They're calling it "50 and Counting," a not-so-coy attempt by the Rolling Stones to deflect the inevitable questions about whether this will be their last tour.
It's just another way to keep the door open, something they've done since the '60s, when those questions first started. This could very well be the last time the Stones, celebrating their 50th anniversary, ever tour.
But the two warmup shows they played in Paris, the two arena gigs they played in London and three shows they just completed over a seven-day stretch in New York and New Jersey aren't likely to be the last of the "50 and Counting" dates.
Someone in their camp already let slip an itinerary on their app that included an April 12 date at next year's Coachella festival. Guitarist Keith Richards recently was quoted in Britain's NME that he was open to playing England's massive Glastonbury festival next summer. Certainly, he and fellow guitarist Ron Wood have suggested that more shows could happen.
Why all the mystery?
My guess is that when this whole process of reuniting started months ago, they tentatively agreed to do a handful of dates to observe the 50th anniversary of when the Stones made their debut, albeit in a radically different incarnation that didn't include drummer Charlie Watts, who joined early in 1963 (former bassist Bill Wyman joined in late '62), or Wood, who signed on much later in 1975.
They probably wanted to make sure they'd all get along and they wouldn't embarass themselves or find it to be too physically taxing. Next year, Richards has said, is the real 50th anniversary, because that's when Watts became a Stone.
Plus, the Stones have played coy about doing more dates, no doubt, because they didn't want to cheat the thousands who paid hundreds of dollars and pounds to see the five announced shows in London, New York and Newark out of an exclusive and expensive performance. They got enough flak about the ticket prices, most in the hundreds, as it is. Same for the thousands who, like me, shelled out up to $45 to watch their Dec. 15 "finale" on pay-per-view.
It was my first chance to see a "50 and Counting" show in full, having settled previously for fan-made cellphone videos on YouTube (something they didn't deal with on the "Bigger Bang" tour in 2005-07) and their European fan page, iorr.org (which stands for It's Only Rock 'n' Roll).
A versed observer can discern a lot about how they're playing, singing and sounding, but you don't get a reliable sense of what the new show, designed for arenas instead of stadiums, is quite like. A televised broadcast isn't the same as being there, either, but it does allow you to get a feel for what the old boys are up to these days.
Sunday's show featured 23 songs, and more special guests, something they've been doing on these shows, a clear nod to the TV audience and the good money they paid for the event.
This one boasted the all-starriest roster of them all, including pop star/performance art admirer Lady Gaga, who wore a long blonde wig and a striped pant suit open at the chest, wailed in her powerful soprano voice and a trippy, hippie-inspired dance (a nod to their '60s pop heyday?) to inject some life into "Gimme Shelter," a song that had no hint of Gaga's sense of humor when it was released in 1969, when the Vietnam War dominated so many people's lives.
If it was a handing of the torch, it was done by one formerly flamboyant Mick Jagger to one acolyte who is bigger than his band is these days, and 43 years younger than the 69-year-old iconic frontman.
That was the fifth song in a 2-hour and 30-minute performance that started slowly with openers "Get Off Of My Cloud" and "The Last Time," came to life with "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" and faltered with a ragged and out-of-shape version of "Paint It Black." The band wisely followed Gaga's wildly fun appearance with a calming version of the ballad "Wild Horses."
The show also featured contributions from guitar men John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr. on the old Freddie King/Jeff Beck Group blues nugget "Going Down," Mayer's fluidity and Clark's grity articulation graphic reminders of just how limited and sloppy Wood and Richards can be as soloists. At least they were on Sunday's performance.
The Black Keys, who played the Pan Am Center last October, shared the stage for Bo Diddley's chugging blues "Who Do You Love," which may have marked the first time the Stones ever have had two drum kits on their stage. Power drummer Patrick Carney wisely followed Watts' authoritative beat while Dan Auerbach intently traded verses with Jagger and slipped his fuzzy guitar lines in nicely among the jumping and jangled lines Wood and Richards pumped out.
Bruce Springsteen sounded hoarse but looked happy to be there on "Tumblin' Dice," and former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, far heavier and a little less fluid than during his 1969-74 run with the Stones, stepped in, as he did on three other shows, on "Midnight Rambler." This version lacked the excitement of the first one in London on Nov. 25, but the once-statuesque guitarist pulled back on his animated theatrics from that show, a wise move that benefitted his blues-drenched sound.
I'm not very nostalgic, but when he started embroidering Richards' churning rhythm, particularly when the song's momentum started to build back up, it took me back to those days when the Stones were at the peak of their creative powers, a time when they very well could have been the greatest rock 'n' roll band.
Bassist Bill Wyman, who rejoined them for the London shows, was not part of the American dates, presumably because of his well-noted fear of flying.
The Stones don't usually need all those guest stars, though they've often used them on PPVs from previous tours. "I feel like David Letterman up here, we've got so many guests," joked Jagger, himself a guest on "Late Show" earlier in the week.
A Stones show can usually stand on its own without them, but these Stones are not only older men, they haven't toured since 2007, and certainly didn't play together since then until earlier this year. "You better do good," Jagger playfully warned the crowd, "some of you have got your grandchildren watching you."
The Stones are, and have been, a part-time band for many years, and that, as much as age, has caught up with them some. That was obvious in the first part of the show. You could also see how Jagger struggled, then finally gave up trying to compete with Gaga. When he addressed the crowd after her departure, he sounded a bit winded.
Richards always is more focused and less animated at the start of a tour as he tries to get things where he wants them musically, but it took him a while to get into the groove Saturday. One can't help but wonder if the ravages of time, age, abuse and arthritic fingers have caught up with him.
It was the show's mid-section, where the Stones and a reduced version of their usual backup singers and musicians, really hit stride. Interestingly, the run started with two new songs, "Doom and Gloom" and "One More Shot," recorded a few months ago in Paris and released on the new "Grrr!" greatest hits collection.
They marked a stretch without any guests, and the band sounded particularly energized on both songs, the former a sneering rocker written by Jagger (the handclaps by backup singers Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer are a nice addition), the latter a melodic appeal for another chance written by Richards.
The always funky "Miss You" included a driving bass solo by Darryl Jones, another rarity for the Stones, who've benefitted from his bedrock playing since the "Voodoo Lounge" album in 1994, an a sassy tenor solo from Lubbock's Bobby Keys, a Stones sideman since the late '60s.
A rollicking "Honky Tonk Women" featured one of the few solos from Richards, who has gone back to focusing on his rhythm playing (his strength). It was a bit choppy, but had that lovely country feel that made the song so nasty in the first place, and Chuck Leavell's honky tonk piano solo fit nicely. Richards voice, always a dicey prospect, was surprisingly strong and assured on the autobiographical "Before They Make Me Run" and "Happy," two songs that seem to fit the occasion, especially the former, with its "gotta move while it's still fun" line.
When it was all said and done, including a choir-aided version of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and energized "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (far better than the slow-chugging one they played earlier at a club in Paris), part of a two-song encore, it was obvious that it was still fun, for us and them.
Jagger is Jagger, a physical phenomenon at 69 whose boundless energy and big personality and ego are synonymous with the Stones. He is the ultimate rock 'n' roll frontman, even now, and the driving force that has kept this band alive and successful for so long. But he's nothing without the others.
The "50 and Counting" tour is at five and counting (seven if you include those Paris test balloons, eight with the 12-12-12 Superstorm Sandy benefit). It would seem a shame to stop now. There's still gas in that tank. Maybe even more new music. I know you can't always get what you want, but I don't think a new album would be asking for too much.
1. "Get Off Of My Cloud"
2. "The Last Time"
3. "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll"
4. "Paint It Black"
5. "Gimme Shelter" (w/Lady Gaga)
6. "Wild Horses"
7. "Going Down" (w/John Mayer, Gary Clark Jr.)
8. "Dead Flowers"
9. "Who Do You Love" (w/Black Keys)
10. "Doom and Gloom"
11. "One More Shot"
12. "Miss You"
13. "Honky Tonk Women"
14. "Before They Make Me Run"
16. "Midnight Rambler" (w/Mick Taylor)
17. "Start Me Up"
18. "Tumblin' Dice" (w/Bruce Springsteen)
19. "Brown Sugar"
20. "Sympathy for the Devil"
21. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (w/Choir of Trinity Wall Street)
22. "Jumpin' Jack Flash"
23. "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"