Jan. 22, 2003 is the day I chucked cynicism and embraced faith. The final Chicago date of the Rolling Stones' '40 Licks' tour even justified 'The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World' tag without sounding smug. After all, it's not bragging if you can do it.
But that 'Greatest Band' label isn't mere hype, because it cuts to the heart of what the music is. Rock is a purely spontaneous art form that impacts its time, thus how it ages defines its relevance; whether hearing Carole King's Tapestry makes you feel the same in 2003 as it did in 1971. Rock, being a youth-created medium, gets stickier with super groups like the Stones. On the audience's part there's a need for nostalgia (the success of 'Beatlmania' is a perfect example; a sound-a-like concert by Beatle look-a-likes, it ran for years as theater) and spontaneous surprise. More than anything, 40 years down the line do these super groups make you feel like you used to? And then some?
But being the 'Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World' has given the Stones a crushing burden. Stuck with competing with their prime, every new album automatically gets met with cynical scrutiny. Whether 1997's Bridges to Babylon or 1983's Undercover are great is beside the point. The point is, those albums aren't Beggar's Banquet, Sticky Fingers, or Some Girls. For the Stones and particularly Mick Jagger, live onstage is the last arena where they can prove their relevance. Which was why for me, a jaded fan for decades, after seeing them three tours before (1978, 1981, 1997), the 'Licks' tour was an evening of redemption.
A 'Greatest Hits' show without frills, it got unpredictable on the second song. 'You Got Me Rocking,' a generic raver from the limp Voodoo Lounge, got a jolt of acidic bite through Jagger's phrasing. 'I was a hooker, loosin' er looks ...' he snapped like a wet towel cracking across a bare ass. A pile-driving 'Satisfaction' that was far nastier than the original, Mick wagging/pointing his finger preaching 'Neighbors,' Keith Richards' near-operatic 'Thru and Thru.'
Gimme Shelter' was as un-nervingly furious as any version that I'd ever heard, with Mick trading vocals with Lisa Fisher. Vocally it was the evening's highlight. The whole show was three hours of high-ball rockers ('Thru and Thru' and 'Waiting on a Friend' were the only exceptions); 'If You Can't Rock Me,' 'Whip Comes Down,' 'Happy,' 'Brown Sugar,' 'Start Me Up,' Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone.'
But 'Sympathy for the Devil' topped them all. 'Sympathy' has so much weird baggage attached to it (released in 1968 during the civil-rights riots/Vietnam conflict, it made its mark during the druggy, messy catastrophe known as Altamont), that it conjures up an aroma of sheer black dread. In a fedora with digital flames flashed on a screen, Mick conveyed that dread as well as the song's irony. 'Pleased to meet you ... won't you guess my name?,' he pleaded, flinging his hands out like he was casting a spell.
'Sympathy' is still creepy, but now in 2003 it's even more compelling. Compelling because after 9-11, Desert Storm, and Columbine, we know for a fact that evil, huge catastrophic evil, is not only possible but routine in our day and age.
But Mick is hardly the devil, what he is is hard to pin down. Not merely an entertainer, he's more a blur of motion—unchoreographed, wholly spontaneous, always able to push the impact of a song with an unexpected gesture. Playing the goofball one moment on 'Monkey Man,' then prowling the stage the next on 'Street Fighting Man,' he's full of drive and weird life. Sashaying back and forth, taking teeny cat steps about, or jabbing that finger while he slices across the stage, the man aims every move to the back of the house. You can say what you want about his age (60), but there's no one like him on stage, never will be. Odder still, he's uncompromisingly sexy. From this tour, even now it's easy to see how he ushered in androgyny in rock and redefined concepts of gender and role playing.
The rest of the band had the look of a bunch of high school boys running wild without a care in the world. Richards, who was remarkably agile, ended at least eight songs with a knee slide, and though his face is gone, he still plays with a searing bite. Ron Wood was just as goofy—jumping up and down like a cheerleader, then striking guitar-god poses. And behind it all sat Charlie Watts, casually playing with a smile on his face like he was at a picnic.
'The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World?' I shit you not.