When The Rolling Stones went through the blues on Sticky Fingers, the outcome of their product was far larger than they expected, but exactly as big as they had dreamed. Last night, some 80,000 people flooded the massive Plaines d’Abraham fields in Quebec City, Quebec to see them take the Bell Stage, the largest outdoor stage in North America. Another 10,000 camped out beyond the fenced border in sleeping bags and picnic blankets, creating a sea of skin for a mile behind the stage and on the streets adjacent to the grounds. The Stones made history decades ago; they get to bask in that glory for however long they please. The audience is, and always will be, there to see the songs they love for nostalgia, the one factor that allows music to transcend delivery, age, and context.
Every member owns their role: Mick Jagger is the singer; Keith Richards is the charismatic guitarist; Ronnie Wood is the overlooked guitarist; and Charlie Watts is the reliable drummer. From the opening chords of “Start Me Up” into “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)”, the Stones lived up to the giant red tongue that’s become synonymous with rock culture. Even without the inflatable lips or onstage toys they usually fall back on, this tour allows them to revel in their status as icons. They have a wealth of material to choose from. That’s what the Zip Code Tour, a nod to the working fly zipper on Sticky Fingers‘ 1971 vinyl packaging, is about. The Stones moved from the branding of music to the branding of themselves as people. To this day, they can live off that.
For a solid 15 years of my life, every time I saw Keith Richards, I wished Keith Moon could swap places with him. Don’t misread that: I’m not wishing death on Richards. Richards’ rickety wobbling and leathery skin look like some weird Halloween clearance item you place by the door to scare children. Watching him bend over to solo onstage, I was reminded briefly of Captain Jack Sparrow and the months Johnny Depp took to study Richards as inspiration. If a man this beaten from alcohol and drug use can still stand, why couldn’t the other Keith? Richards has memorable guitar lines and is generally a pleasure to watch, even while squawking his way through “Before They Make Me Run” and “Happy” on lead vocals, but he’s never had Moon’s merciless energy. No one has.
Nothing will stop the Stones from growing old. Watts sat behind the drum kit with a taut grin across his face, looking like the most pleasant man in the room who had stayed up far past his bedtime during “Tumbling Dice”. But it doesn’t matter how old the Stones are now or how many notes Richards misses between smiles. Their music has a place in the lives of so many people. It brings us back to a time where we heard it and felt alive, and nothing can stop the songwriting from bringing us back to that place.
Jagger refused to be anything less than magnetic, pulling all the eyes to himself while he skipped around the massive stage. During “Midnight Rambler”, he threw his fists in the air, punching continually until the crowd echoed his movements. On “Sympathy for the Devil”, he pulled the mic away from his face to spring from one edge of the stage to the other, his twiggy legs extending. Midway through “Gimme Shelter”, he strutted down the middle aisle like it was a personal catwalk. His energy was palpable. Through a dozen bottles of water and more than 10 jackets, including a feathery red cape and a bedazzled silver number, Jagger was able to deliver straight entertainment. Three-quarters of his interaction with the crowd was in French, each word tipped with the dramatic, lingering oomph of an English man speaking the language in a bar, three whiskeys in his belly, tiptoeing the line between drunken slurs and steady communication.
The focus on Sticky Fingers gave the Stones room to draw out their endings. “Brown Sugar” rolled on for minutes and “Wild Horses” slowed down below its usual tempo. Yet for all that milking, they skipped “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, a questionable exclusion given its length and the fact that it’s arguably the best song on the album. Instead, closers “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” stretched on forever. The crowd, however, loved it. Screaming English lyrics with their hands outstretched to the open skies was how they envisioned seeing the Stones, and last night, that vision became reality.
If one thing has been made clear in the last decade, it’s that the Stones are happy to play the hits. When you’ve got so many of them, it’s no longer a lagging routine, but a cherry picking of what suits you that year. The material may be getting old, but so are they. For now, it’s just fine to hear them play through the classics and pull a few dusty numbers into the mix, so long as we get to dance to them once more.
Photography by Amanda Koellner from last month’s Summerfest performance.
Start Me Up
It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)
All Down the Line
Street Fighting Man
Honky Tonk Women
Before They Make Me Run
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Sympathy for the Devil
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction