Did you hear about the "Midnight Rambler?" For those wondering why The Rolling Stones are still touring after 50 years; why they're not a nostalgia act hitting casinos but instead filling arenas and major festivals; and why people have been paying the $600 premium ticket price and even $2000 for VIP dinner and merch package for their 50 & Counting Tour, look no further than the band’s version of that song onstage last night at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. (They return on June 6).
It came 14 songs into a 22-song, over two-hour set that already showed Mick Jagger was as mind-blowingly spry as ever (the man turns 70 July 26!) and his voice as capable of falsetto as it is low Sprechstimme. Not to mention that guitarists Keith Richards, 69, and Ron Wood, 65; and drummer Charlie Watts, 71, remain as adept and immersed in rock 'n' roll as they were when they started.
The 10-minute dark epic began with Mick on blues harp, signaling the start of the 1969 classic and the appearance of one-time Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, and turned into the epitome of what the Stones are about: intuitive interplay, solos, a thorough nod to their blues roots and a lesson on how to jam cohesively. It was enveloping for the band — and audience.
On a set whose backdrop was the Stones iconic lips logo — the tongue forming a curvaceous runway for the band and so-called "tongue pit" for some ticket-holders — Mick and the boys took the stage after a video montage of fan testimonials spanning five decades, including Martin Scorsese and Pete Townshend. They opened with "Get Off Of My Cloud," the house lights raised for the "hey hey you you" part, the audience already on their feet, and followed with "You Got Me Rocking," with Mick immediately coaxing the crowd into overhead claps.
The stage had no other bells and whistles (i.e. no giant inflatable women or small secondary stage), just the lips which projected various animation when not showing the band as they performed, and enough jutting areas for Mick — and occasionally Keith and Ron — to strut and skip and sway to all sides of the arena. Augmenting the band, as usual, were bassist Darryl Jones, keyboardist Chuck Leavell, backup vocalists Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler, and horn players Bobby Keys and Tim Ries.
The Stones have years of history in Toronto. Keith's drug bust at the Harbour Castle hotel in the 1977 made the news and songs from their El Mocambo show later that week (billed as the Cockroaches) ended up on their album "Love You Live." But well after that, from 1994, Toronto became their home when they set up shop to rehearse for each global tour (Canadian Michael Cohl was their concert promoter until 2005; now it’s LA-based AEG Live) and grace us with last-minute club shows.
So it's no wonder Jagger would take a little interest in how our fair city is doing lately and mention Rob Ford's headline-making crack cocaine scandal.
"I just wanted to let you know one thing," he said. "We're not going to do any jokes tonight about the mayor; it's too easy a target. It's a bit of a cheap shot so we’re not going to do any of that — we're going to crack on with the show now." But he couldn't resist another quip later: "L.A. just elected a new mayor, who promised free medical marijuana; I wonder what the new mayor of Toronto would promise? Free subway tickets?"
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Besides those city-specific references, Mick kept the dialogue to the "how're ya doings," "thank yous," band member introductions and song names — the latter of course not really needed. The Stones set was filled largely with their best-known material: "Gimme Shelter," as in past tours, was a particular standout, largely due to Fischer's stratospheric vocal prowess on Merry Clayton’s definitive part. The vibe chilled next for the ballad "Angie" with Keith on acoustic and highlighted Mick's voice in top form. Some members of the audience slow-danced.
The next song was "by request," a song added to the set by vote, explained Mick: 1968’s "Street Fighting Man." There’s just no messing up this gripping political salvo. "Hey, think the time is right for a palace revolution/But where I live the game to play is compromise solution / Hey, said my name is called Disturbance/ I'll shout and scream / I'll kill the King / I'll rail at all his servants," Mick sings. When you take the time to listen to the brilliant Glimmer Twins words on some of these songs, they are such a part of the popular music they are taken for granted.
The band then invited special guest Carrie Underwood — whose husband is Canadian hockey player Mike Fisher — to duet with him on "It's Only Rock 'N Roll" and the country gal showed she can rock if given the opportunity. Wearing a Stones t-shirt for the occasion, she was clearly having fun, at one point jumping up and down with her arms in the air, Mick at her side. When she belted, "I know it's only rock 'n' roll, but I like it," she obviously meant it.
The new "Doom and Gloom" — the first single from 2012’s GRRR! 50th anniversary compilation and first Stones recording since 2005's "A Bigger Bang" — failed to come close to the brilliance of their older material but “One More Shot” was worse. “Honky Tonk Woman” whose tale of a Memphis dancer/prostitute is vivid and colourful and inventive, just emphasized this.
After Mick introduced all his band mates, ending with Keith, the beloved guitarist took the mic for his usual turn in the set. "Okay Toronto, I love you too, man. Been too long. Better late than never," he laughed. This go round, he chose the bluesy "You Got The Silver" with Charlie using brushes and Ronnie on pedal steel, followed by the uplifting "Happy" to "step it up now," said Keith. Mick then played the familiar opening to "Midnight Rambler" on blues harp and, well, that’s when you realized just how good The Rolling Stones really are and why they are still around.
The night closed out with "Miss You," with Mick asking "you feel like singing a little bit?” — of course we did, especially as the house lights went up for the oooh-oohs. “Thank you Toronto. We’ve been coming here for a very long time and we want to thank you for coming back to see us,” Mick said, before launching into “Start Me Up.” “Tumbling Dice” followed in what seemed like it would be the set finale, but they exploded into “Brown Sugar,” another lyrical masterpiece and clincher “Sympathy For The Devil,” with Mick wearing a feathery black cape for effect.
When the Stones returned for the encore, teenagers from Mississauga’s Cawthra Park Secondary School choir appeared on both sides of the stage to kick off the gorgeous opening to "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and come in during the rest of the song; the audience also had another big singalong with the lights up. The obligatory “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” saw the return of Taylor and the night came to a boisterous, purely satisfying end with "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." And Mick pointing, clapping and skipping with the same energy with which he began.
Check out photos from the band's L.A. gig: