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Rolling Stones come to Toronto to play hardball

Though the Rolling Stones are the world's greatest bar band, a fact driven home by the group's club appearance at the Phoenix Concert Hall in August, we've gotta give the band credit for creating arena rock as well. Ever since 1969, when the Stones brought the concept of the stadium show kicking and screaming into the future, the band has been the king of rock spectacle. No band can fill an arena with quite the same flair and panache.

The Stones happen to be touring behind one of their strongest records in decades, the mighty and meaty "A Bigger Bang," and this makes the current tour particularly exciting; the Stones have fantastic new material to play, which places them firmly in the present, rather than in nostalgia land.

That said, Monday's show was pretty much all about the hits, which isn't disappointing, since the band has decades worth of them. A handful of new tunes, and a smattering of rarely played numbers made up the difference, and no one seemed to mind.

A mini-fireworks display lit the space above what appeared as a high-rise city block, two balconied buildings surrounding a massive video screen, with a few hundred lucky fans crowding the two-tiered balcony. Keith Richards emerged in all his ragged glory to strike the first open-tuned chords to "Start Me Up." Just about all you need to know about the Stones you learn in that four-minute burst of white-boy boogie. A few chords and some testifying, brothers and sisters. And yes, we all know where it came from. But the job is to pass it on, and no white act has done a better job of that than the Stones.

"You Got Me Rockin' "; the rarely played "Emotional Rescue" corker "She's So Cold"; the evergreen "Tumblin' Dice": the first new tune of the evening, a sterling take on "A Bigger Bang's" "Rough Justice"; and a nice one-two punch from the early days, in the form of the Brian Jones-centered "Ruby Tuesday" and the post-Jones roughshod rock that would become the Stones' forte represented by the country-rock hybrid "Dead Flowers."

By this point, it was clear that the Stones came to play hardball. Gone is the indecisiveness, the hiccupping rhythms of the Bill Wyman age, the naked on-stage aggression between Mick and Keith. In their place is a tight band led by a core unit -- Jagger, Richards, Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts -- and completed by a tight-knit school of veteran Stones sidemen, including keyboardist Chuck Leavell, bassist Daryll Jones, a horn section led by tenor man Bobby Keys and a background vocals section, headed by Bernard Fowler, and bolstered by Lisa Fischer and Blondie Chaplin.

There were mistakes, thank god. The Stones have always been sloppy, but sloppy-tight, the way the blues and rock 'n' roll is supposed to be played. If the band was too tight, one would have good reason to worry; to be played properly, this music must be sweaty and loose. And that's the way these boys -- most of them in their 60s -- played on Monday in Toronto. Long may they reign.


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