Age brings change, but the changes were decidedly for the better Tuesday when the Rolling Stones kicked off their Licks World Tour, named for an upcoming compilation that marks the British supergroup’s 40th anniversary.
On their ’90s tours, the Stones had largely become a grizzled stadium jukebox. On this trip, however, in addition to mixing stadium, arena, theater and club dates – often in the same city – the band is taking new liberties with its set lists.
Tuesday’s two-hour-plus tour opener at the FleetCenter included its share of rarely and never-played nuggets that thrilled and puzzled the arena crowd. Along with ’60s hits and ’80s obscurities, the show dug most liberally into the band’s ’70s catalog, including a central stash of five songs from the 1972 classic Exile on Main Street. Mick Jagger strummed an acoustic guitar for “Loving Cup,” strutted with enthusiasm through a feisty “Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint,” and took his first jaunt up the catwalk which led to a satellite stage in the middle of the arena. The Exile selections were also driven home by punchy fills from steady drummer Charlie Watts and a four-man horn section that included saxophonist Bobby Keyes, who played on the album.
Another night may bring a visit to 1978’s Some Girls album, which went untouched at the FleetCenter. But the Stones’ promise to dip into vintage soul covers on this tour yielded a novel, no-nonsense run through the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” as Jagger joined backup singers Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler to spread a brotherhood vibe throughout the crowd.
While Jagger was in fine voice, and preened more like he was enjoying himself than going through the cocky motions, his craggy-faced guitar foil Keith Richards seemed positively reborn Tuesday. From his show-opening riffs in “Street Fighting Man” to his minimalist blues licks throughout the night, Richards picked notes sharper than the angles of his contorted limbs as he played with medallions dangling from his spotted headband and a sly smile crossing his face.
Richards even sang lead on not one, but two mid-set tunes. His oft-creaky voice connected for a surprisingly soulful “Slipping Away” from 1989’s Steel Wheels (the closest the Stones got to their ’90s output) and the chestnut “Happy,” fueled by lap-steel salvos from guitarmate Ron Wood.
Wood got to stretch out during the coda of the unearthed eight-minute gem “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” which also featured Keyes on tenor and Jagger on harmonica. And Wood interlocked with Richards for the delightful down-and-dirty roots of “Stray Cat Blues” and a later burrow into “Mannish Boy.” That Muddy Waters standard launched a set-closing B-stage romp rounded out by the roughhewn ’81 curveball “Neighbours” and old favorite “Brown Sugar” which had the crowd joining Jagger’s “Yeah, yeah, yeah, woo!” refrain with hands in the air.
For the small stage, the Stones pared their 13-member band to a six-piece core with bassist Darryl Jones and keyboardist Chuck Leavell. Yet the whole show benefited from both spare arrangements and a sense of intimacy granted by a seven-story LED backdrop which made the Stones larger than life when the full screen lit up for the new rocker “Don’t Stop.”
For other songs, live footage splintered into partial screen treatments, making the band appear on a billboard over the hazy car lights of a busy freeway for an affecting “Wild Horses,” and as psychedelic red images over police chase scenes for the edgy 1983 oddity “Undercover of the Night.” The screen was the only stadium-size concession; in place of the inflatable figures of past tours, a cartoon vixen took a ride on the Stones’ trademark tongue for “Honky Tonk Women.”
From Steve Somers of Reading, Massachusetts, it was all a change from his first Stones show in 1965 – on the same site at the old Boston Garden. “It was during the screaming era,” said Somers, 51, who paid $3.75 for his ticket at that time. “You’d try to guess what song they were playing.”
The only guessing at the FleetCenter was courtesy of the Stones’ unusual song list, as the sound system was not an issue. And neither was age. Funny when one considers that the Pretenders, who mined their own classic riffs as the warm-up act, are still a band only half the age of the Stones.
“I’ve seen [the Stones] 14 times and that was one of the best,” enthused Paul English, 34, of Randolph, Massachusetts, who lucked into a pair of $350 tickets for $250 on the sidewalk. And Marilyn Emrick, 35, who flew up from Orlando, Florida, after scoring a last-minute ticket online said of her adventure, “It’s $900 for 48 hours of fun, but it’s worth every penny.”