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CHINESE DEMOCRACY: The Rolling Stones in Shanghai.
ImagineChina/AP
CHINESE DEMOCRACY: The Rolling Stones in Shanghai.

Rolling along

Music | The Stones show their age—in a good way—in Shanghai concert

Issue: "Blurred Vision," April 5, 2014

The March 12 performance by The Rolling Stones at Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena found the “world’s greatest rock-and-roll band” enhancing its musical reputation, tip-toeing socio-political high wires, and aging into a kind of wisdom.

Inhabiting a dazzling stage replicating the band’s lips-and-tongue logo and enhanced by a considerately magnifying giant-screen backdrop, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards (both 70), Ronnie Wood (66), and Charlie Watts (72) could’ve basked in their legend and cruised as if time were still on their side. Instead, they performed as if this go-round might be their last and that, if go out they must, they want to go out on top.

As with the other stops on their “14 on Fire” tour (so named for its original 14-date itinerary), the Stones performed 19 timbre-spanning songs, most of which have long been staples of classic-rock radio, dropping only “Honky Tonk Women” and “Brown Sugar” in deference to their host country’s suggestiveness-sensitive government censors.

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That they replaced those songs with “Dead Flowers” (which Jagger introduced as a “country” song) and “Ruby Tuesday” demonstrated not only the nonpareil depth of their catalog but also both their and China’s increasing willingness to compromise. The latter, after all, did permit the overtly revolution-stoking “Street Fighting Man” and the implicitly deistic “Sympathy for the Devil.” Hardly the concessions of a nation intransigently committed to long-term micro-management and/or atheism.

The evening’s deepest revelations, however, were not political. 

There was, for instance, the international nature of the audience, whose 18,000 members’ anticipatory pre-show and excited post-show chatter came in English of various accents: German, French, Italian, and Mandarin. Comprising at least three generations, they enthusiastically greeted each song and gladly complied with Jagger’s requests to sing along.

Then there was Keith Richards. Relatively sober and happily married to the ex-super model Patti Hansen for 31 years, he clearly savors the privilege of getting paid to do what he loves (which in Shanghai included singing “Slipping Away” and “Happy”). Last, there was the touching cameo participation on three tracks of Mick Taylor (65), the Stones’ lead guitarist from 1969 through 1974.

But even in the twilight of the frontmen’s careers, trouble and controversy dog the band: In the midst of the worldwide tour Jagger’s long-time girlfriend, designer L’Wren Scott, 47, was found hanged on March 17, allegedly taking her own life in her Manhattan apartment. Jagger, according to a press statement, was “shocked and devastated.”

History lessons

Legendary, iconic, and rebellious though they remain, The Rolling Stones are not among the 27 artists celebrated in Legends, Icons & Rebels (Tundra), the recently published book by The Band’s Robbie Robertson, his son Sebastian, Jim Guerinot, and Jared Levine. Subtitled Music That Changed the World, Legends seeks to introduce children ages nine through 12 to the performers most responsible for shaping the 20th century’s pop-music template.

The inclusion of Carole King aside (surely Duke Ellington and Robert Johnson contributed more?), the diversity virus stays in remission even down to its anti-religious strain: The authors acknowledge both gospel music’s role in launching Sam Cooke and the gospel’s role in tethering Little Richard.

Robertson and Co. limit each chapter’s text to two pages and thus summarize to the point of glossing over. But the breezily informal narratives include enough salient and tantalizing details to whet the investigative appetites of precocious musicologists born too late to have experienced Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Louis Jordan, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Patsy Cline, and The Beatles firsthand.

And should the prose prove insufficient, there are gorgeous portraits and two accompanying CDs featuring one seminal greatest hit per artist to light a fuse.

Coincidentally, the video montage accompanying The Rolling Stones’ Shanghai performance of “All Down the Line” paid homage to many of the same artists. Those in search of a common denominator could do worse than settling on “freedom.” —A.O.

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