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The Rolling Stones defy the passage of time

What could a weather-beaten assemblage of 70-year-old men possibly know about rock ’n’ roll? Isn’t this music supposed to be the sole purview of the young and virile?

Well, I suppose being the last living embodiment of true rock ’n’ roll – which we’ll define as essentially white people appropriating African-American blues and adding an emphasis on the back-beat – gives one permission to play that music for whoever’s interested, and for as long as you please.

The Rolling Stones – the Strolling Bones, the Rolling Uglies, you’ve heard ‘em all before, no doubt – are in the midst of their Zip Code U.S. Tour which includes a stop Saturday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The fact that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood are able to mount a tour of this magnitude is no small feat. But the fact that, after more than 50 years in the business, the Rolling Stones are actually in peak form as they haul their weary bones across the continent? This takes us into the area of the genuinely miraculous.

In case you’re worried that such praise is simply hyperbole from a scribe who has loved the Stones since childhood, caught them in concert everywhere from a vast stadium in Syracuse to an intimate club in Toronto, and is relieved that these guys are still alive and performing, consider this: On Tuesday, the band released “Sticky Fingers Live,” an in-concert rendering of a classic album that demands to be considered one of the Stones’ finest hours. Recorded during a warm-up gig at the small Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles a few weeks back, “Sticky Fingers Live” is ferociously good. It has the infamous garage-y grit, the subtle behind-the-beat smack provided by Watts, the “ancient form of weaving,” ragged-but-right interplay between guitarists Richards and Wood, and the inimitable sass and strut of frontman Jagger all in abundant evidence.

This is the Stones as the cosmos intended them to exist. Irreverent, on fire, filthy, carrying on as if the whole world agrees with their assessment that Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters created the world, and all we’re doing is living in it – this is what the Stones have always done. And, despite their many journeys around the sun, they’re doing it today as well as they ever have.

Jagger, Richards, Watts and Wood aren’t doing it all alone – the band has, for several decades, benefited from the considerable input of keyboardist/musical director Chuck Leavell, bassist Daryl Jones, and singers Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer.

All can share in the responsibility for the Stones’ late-career renaissance. Some might argue that this renaissance does not include new material worthy of standing alongside the band’s finest work, but that’s a matter of opinion. Either way, as great as so many of their studio recordings have been, the Stones always have been a live band. The stage is their canvas.

Why do the Rolling Stones matter today? Sure, nostalgia will have something to do with it for a portion of the audience set to fill Ralph Wilson Stadium. However, some of that crowd will include fans that were still waiting to be born the last time the Stones played the same venue in October 1997. (That was a killer show, too.) The Stones have become something shared between generations – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, aging musicians and young upstarts, even grandparents and grandkids.

It’s more than reasonable to suggest that this will be the last time we’ll see and hear the Stones in concert. (For some, it will also be the first time.) When the band is gone, there won’t be another like it. We don’t really call it rock ’n’ roll any more – it’s now known as rock, an incredibly broad categorization that basically means not jazz, not classical, and not mainstream pop.

But for the Stones, it means Muddy Waters. It means the blues electrified and played loud. It means that bump-and-grind drum figure that heralds the arrival of “Honky Tonk Women” and the iconic two-chord guitar intro of “Brown Sugar.” It means that English white boy trying to be James Brown, and failing, created something of his own along the way. It means that frustrated adolescent yearning that never really goes away, no matter how old you grow.

The Stones are our last true conduit to all of this. Bless their crooked little hearts.


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