I’m no schoolboy but I know what I like

On the face of it, it really makes no sense.

How is it that a 76-year-old man can successfully do what amounts to an aggressive 90aerobics workout while leading his band of septugenarians through a kickass two-hour performance of classic rock and roll?

I saw it, along with 60,000 other Rolling Stones devotees at the Rose Bowl last week, but I wasn’t quite believing what I was seeing.

(Let’s get my age-related joke out of the way right here:  At the merchandise booths before the show, alongside the tongue-and-lips t-shirts and hoodies, I was almost expecting there would be Rolling Stones walkers and canes for sale.  Boom!  I’ll be here all week…)

Seriously, though, if I were Mick Jagger’s doctor, I’m not so sure I would have given him the green light, following heart surgery only three months earlier, to run relentlessly across the stage like the 25-year-old he isn’t anymore.  Then again, Jagger is and has always been his own man, and I don’t imagine he needs anyone’s permission to do whatever he wants, even if it’s just to go down to the Chelsea Drug Store to get a prescription filled.  Clearly, he loves to perform, he wants to perform, and he is still very good at it, so he WILL perform, whether it’s as a street fighting man, a man of wealth and taste, or as a man stuck between a rock and a hard place.

As for his Glimmer Twin, the indestructible human specimen called Keith Richards, he too has the rock and roll gene buried deep in his DNA, but he appeared far less enthusiastic about the need to continue going through his paces on stage.  He was smiling now and then, and just might have been enjoying himself, as he chipped in some p1090321-e1566672054326monster guitar chords just when you thought he might doze off.  But for much of the night, he seemed bored and uncaring, and more than happy to turn over most of the guitar duties to his younger teammate, the 71-year-old Ronnie Wood.

And wow, what a 180-degree difference!  I went home from the show with a revived respect for Wood’s contributions to this band.  He did almost all of the heavy lifting, from some inspired slide guitar playing to quicksilver lead guitar runs, all the while demonstrating an impish playfulness in the way he carried out his assignments.  Not to mention, he’s a lot easier on the eyes than Richards, who looks these days as if he’s wearing a rubber mask that was left out in the sun too long.

Drummer Charlie Watts, meanwhile, was… well, critic Chris Willman from Variety put it beautifully:  “He’s still our darling, sitting at a minimalist kit and moving even more minimally with his casual jazz grip, looking like the mild-mannered banker who no one in the heist movie realizes is the guy actually blowing up the vault.”  The 78-year-old guy didn’t appear to even break a sweat as he unfailingly laid down the beat for 20 Stones classics for more than two hours.  Me, I get winded going up a few flights of stairs.

At a stadium show like this one, most people are so far from the stage that they can barely see the performers, and if not for the four truly astounding visual screens that hung behind the stage, they wouldn’t know for sure it was the actual Rolling Stones and not some paid actors.  I beat-opener-stage-bb5-2019-billboard-1500don’t know who the art director is who was responsible for the spectacular graphics and visual content of these displays, but if you ask me, he should be paid as much as Jagger and Company.  The audience (unless you were those fortunate few in the first 30-40 rows) spent the entire evening watching the concert via the screens, and believe it or not, this was not a bad thing.  Unlike the simplistic, average-quality visuals I’ve been forced to watch at many other stadium shows, these were state-of-the-art, presenting the four featured players in as favorable a light as you could possibly imagine.

The camera people didn’t neglect the other musicians who added significant parts to The Stones’ live stage presentation.  Darryl Jones, who has been handling the bass guitar parts in the touring band since original member Bill Wyman’s departure in 1994, had several moments in the spotlight, most notably as he carried the day on an extended rendition of “Miss You.”  Similarly, veteran keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who has toured with not only the Stones but also The Allman Brothers for decades now, offered some integral piano work on crowd-pleasing selections like “She’s a Rainbow” and the anthemic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Most photogenic, though, was 37-year-old Sasha Allen, making her debut appearance in place of long-time touring vocalist Lisa Fischer to belt out backing vocals and, most significantly, the Merry Clayton vocal solo during “Gimme Shelter,” which still sounds as threatening and chilling as the original did 50 years ago.

Those uber-professional screens, by the way, proved to be far better stage accoutrements maxresdefault-28-560x416than the silly cherry pickers and inflatable penises The Stones previously trotted out as concert spectacles.  I had been a witness to both of these laughable visual props at the 1981 “Tattoo You” arena tour and the 1989 “Steel Wheels” stadium tour, respectively, and I can tell you I would have much preferred these quality screen shots of the band members doing their thing.

While the visual presentation is always important (why else go to a concert in the first place?), equally crucial is the song list the band decides to perform.  Most classic rock bands still out there on the road have chosen to play it safe by limiting themselves to the hits everyone supposedly came to hear, and in that regard, The Stones did indeed stick to the tried-and-true standards.

I look at the Stones’ music in four distinct eras.  First there’s the early years (1963-1967), from their humble beginnings covering old blues tunes through their first attempts at writing their own songs, some of which become huge Top 40 hits in the UK and the US alike.  From that period, they offered three tunes at the Rose Bowl show:  the vaguely menacing “Paint it Black,” the flower-power curiosity “She’s a Rainbow” and the most durable war horse of their whole catalog, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

Then, there’s the glory years, from their “Beggar’s Banquet” LP in 1968 through “Exile on Main Street” in 1972.  This is when The Stones were truly “the greatest rock and roll band in the world,” especially in the studio, writing and recording some of the most amazing music in rock history.  This period was, as expected, broadly represented at the Pasadena show:  “Street Fighting Man,” “Sympathy For the Devil,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Gimme Shelter,” “You Got the Silver,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Midnight Rambler,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Brown Sugar,” “Dead Flowers,” “Sweet Virginia” and “Tumbling Dice.”

It was during “Midnight Rambler” that Jagger whipped out his harmonica and helped make that song the winner of my “best moment of the evening” contest, although it won by only a fraction over a mesmerizing, hypnotic “Sympathy for the Devil.”

desert-trip-2016-003The third era of Stones music I’ll describe as the erratic years, when the group’s records meandered between average ambivalence (“Goat’s Head Soup,” “Black and Blue”) and meaty masterpieces (“Some Girls,” “Tattoo You”), and this wild swing in quality was a frustrating time for Stones fans.  From this period (1973-1986), last week’s show included only three selections:  The not-to-be-denied disco stomp “Miss You,” Richards’ defiant “Before They Make Me Run” and their final #1 hit single, 1981’s “Start Me Up.”

The fourth era, if you can even call it an era, is everything from 1989 to the present.  It’s a pretty lame 30-year stretch that included just four LPs, and only one of those (“Steel Wheels”) was anywhere close to the high standards they’d laid down in their best days.  Not surprisingly, we heard only one track from this period, the so-so “You Got Me Rocking.”  (Wouldn’t “A Rock and a Hard Place” have been a better choice?)

When you analyze the setlist in this way, it’s clear to see that The Rolling Stones in 2019 choose to present themselves pretty much as The Rolling Stones of 1969 or so, concentrating on the finest songs they ever wrote.  And why not?  I mean, hey, if they’re going to continue to tour well into their 70s, they might as well put their best cards on the table.  The audience, largely made up of longtime fans also in their grey-haired years, wants to hear the songs they know and love best.

Me, I’m a rock writer and veteran rock-concert attendee, and I would’ve frankly preferred to hear a few more of the less obvious choices. I guess they did go out on a limb when they moved down the catwalk to sit down and try their hand at “unplugged” tunes like “Sweet Virginia” and “Dead Flowers.”  But I don’t know, it seems to me they could have taken a chance or two with the set list during the meat of the program. Maybe drop “Honky Tony Woman” and make room for “Monkey Man” or “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.”  Or even go deep and offer up “Respectable,” or “Too Much Blood,” or “Slave.”

images-59Understand, I’m not complaining.  It was fun to hear Jagger make references to L.A. landmarks and neighborhoods like “Thursday night’s turtle races at Brennan’s” (in Marina Del Rey), or unsuccessfully searching for their star on Hollywood Boulevard (inexplicably, there isn’t one, guys), or being unable to get a reservation at Spago’s (it’s been closed since 2001).  And we were all reminded of our mortality when he said it has been 55 years since The Stones’ first Los Angeles concert, and 25 years since they’d last played the Rose Bowl.

I was thoroughly entertained, and who knows if these guys will still have enough in the tank to show up in town again four or five years from now for another go round.  If so, I suspect I’ll be here, “just waitin’ on a friend.”

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The Spotify playlist below offers the songs from the August 22nd Rose Bowl show in the order they were played, followed by a few other gems from their catalog I would have loved to have heard…

 

 

 

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Here we are, under the stars

For me, experiencing live music has always been one of life’s best pleasures.

Truth be told, I think I love it best when it’s in a small, intimate club, performed in front of an attentive, appreciative audience.  It might be a quiet folk artist, alone at the piano or on guitar, or it could be a spirited blues band, settling into a fine groove.

Then again, hearing live music under the stars on a pleasant summer evening can be Jazz_in_the_park_Milwaukee_6062pretty sweet as well.  Assuming the venue has decent acoustics, there’s something about hearing music outside, particularly if you’re sitting back in lawn chairs with friends.  It’s somehow a more memorable experience.

Now that it’s summertime, thousands of music lovers are flocking to the many dozens of outdoor amphitheaters found in or near just about every city in the nation.  I was surprised to learn from a Google list of U.S. outdoor venues that there are more than 230 “amphitheaters” which can handle crowds ranging from a few hundred seats to more than 30,000.  Some of these are coming up on a century of existence; others have opened just within the last ten years.

With the summer solstice approaching, this seems like an apt time to take a look at some of these outdoor venues, whose schedules typically run from May to September.  Blossom may be celebrating a half-century of existence, but there are at least a dozen other popular outdoor concert sites with histories dating back to the 1930s or ’40s.

First I’d like to mention the amphitheaters I’ve patronized in the past, and then also the ones cited in various polls as among the most popular, either with the artists who play there, or the patrons who visit them, or usually both.  No doubt I’m leaving out some notable facilities, but I feel safe in deferring to the artists and industry folks who know about acoustics and ambience, and what makes a great concert experience.

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Blossom Music Center, outside Cleveland, Ohio

A smile came across my face when I read recently that this year marks the 50th ClevelandOrchestraBlossom-1anniversary of Blossom Music Center, the idyllic outdoor venue nestled in the Cuyahoga Valley 25 miles south of my home town of Cleveland, Ohio.  Built in 1967-68 as the summer home of the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra, Blossom quickly became an essential part of every summer for Northeast Ohio music fans.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s and into the ’90s, I attended a LOT of shows there.  In the early ’80s, when I was reviewing concerts for a local newspaper, I went to about 25 Blossom gigs each year.  These were all popular music artists, some of them fantastic double bills:  James Taylor with Linda Ronstadt, The Doobie Brothers with Heart, Hall & Oates with Kenny Loggins, Boz Scaggs with Southside Johnny.  And the variety was impressive: Peter Paul & Mary, Marshall Tucker Band, Santana, The Allman Brothers, original-793The Moody Blues, Jackson Browne, The Kinks, Bread, Traffic, Santana, Joe Walsh, The Beach Boys, Stephen Stills, The Pretenders, Stevie Nicks, Charlie Daniels Band, Elton John, Jethro Tull, Pat Benatar, Jimmy Buffett, Eric Clapton…

As with most similar venues, I suppose, I remember there being two different ways to enjoy a concert at Blossom.  If you sat in seats under the amphitheater roof, you could see the show and enjoy great acoustics.  If you sat on the lawn, you couldn’t see much of anything, and the sound varied from OK to abysmal, depending on the artist, the crowd behavior, and the year we’re talking about.  The tickets were priced accordingly, and those on the lawn knew they were there for the fun of it more than a quality listening experience.

Cleveland Orchestra concerts, of course, were an entirely different animal.  People behaved and were respectful of the musicians performing.  Even on the lawn, the sound 2was very good.

……Also of interest in the Cleveland market is Jacobs Pavilion, formerly Nautica Stage upon its opening in 1987.  It holds just 5,000 concertgoers and sits directly on the banks of the Cuyahoga River in The Flats entertainment district in downtown Cleveland.  The most notable characteristic is the stark urban/industrial backdrop.  I recall it being a very jaw-dropping moment when an enormous Great Lakes freighter glided by on the river behind the stage during a performance!

Chastain Amphitheater, Atlanta, Georgia

During my 17 years living in the Atlanta area, I saw several shows (James Taylor, Steely cb23bfcb945b9e210dd103210989950dDan, Jethro Tull, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra) at this charming venue, located in Chastain Park, just north of the Buckhead area of Atlanta.  The facility holds 7,000, mostly reserved seating, with limited general admission lawn seating.  For most shows, there are tables arranged in the front half of the seating area, approximating a large cabaret/club environment, and patrons are invited to bring their own food and beverages.  The big drawback here is this invites conversation and milling about, which often can distract from the performances on stage.

New to Greater Atlanta since 2008 is Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in the northern suburb of Alpharetta.  It seats 12,000 and hosts mostly popular music performers.

Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, California

In 1922, this historic amphitheater was carved into a concave hillside in the Hollywood View Over LAHills, just a short walk from the bustle of Hollywood Boulevard.  Its distinctive band shell of concentric arches has undergone numerous upgrades through the years to improve acoustics, made difficult by the venue’s sometimes disruptive urban setting.  It now boasts state-of-the-art sound projection and fidelity, with a seating capacity of 17,500, and artists playing rock, pop, jazz and classical genres perform as part of a lengthy annual season, thanks to Southern California’s temperate climate.  The Beatles recorded their famous “At the Hollywood Bowl” LP there in 1964-65, as did The Doors in 1968.  The Bowl has been featured in dozens of films and TV programs as well.  I’ve seen an excellent double bill there of Sting and Peter Gabriel, as well as shows by James Taylor, Paul Simon and Fleetwood Mac.

The Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, California

L.A. music lovers are fortunate to have two historic outdoor venues located within a few Unknown-22miles of each other.  The Greek Theatre, part of the master plan for Griffith Park envisioned by its founder in 1898, was completed in 1930, also in a natural canyon setting.  It was rarely used in its first two decades and then underwent significant upgrades in the 1960s.  Since the ’70s, The Greek, which seats a more intimate 5,800, is hugely popular as a venue for concerts, stage shows and even high school graduations.  I’ve been just once, for a Doobie Brothers gig in 2014.

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Red Rocks Amphitheater, outside Denver, Colorado

The striking rock outcroppings that surround the natural Red Rocks Amphitheater date 18423067_10155401153617437_7476940129621660689_oback to Pre-Cambrian times, which gives the place an almost sacred feel to it.  Many performers have selected it as the finest outdoor venue they’ve ever played because of its superb acoustics, its natural beauty and its storied past.  First used for ceremonial events by the Ute tribe in the 1700s, Red Rocks became a primitive concert site as early as 1910, using a temporary platform and rough wooden benches.  The modern amphitheater, built in 1936 and opened in 1941, currently seats 9,500.  Its first rock concert featured The Beatles in 1964, and the visual uniqueness of the setting have made it a popular venue in recent years for live recordings (CD/DVD) by such groups as U2, Blues Traveler, The Moody Blues and Dave Matthews Band.

The Gorge Amphitheater, George, Washington

You read that right:  This very cool venue is located in George, Washington, roughly d3b807f7ec9a36c46127f9e13deb098f-rimg-w720-h720-gmirhalfway between Seattle and Spokane in the Columbia River Valley.  With its spectacular views of Columbia Gorge Canyon, The Gorge is widely praised as one of the most scenic outdoor venues in the world.  It’s also one of the newer sites on this list, opening in 1985, and seats 27,500, ranking it among the largest.  It’s pretty damn remote, but that doesn’t seem to stop people from converging on the venue every summer, thanks in part to spacious campgrounds nearby.

Tanglewood, Massachusetts

Nestled in the Berkshire Hills between the towns of Lenox and Stockbridge, Tanglewood 1415658979605is actually a musical arts center with three music schools as well as “The Shed,” the 5,000-seat amphitheater.  Broad lawns provide ample seating for thousands more, with sweeping views of Monument Mountain in the distance.  It opened in 1938 as the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and has been offering classical, jazz, pop and rock concerts for 80 years now.  Massachusetts resident James Taylor has played Tanglewood nearly every year for more than 40 years.

Jones Beach Amphitheater, Long Island, New York

Opened in 1952 in Jones Beach State Park near Wantagh, NY, this amphitheater was 8-Nikon-at-Jones-Beach-Theateroriginally situated in Zachs Bay with a moat in front and the Atlantic in the distance, and performers were transported to the stage via boat.  It had 8,200 seats and generally staged musicals for its first 30 years.  By the 1980s, the moat was filled in to provide closer seating, capacity was increased to 15,000, and concerts became the bulk of its schedule.  It is currently undergoing a huge renovation.

Telluride Town Park, Telluride, Colorado

Situated in the heart of The Colorado Rockies, Telluride is a famous skiing destination in Telluride_BluesandBrewswinter and plays host to numerous music festivals in the summer months at the Town Park.  Heralded for its magnificent mountain backdrops, Telluride is a tiny town, but the park’s world-class music events put it on many artists’ “favorite venue” lists.  Annual bluegrass, folk and country music lineups are eager to perform in this amazing mountain valley setting.

Ascend Amphitheater, Nashville, Tennessee

The newest venue on the list is Ascend Amphitheater, located on the banks of the 13758Cumberland River in downtown Nashville.  Country star Eric Church played the opening gig in July 2015, and major acts from Train and Neil Young to Widespread Panic and John Legend have performed there.  The facility offers 2,300 fixed seats, 4,500 lawn seating and an amazing view of the Nashville skyline behind the modern, angular stage.

Merriweather Post Pavilion, outside Baltimore, Maryland

Despite its rocky past, Merriweather Post Pavilion (capacity 19,300) ranked in Rolling merriweather-post-pavilion-at-columbia-thStone Magazine’s top ten outdoor venues in a 2013 poll.  It’s also 50 years old (actually 51) this year, and has braved a roof collapse, appearances by controversial political candidates, and rock concert gate-crashers during its history.  But it soldiers on within Symphony Woods, a 40-acre plot of parkland within the planned community of Columbia, Maryland, outside Baltimore.