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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Start Them Up, Yet Again

The Rolling Stones' 'Bridges to Babylon' tour has it all: songs, staging and attitude. So what's wrong with that?

September 25, 1997|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

CHICAGO — OK, what's next for the Rolling Stones?

The question may sound a bit premature, given that the band just launched its worldwide "Bridges to Babylon" tour before 54,000 fans Tuesday night at Soldier Field here.

But this tour is a slam dunk. Unlike U2's unfocused "PopMart" affair, Tuesday's "Bridges" show--which centered on the band's '60s and '70s tunes--was a winner on both musical and technical levels.

The large video screen above the stage was breathtaking in its clarity. The stage lighting was colorful and engrossing. The sound was state of the art. The mammoth stage floor looked as long as an airport runway.

And the Stones (who play Dodger Stadium on Nov. 9) still generate plenty of attitude. The stage was made up to resemble a Babylonian boudoir, and Keith Richards' full-length leopard coat and wraparound sunglasses were, well, delightfully Keith.

Best of all, the old songs still sounded great for the most part, at least once the band got through the somewhat stiff first few minutes. The set list ranged from the opening "Satisfaction" to the closing "Brown Sugar," with more than a dozen signature hits in between, including "Honky Tonk Women," "Tumbling Dice," "Let's Spend the Night Together" and "Start Me Up."

In all the talk about the Stones' baby boomer nostalgia appeal, it's easy to overlook that this is a band with an extraordinary legacy as songwriters and musicians.

Moments before the start of the concert, a plane flew over Soldier Field pulling a banner that pointed proudly to the fact that a Chicago radio station has been "rolling with the Stones for 25 years."

The sobering thing is that the station came to the Stones party late. By 1972, the Stones had already done much of their most celebrated work, including such albums as "Beggars Banquet" and "Let It Bleed," which established it, along with the Beatles, as one of the two most influential bands in rock history.

In an era that has witnessed gangsta rap and the youthful angst of grunge, the original bad boys of rock are no longer considered bad, and they're certainly not boys. At 51, guitarist Ron Wood is the youngest of the Stones. Drummer Charlie Watts, 56, is the oldest. Singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Richards check in at 54 and 53, respectively.

Still, the band plays its classic material with a dedication and authority that show why the Stones remain masters of the blues-rock form.

Despite the solidness of the new show, there were signs Tuesday that the band needs to shake things up the next time it hits the road in, say, 2001.

Even as the entertainment unfolded Tuesday, it was noticeable that some moss is starting to gather. The Stones have made stadium spectacle work three times now--the "Steel Wheels" tour in 1989, "Voodoo Lounge" in 1994 and now, "Bridges."

The core of songs and personnel lineup (except for Darryl Jones replacing Bill Wyman on bass) has stayed so much the same over that period that it's easy to think of this tour as "Steel Wheels III" rather than anything new--and there's always a danger in too many sequels. (The musical support team again includes Chuck Leavell on keyboards, plus a horn section featuring Bobby Keys on saxophone, and backup singers.)

The best thing for the Stones would be to come up with a great batch of new songs or to scale things down and return to arenas. The former doesn't seem likely in view of the string of lackluster Stones albums over the last decade, and there's not a lot of financial incentive for the latter.

That means a dramatic rethinking of the stadium show presentation.

The answer may have been glimpsed Tuesday when the group left the glitzy main stage and crowded onto a postage stamp-sized platform in the center of the stadium.

There were gasps of delight from fans who got to see the band in such an intimate and unexpected setting. The music, too, took on a new, fresh dimension. "Little Queenie" was high-spirited, and "Let It Bleed" and "The Last Time" were downright thrilling.

Like most musicians, the Stones frequently talk about the joy of club shows that free them from the restrictions of the big stage. The problem, they say, is that you need the stadium shows to satisfy the ticket demand (and, no doubt, the band members' financial desires).

By designing a show around a small stage in the center of the stadium, the Stones could combine the spontaneity and warmth of a club show with the energy and celebration of a stadium concert.

The idea would be simply to force the Stones to rethink everything about the music, from song selection to arrangements, in ways they haven't had to do in years.

Besides, what else can the Stones do to top the spectacle of these last three stadium tours? Add a golden arch and a mechanical lemon to the staging?

Sorry, U2, but "PopMart" showed that bigger isn't always better.

* The Rolling Stones and the Wallflowers play Nov. 9 at Dodger Stadium, 1000 Elysian Park Ave., 7 p.m. $62.50 and $39.50. (213) 224-1400. The Rolling Stones also play Feb. 3 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. Information to be announced.

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