Tuesday, October 4, 2005

They say every cigarette is a subconscious chase for a smoker’s first nicotine high. Seeing the Rolling Stones, lo these many years, can be like that.

Compared to many Stones fans, the ones gray of hair and thick of paunch, this reviewer started his habit late, in 1989, and succumbed again to the temptation Monday night at the MCI Center (and will do so again this week in Charlottesville and again in Baltimore next year and…).

To stick with the addiction analogy, there’s an element of diminishing returns to a Stones dependency. Your brain adapts to the intoxicant and subsequently requires more, more, more — which is something the Stones, for all their indescribable stamina, don’t necessarily deliver.

Some gigs, like Monday’s, fail to cross the two-hour barrier. Set lists begin to crimp. And because the band and its promoter, Michael Cohl, insist on setting new records for ticket prices with each new tour (premium seats at MCI cost more than $400 a pop), the band plays to an increasingly casual, corporatized audience that is deaf to the Stones’ insanely rich back catalog.

Stones audiences are not the frothing union of fanatics I have seen at, say, Bruce Springsteen concerts. I wish they were, but they simply are not. They’re a chunk of serious fans mixed with curious seekers (the folks who must see the band at least once) and — especially in a city like Washington — a group of well-behaved interlopers who are there on business.

So, after the inevitable opener, “Start Me Up,” we get the creature comforts: “Honky Tonk Women,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Brown Sugar,” “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Miss You,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” among them.

These are some of the greatest rock (and, don’t forget, disco) songs ever written, and it’s a little too easy to take them for granted. Moreover, the Stones still play them ferociously. Never a precision act, they play their hits with the hunger, and often the carelessness, of a garage band.

I mean it when I say this: It was thrilling to watch the band royally mangle “Shattered” and plow through it as though nothing were wrong. Only true pros can do that.

In fairness, there was one treat from the vault — the new-wave-era rocker “She’s So Cold,” accompanied by Jumbotron footage of the Stones’ hilariously kitschy music videos — plus a fun cover of Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful.” The band also played a few cuts from its terrific new album, “A Bigger Bang,” including the rowdy rockers “Rough Justice” and “Oh No, Not You Again” and the apocalyptic Delta blues number “Back of My Hand,” which sported Mick Jagger on bottleneck guitar.

This is where the reviewer must use words such as “swagger” and make requisite mention of Mr. Jagger’s uncontainable energy; the impregnable rhythm section of drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Darryl Jones; and the telepathic interaction between guitarists Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood.

It was all there, in a fantastically loud, guitar-dominated sound mix that masked the chinks in Mr. Richards’ and Mr. Wood’s armor. On bad nights, Mr. Wood is lazy and erratic. Ditto Mr. Richards, who has been quietly damaged by, of all things, arthritis.

Monday wasn’t a bad night. At times, it was a great night. Too bad only a stubborn minority appreciated moments such as when Mr. Richards crooned his 1994 country-Western gem “The Worst,” with Tim Ries blowing beautiful figures on a soprano saxophone and keyboardist Chuck Leavell playing sparkly notes that Stones founder Ian Stewart liked to call “diamond tiaras.”

As I watched the interlopers pour into the halls, I couldn’t help but wish it were my first time again.

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