In 1989, there was a lot riding (pun intended) for the Rolling Stones on the release of their new record, Steel Wheels. It had been three years since their prior LP, Dirty Work, and the feud between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been going strong in the interval.
There was even more riding on the subsequent tour that would take the venerable classic rockers all over the world, since they hadn’t mounted regular shows in over seven years. Incredibly, most of the press up to and during the stretch of dates pondered the question “Could the Stones still do it?” given their (In Rock Years) “advanced age” with a (gasp!) median number in the mid-forties!
Well, as The Rolling Stones – Steel Wheels Live (Eagle Rock Entertainment) – proves, the Stones still could rock and roll. During “Start Me Up,” Jagger bursts onto the stage with unbridled confidence, spinning, twisting, posing, kicking, and trademark Rooster Dancing all across the vast stage from end to end, running hard and never once losing breath. And that’s just for the show opener. Impossibly rail thin without an ounce of fat like his bandmates, it seems that adherence to physical fitness (as the son of a gym teacher) paid off.
The concert was filmed over the last two December dates of the U.S. leg of the tour in Atlantic City, and unreleased until now and available in a variety of physical and digital formats.
The generous show lasts just over 2 ½ hours with 27 numbers spanning their entire career. And it’s amazing that this film has sat on the shelves for over 30 years. I was at the Houston stop on November 8, 1989 Astrodome show (shout out to Billy Ryan!). One of my still favorite bands – Living Colour – opened, as they did much of the U.S. tour.
In addition to the four original Stones – Jagger (vocals/harmonica), Richards (guitar/vocals), Charlie Watts (drums), Bill Wyman (bass – he would quit after the world tour was over) and “new boy” Ron Wood (guitar), the band brought along some solid backing help. That included keyboardists Chuck Leavell (also then – and still – their musical director) and Matt Clifford; longtime collaborator and Texan Bobby Keys (sax); backing vocalists Cindy Mizelle, Lisa Fischer, and Bernard Fowler; and the Uptown Horns (Arno Hecht, Bob Funk, Crispin Cioe, and Paul Litteral).
Throughout, Jagger proves why he’s the consummate front man, playing both to the camera and the audience in a variety of coats, jackets, and T-shirts. Richards and Wood form their usual Lads Club of guitars behind him, but unfortunately Watts and Wyman get little screen time.
Highlights include some of the many new cuts from Steel Wheels (“Sad, Sad, Sad,” “Rock and a Hard Place”), a slinky, sexy “Miss You,” ethereal “Ruby Tuesday” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and barnburners “Honky Tonk Women,” “Gimme Shelter” (featuring Fischer), and “Brown Sugar” (with Keys recreating his classic solo).
Less successful were phoned-in takes on “Undercover of the Night” and “Harlem Shuffle” (both from the ‘80s), “Paint It Black” – which Jagger’s ragged vocals seem like a Johnny Cash impression, an oddly disjoined “2000 Light Years from Home” (with Jagger showing his, um, dramatic mime skills), and a way-too-long “Midnight Rambler.”
This being a special event, the Stones brought out some high-profile guests. It was interesting to see snake-dancing singer Axl Rose and rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin of Guns ‘n Roses pair up with their Stones equivalents Jagger and Wood, but the odd “Salt of the Earth” (which Jagger says they had “never played live before”) was not a great choice to take advantage of the combustibility.
More successful (and safe) was Eric Clapton’s blues licks on “Little Red Rooster,” and then the addition of John Lee Hooker on his own “Boogie Chillen.” From the looks on the faces of Clapton, Wood, and Richards smiling behind the legendary blues man, the reverence that they (and many other English musicians of the era) showed for older American blues artists still shone through decades later.
By the time things wrapped up with a punchy “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Jagger had emerged in a black and yellow boxing robe, doffed to reveal a sleeveless, half T-shirt with the message “Stop Global Warming” (remember, this was 1989!).
It was an appropriate article of clothing, as the Rolling Stones on this show certainly went more than 12 rounds, punching well above their weight class for the skeptics. What’s even more shocking is that they are still playing shows – now with a median age of mid-seventies – to audiences that included children of the Steel Wheels audience and grandchildren of their original fanbase.