If you've just paid hundreds of dollars for a Rolling Stones ticket, what kind of a set are you paying to see? Hits, all the hits, and nothing but the hits? A deep-cut festival of connoisseurs' favorites with a couple of crowd-pleasers at the end? A sensible if somewhat conservative mix of classics, a few (very few) recent tracks and one or two surprises?
Based on the first dates of the North American tour that arrives at the United Center for concerts Tuesday, May 31 and June 3, the Stones believe that their deep-pocketed customers are choosing Door No. 3. They're playing a majority of hits, one or two wild cards, plus two new songs, recorded for a 2012 greatest hits collection.
Over the last couple of decades, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have both weighed in on the “ideal set list” question, with Jagger leaning toward crowd-pleasers while Richards advocates mixing it up more. From the singer's perspective, it's understandable why he'd want to stick with familiar stuff; he's the point person for an audience's adulation or disdain. He's also a former student at the London School of Economics, so he understands there is an unspoken contract involved: Consumer pays big bucks, consumer expects to hear big songs.
Richards would have you believe that he doesn't pay attention to such mundane monetary matters, but nor is he much for routine. He has made his living as a guitarist by mixing riffs with a rhythm-lead style that ensures no song will be played exactly the same way twice, especially as he practices the “ancient art of weaving” with his chain-smoking co-conspirator, Ronnie Wood.
If it were up to Richards, he'd probably play a different set each night. But on the current tour, even pirate Keef has become a slave to routine; he usually sings lead on the same two songs, “Happy” and “Before They Make Me Run,” each night when Jagger briefly exits the stage.
Such late-career conservatism isn't a surprise. Even Stones heroes like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker were pretty much playing the same songs each night as they grew older. But some '60s peers (Neil Young, Bob Dylan) avoid predictable greatest hits tours, and veteran artists such as Prince, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty mix it up nightly. The Stones may feel they have to play certain songs to please their audience, but as a fan my fondest wish is for my favorite artists to play what excites them. I'm sorry, but I don't believe the Stones are invested in performing “Satisfaction” or “Start Me Up” for the zillionth time.
Given that this is shaping up as the Stones' last go-round as a touring band, they want to hit all the obvious high points. But for me, those high points maybe aren't so obvious. My dream set list would go something like this:
1. “The Last Time”: Because we know this just might be the last time on a major tour for the Stones. Plus, it makes for a nice Chicago homage — Richards' riff mimics the version that the Staple Singers recorded in 1961.
2. “Tumbling Dice”: Love it when all the instruments drop away and it's just Richards laying down that indelible riff.
3. “Stray Cat Blues”: The Stones at their nastiest; Jagger creates one of his most sinister narrators over a droning guitar-piano combo that the Velvet Underground would love.
4. “Out of Time”: The Stones approximate the British Invasion cool of the Zombies, but who would play Brian Jones' indelible marimba part?
5. “Emotional Rescue”: The Stones broke this one out for the first time on this tour, and it's a weirdly great slice of rocked-up disco.
6. “Sway”: Time for a “Sticky Fingers” twofer, beginning with this bleary embrace of the “demon life.”
7. “Moonlight Mile”: Haunted, poetic road song with Charlie Watts' orchestral drumming and Jagger on acoustic guitar.
8. “Time Waits for No One”: With Mick Taylor, the guitarist during the Stones' mostly brilliant 1969-74 run, touring as a special guest, it's time to break out this lead-guitar showcase from the “It's Only Rock 'n Roll” album.
9. “Can't You Hear Me Knocking”: The second half of this “Sticky Fingers” track is another opportunity for Taylor to cut loose over a Latin groove.
10. “You Don't Have to Mean It”: Richards opens his solo spot with a reggae vibe, one of the Stones' best from the last two decades.
11. “You Got the Silver”: Richards' second solo piece, a forlorn country-blues.
12. “2000 Light Years from Home”: The Stones at their trippiest from the underappreciated “Their Satanic Majesties Request” album, their warped, cynical response to the Beatles' “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
13. “Hand of Fate”: One of Richards' best riffs, from the just about totally forgotten “Black and Blue” album (1976).
14-20. Parade of hits: “Jumpin' Jack Flash,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Rocks Off,” “Paint it Black,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “You Can't Always Get What You Want” (with choir).
21. “Rip This Joint”: Can Richards play this hard and fast anymore? Would love to see him make the attempt.
22. “When the Whip Comes Down”: Savage guitars from 1978; the Stones out-punk the punks.
23. “Torn and Frayed”: A country lament that would make a great final encore. Picture it: Jagger, Richards and Wood on bar stools with acoustic guitars, Watts on brushes. “Just as long as the guitar plays, let it steal your heart away.”
The Rolling Stones
When: 8 p.m. May 28, May 31, June 3
Where: United Center, 1901 W. Madison
Tickets: $150, $250, $450, $600; ticketmaster.com
Greg Kot co-hosts “Sound Opinions” at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m Saturdays on WBEZ (FM-91.5).
What do you want to hear the Rolling Stones play when they are in town next week? Tell us your ideal set list in the comments below.
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