stage in two-hour intervals before being returned to his restive, natural, relentlessly money-counting state. I myself wasn’t entirely sure what to think, until, that is, I finally witnessed him and his ace band playing live. Now I find that kind of characterization not just 180 degrees wrong, but lazy, and offensive. Jagger could easily phone in his performances after so many years and miles and shows, content to skip town at the first possible opening, his horse-choking proceeds in tow, but instead he seeks to entertain, thoroughly, almost masochistically, and works his ass off to relate to and harness the energy of a crowd of 60,000 the same way he might’ve once mastered a club of 600. Now, only an idiot would ascribe wholly pure motives to a touring act as time-tested, lucrative, and successful overall as the Stones, but, on some level, if the band didn’t have the goods – and I mean really have the goods – its history would be severely truncated, perhaps a mere footnote in the story of the initial early-‘60s “British Invasion”, and not only wouldn’t we be having this particular conversation, any discussion of the power, growth, and influence of rock and roll over the last half century would be drastically, irrevocably different. I recognize the impulse to want to discount or discredit them, for their age, their mileage, their merchandising, their ridiculous ubiquity, or whatever complaint you might invent. But I didn’t see an old band at Ohio Stadium. I saw the world’s greatest rock and roll band, fiery and engaged, defending its title for the umpteenth time in four decades, and in emphatic fashion. “Gimme Shelter”, with its searing, spine-tingling, dueling vocals between Jagger and backup singer Lisa Fischer, almost covered the price of admission alone. What cynic could’ve possibly borne witness to all that and still hemmed, hawed, or smirked, or selfishly wanted the show to end?
That’s another thing to know about The Rolling Stones. The show never truly ends. I can’t say why, but the Horseshoe show is just as alive for me now, writing this, as it was from my vantage point amongst the unforgiving benches of C-deck, situated so far away from the stage that sound and sight reached us at noticeably mismatched times. It hardly mattered. You not only checked your cynicism at the stadium door, you left it at home before departing. More than any other concert experience of my life, the experience of seeing The Rolling Stones live brought with it a distinct sort of anticipatory, preparatory process – think of it as a diver priming him or herself for a deep sea expedition, or an astronaut preparing to go into space. It’s truly the closest I’ll probably ever get, and if you are parsing my words in a markedly different manner than I am currently writing them, I can’t say I blame you. I have some understanding of how foolish I must sound, trust me. I simply don’t care. The difference lies, most likely, in that vein of pervasive public cynicism, already remarked upon, which the Stones have expertly negotiated and circumvented now for decade upon decade. Yours may be intact, if not even sharper than it was a few paragraphs ago. Mine, however, was utterly obliterated at Ohio Stadium, if not before the immaculate set-closing volley of “Gimme Shelter”, “Start Me Up”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, and “Brown Sugar”, then by it, not even mentioning the yearning encore of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, augmented so beautifully by the Ohio University women’s choir, or by the metaphorical (and literal) fireworks so inadequately contained by “Satisfaction”, with its jittery, jet propulsion heart and the most famous guitar riff in music history. I never wanted it to end…though, by the end, I was well satisfied. I’m not going to speak for 59,999 other people, only myself. However, I’d like to think I heard affirming cries in their own happy, cacophonous voices, that it wasn’t mass delusion or an elaborate auditory hallucination. Live albums have every reason to exist. But live albums should, ideally, be souvenirs, and never, ever, substitutes for the real thing. The Stones, who have thirteen of their own, know this very well.
That brings us to the last thing to know about The Rolling Stones, a truth I long suspected but never fully understood until I finally saw them live. There simply is no substitute for seeing them live. Period. And, even then, you’ll probably still want a souvenir.