The Rolling Stones in 2012 may no longer be a great rock 'n' roll band, but the act can certainly leave a crowd wanting more.
The above is not meant to disparage anyone celebrating a 50th anniversary, nor does it offer a revelation. The Stones have been professional entertainers for decades now, and the band knows how to play to an audience. Perhaps frustratingly, the band also knows how to show just enough rock 'n' roll mettle to lead one to believe that someday, maybe they can once again be a great rock 'n' roll band.
The band, for one, can certainly charm, as Mick Jagger did tonight at 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief with a few barbs. Second, the band can tease, as the Stones did in making a quick exit after a surprisingly loose rendition of "Jumpin' Jack Flash." Actually, make that a refreshingly loose rendition.
"It's really wonderful to be part of this," Jagger said of the band's participation in the all-star benefit concert. Then he made a crack about the abundance of veteran rockers from across the pond joining in the benefit. In addition to the Stones, the 12-12-12 lineup boasted the likes of Eric Clapton, the Who and Paul McCartney.
"This has got to be the largest collection of English musicians ever assembled in Madison Square Garden," Jagger joked, nearly out of breath after a no-frills take on 'You Got Me Rocking."
"But if it rains in London," he added, "you've got to come help us, OK?"
Then the Stones plowed through a rendition of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" that seemed lifted straight from the rehearsal space, and in the best way possible. Drummer Charlie Watts stoically, elegantly kept it all together -- as he always does -- but Jagger was trying his best to bring a bit of recklessness to the proceedings.
In tackling the song, the Stones weren't afraid to jump headfirst into hurricane-referencing lyrics. But before anyone could wonder if it was in bad taste for Jagger to declare that he was born in a "crossfire hurricane," he turned it into a rousing tale of rock 'n' roll survival, snarling as he went into the song's final verse that he was "drowned" and "left for dead."
But still, this felt less like the Rolling Stones playing a benefit concert than it did the Rolling Stones trying sell viewers on Saturday night's pay-per-view concert. "You Got Me Rocking" was the kind of tepid, bar-band to song used to delay an encore, not to make an entrance. The 1993 "Voodoo Lounge" cut is full of of flaying jabs -- the hooker losing her looks, the writer who can't write another book, the lyric that can't avoid a cliche.
But no matter; the Stones were one of the top-billed acts at this benefit. Surely there would be plenty more interesting songs to come, no? No. The Stones put in two numbers and then called it a day, offering just enough excitement to provide a reason to tune in Saturday (see "Jumpin' Jack Flash"), and also presenting a reason to skip it (see "You Got Me Rocking").
The short set wasn't lost on those in attendance. Actor Steve Buscemi made a pair of jokes at the Stones' expense, sarcastically telling the crowd that he was only in attendance because he insisted the Stones do two songs.
The Who, in contrast, found the time to do six songs. There were expected numbers in the mini-set, including the perfunctory "Who Are You" and the resilient "Baba O'Riley," but "Love, Reign o'er Me" was Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend at their rock 'n' drama best, even if Daltrey's glistening chest stole much of the show.
The Who, who are in the midst of selling tickets for their "Quadrophenia" tour, could have done without "Bell Boy," which put all the attention on images of the late Keith Moon, but the band wasn't here solely for nostalgia. The relatively new song "Tea & Theatre" sees the band acting and referencing its age, but it's also a warning against falling into complacency. We're "older" and "colder," Daltrey sang while Townshend strummed an acoustic guitar, but all of us are "sad."
It was the sudden reminder that we're all here tonight for a cause, albeit it a very brief reminder. "Have a ... beer," Townshend shouted before walking off stage, inserting a word that can't be printed here.