‘Brown Sugar’ overdose

Times Staff Writer

THE Rolling Stones surrendered their “world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band” title long ago to U2, but on their current tour the ageless musicians are in position for the first time in years to prove they are still a relevant unit.

So what happens before a packed house Friday at Angel Stadium in Anaheim?

Timidly, this once-daring band let the opportunity slip away. Its much-heralded “A Bigger Bang” tour stop proved in one crucial way to be simply a whimper.


Instead of showcasing material from the Stones’ strongest album in (gulp) a quarter century, the new “A Bigger Bang,” Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the gang played it safe by devoting most of their two hours to crowd favorites from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Yes, that meant opening again with “Start Me Up.”

And, a few minutes later, “Tumbling Dice.”

And, don’t forget “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Paint It Black” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

Think you can guess the rest?

That lineup, of course, sounds exactly like what every Stones audience wants -- and the band’s key members are at the height of their powers vocally and musically. So the mood Friday was as delirious as at a winning Angels’ playoff game.

Fans, many of them wearing souvenir T-shirts from tours decades ago, hugged and danced, thrilled to hear those classic tunes one more time.

But what about the band’s legacy -- and the obligation of artists to challenge their audience and themselves with new material?

Even Richards said recently that he felt things were getting stale on the last tour and wanted to come up with new songs for the show.

The best of the material from “A Bigger Bang” is sensational, not just freshening up the Stones’ seductive grooves, but also revealing a new vulnerability in tales of relationships that leave far behind the renegade, love-'em-and-leave-'em image of 40 years ago.

The Stones performed only three of the 16 songs from the new album Friday and slipped them into the set almost apologetically.

You’d think pride alone would make them test the audience by doing at least half a dozen.

How much more thrilling it would have been for Jagger, who opens the bluesy, apocalyptic “Back of My Hand” on the new record with a glorious guitar solo, to have shared that number with the crowd, rather than simply singing “Get Off My Cloud” one more time.

How cautious can these guys be?

They’ve long shown the ability to master stadium concerts by just doing the oldies, thanks to showman instincts as potent as their musicianship.

The stage itself Friday was one of the most striking ever in rock. A series of balconies, some holding fans, curved around a pair of structures as high as the stadium’s top bleachers. A giant video screen between the structures cast breathtakingly clear images of the musicians to the far reaches of the stadium.

Even in the back rows, you felt part of the action -- more so when the band came to the first-base area for a few numbers on a smaller stage. That second stage would have been the ideal place to showcase some of the softer tunes from the new album.

But no.

After an opening set of R&B-flavored; reggae from Toots & the Maytals, Jagger, wearing a glittery jacket and silver-striped shoes, led the band on stage to kick things off with “Start Me Up,” the 1981 hit that opens with one of Richards’ most famous and energizing guitar riffs.

If the Stones were in an adventurous mood, they could have followed with “Rough Justice,” a guitar-driven song from the new album that updates the sound and sass of the Stones’ epic periods.

Jagger’s lyric on that song is a playful account of how time has turned some of his old relationships upside down:

First I saw you, baby,

You were springing like a young gazelle

Next thing I know,

Way down the road

You’re flying like a bat out of hell.

The song has been picking up lots of rock-radio airplay, and the Stones did include it later in the set, but they gave the more valuable opening stretch to such unessential fare as “You Got Me Rocking” and “She’s So Cold.”

It wasn’t until the fifth song that they turned to a tune from “A Bigger Bang”: the spirited rocker “Oh No Not You Again.” The wry tale of a romantic encounter isn’t much lyrically but is marvelously designed musically -- another one of those signature seductive Stones grooves that sounds both casual and precise, though never rigid.

Richards was the quarterback on most of the numbers, often making the opening statement on guitar, then forming a partnership with drummer Charlie Watts, guitarist Ron Wood, bassist Darryl Jones and keyboardist Chuck Leavell that allowed enough freedom to shift the music in subtle ways.

By the end, the Stones had thrown in some surprises -- an especially vigorous rendition of Ray Charles’ joyful "(Night Time Is) the Right Time” -- and fireworks that lighted up the cool night.

Some of the classics, including “Tumbling Dice” and “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It),” sounded a bit rote, but most were fabulous.

As the band left the stage, the excitement in the stadium let you know that most of these fans will be standing in line to pay the big bucks again if the band hits the road for a new tour in another three years. The top price this time was $450. Imagine what it’ll be then.

But what if this tour, which wraps the first leg of its L.A.-area run Tuesday at the Hollywood Bowl, proves to be the last time around for the Stones, whose key members are in their 60s?

Is this conservative show really the way to say goodbye?

The Stones apparently are willing to settle for the audience going home thinking, “Boy, those guys can still play ‘Brown Sugar.’ ”

Wouldn’t it be better if those fans, having heard some of the new songs, went home thinking, “Wow, I never dreamed they could be that good again.”


Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at robert.hilburn


Rolling Stones

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., L.A.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Price: Sold out

Contact: (323) 850-2000


Also at: The Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood

When: 7:30 p.m. March 6

Price: $60 to $450

Contact: (310) 330-7340