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Satisfaction? Sure. But a price tag that brings mixed emotions

TORONTO – Outside the Air Canada Centre, a French Canadian couple approaches my car the moment I step out of it. ß “Are you looking for Stones tickets?” ß I wasn’t, but the crestfallen look on the woman’s face, coupled with the thinly veiled rage evidenced by her husband’s clenched jaw and furrowed brow, led me to ask them what’s happening. ß “We spent $2,500 on our tickets, and now we can’t go to the show because of a death in the family,” the woman says. “We bought the expensive seats, but now, since they didn’t sell them out, they dropped the price, and we ended up having to sell our tickets for $900. I just wanted to warn you not to buy from scalpers – you can get cheaper tickets at the box office right now.” ß Her husband grunts a few obscenities, then spits out a number of words that add up to “We got totally screwed.” ß Ouch. ß It’s Saturday night in Toronto, and the city is weak with Rolling Stones fever. The band is only an hour away from hitting the stage

at the ACC for the first of two shows in the city. (The second takes place Thursday in the same venue.) There is certainly a carnival-like vibe outside the arena, but this time around, it’s tempered by a slight weariness, as exemplified by the die-hard Stones loyalists I’d met in the parking lot.

The Stones’ 50th anniversary tour finds the legendary band charging well above the industry standard for the best seats in the house. Hundreds of dollars above the industry standard, in fact. And the people, in the broad sense, are less than happy about it.

When pondering the significance of the “The World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band” as it celebrates half a century of making music, it’s impossible to avoid the whole money issue. The band continues to demand ridiculously inflated prices, and offers no apologies for doing so. There is something punk rock about this “It’s not our problem, man” attitude, and the Stones have always been a bunch of punks. That’s fine. But rock ’n’ roll, the snot-nosed offspring of the blues, has always been a music meant to cut across barriers of class and race. Often, it is music made by rich people. But lately, it seems to have become music made for rich people, too.

This attitude is very much in keeping with the ethos the Stones have espoused since Day One, though. It’s nothing new. A certain disdain for the audience always has been a part of the deal. The Stones were never going to bend over backward to make sure you loved them. They were the anti-Beatles in this respect, and it’s refreshing that five decades later, they still are. Don’t feel like paying these ridiculous prices? That’s fine. Stay home. Plenty of others will take your place. And if they don’t? Oh well. The Stones don’t really need the money anyway.

As contentious as the ticket-price issue has been, the Stones also have had to deal with suggestions that they are simply too old to rock and roll. Mick Jagger will be 70 in July. Keith Richards hits that landmark in December. Charlie Watts is 72. The “new guy,” Ronnie Wood, who joined the band in 1975, just turned 66. That puts the band’s average age at 68. Can a group of senior citizens still play rock ’n’ roll with the primal energy necessary to do so convincingly? Or is this whole thing just becoming ridiculous?

Last Saturday’s show – which ended up looking like a complete sell-out, though who knows what price the best seats ended up going for – suggested that the Stones still have the goods. And frankly, there was nothing ridiculous about these old men getting up there and kicking it out. The bluesmen the Stones have long revered played well into their 70s, and sometimes beyond. Many of them performed live right up until their final days.

The ACC show featured no opening act – this was “An Evening with the Rolling Stones,” then, and the group would end up making it an action-packed one, cramming some 22 songs into roughly 2½ hours of alternately uber-sloppy and air-tight rock ’n’ roll.

The stage was impressive, though happily, the show lacked the off-putting, distancing bombast of most stadium Stones shows. There were plenty of lights, screens, a stage layered with risers, and a ramp that extended out into the audience that, viewed from above, took the shape of the band’s infamous lips-and-tongue logo. Big enough to be impressive, then, but not overkill – the ACC gig felt intimate, strangely enough.

The band took the stage following a video montage denoting the 50 years since its inception, hitting the ground running with a torrid “Get Off My Cloud.”

Well, Jagger hit the ground running, anyway – Richards isn’t doing much running these days, preferring to stay close to drummer Watts and bassist Daryl Jones, helping to man the engine room while Jagger handles the aerobics.

By the evening’s second song, a blistering “You Got Me Rocking,” Jagger had made it plain that he had no intention of acting his age. He was a nonstop flurry of dancing motion who appeared to have the body of a 20-year-old athlete. My seat was located right at the very tip of the “tongue,” so when Jagger danced across the massive ramp, he would repeatedly end up right in front of me. Only his weathered, wrinkled face revealed his age – his voice, dance moves and seemingly limitless energy screamed youthful vigor.

“Paint It Black,” “Gimme Shelter” – the latter featuring a sultry vocal duet between Jagger and backing vocalist Lisa Fischer – and a surprisingly elegant “Angie” kept things rolling along nicely, as the band warmed up, and Richards began to visibly respond to Watts’ impeccable groove. A “by request” performance of “Street Fighting Man” (Really? Fans have the opportunity to vote for a song online and they pick one that the band almost always plays anyway? Lame!) was ragged around the edges, but it was followed by the relative “deep cut” “Emotional Rescue,” a highlight of the evening with its sleazy punk-disco-funk arrangement. The interwoven guitars of Richards and Wood truly worked their magic here.

The Stones have been bringing various superstar guests on stage for a tune on this tour – Tom Waits, John Mayer, Gwen Stefani, Keith Urban among them so far – but Toronto’s cameo was a bit of a letdown. Carrie Underwood came out in a Stones T-shirt to sing “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll” and though the country-pop star appeared to be truly thrilled, her performance was far from thrilling. It seemed a bit superfluous, in fact.

Far more exciting was the appearance of former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, held by many to be the finest soloist the band ever had in its ranks. Taylor brought his beautiful blues phrasing to the evening’s highlight, a burning, truly filthy take on “Midnight Rambler” that lasted 10 minutes and simply melted our faces.

The demographic representation displayed by the audience at the ACC was interesting, to say the least. Well-dressed couples in their late 50s or early 60s rubbed shoulders with 20-somethings in Stones T-shirts. Some sipped red wine, while others chugged can after can of Canadian beer. Dignified looking gray-haired men stood and watched stoically, while others seemed to be convinced that they, too, had the moves like Jagger. Several widely varied tax brackets were in evidence, and if these people may have had next to nothing in common outside of the arena, they were temporarily bonded in their love for the Stones.

So do the Stones still matter? Yes. No band has made it longer. No band stretches back to the very roots of rock ’n’ roll with the same unerring conviction. And no other band has so stubbornly refused to “get better” over the years – the Stones remain a loud, sloppy, shambolic garage band, and there’s integrity suggested by that fact.

Was it worth the money? Let’s put it this way: I’d have happily paid $100 for the ACC show, possibly more.

But $600? No band is worth that much for a single ticket. Not even the Rolling Stones.