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The Rolling Stones: Not sucking at 50

The Rolling Stones, as a band, are 50 years old. They've earned the right to do whatever they want. They can swarm around Katy Perry on stage because they're our favorite dirty old men. They're not out of line kicking off their concerts with a tedious, self-serving video of celebrities praising them. (Johnny Depp: "They are great songs to do bad things to.") And they can now justify charging north of $600 a ticket.

OK, maybe everything but the ticket part. But had someone forked over a handful of benjamins without resignation for last night's concert at MGM Grand Garden Arena, they likely walked out of the show happy. (Coincidentally, it was during a song called "Happy" that, midway through the show, guitarist Keith Richards sang, "Well I never kept a dollar past sunset/It always burned a hole in my pants.) Not only did the Stones give its demographic-spanning crowd exactly what they wanted, they did it quite well — unquestionably better than they did during, say, 1997's Bridges to Babylon arena/stadium tour, or even the stripped-down No Security tour that followed it. Until now, I've told people that my favorite live Stones experience wasn't at an actual show, but during my IMAX screening of the Shine a Light concert film. 

The current 50 and Counting tour is, like No Security, also a barebones and interaction-friendly concert experience. The Stones dispensed with the Castle Greyskull-looking stage sets, only framed by a massive, gray upper lip for a small portion of the show, and opted for a simple screen to show the aforementioned video and others, as well as the sort of general admission-lapping catwalk U2 employs on its tours. The resulting (and relative) minimalism seemed to carry a throwback purpose: to make the stage look like what it might have in the 1960s, when the Stones were an emerging band. 

As such, the focus was on the right things: band and songs, the former a curiosity for anyone wondering how men in their 70s rock out without looking like drunk or ambling grandfathers, and the latter the real reason for which said 70 year olds can still tour arenas and command said handful of benjamins. 

Mick Jagger is definitely no drunk grandfather. For over two hours, Sir Mick ran circles around his peers from the next three generations, never running out of breath, working the stage (and anywhere else) with a cocksure strut that belongs to him alone, only appearing awkward when he spread his arms toward the audience, looking as if he was trying to hold his own against a gust of wind. Behind him, Richards and guitarist Ron Wood often meandered around the stage like they had no idea what they were doing, but certainly sounding like they knew exactly what they were doing — save some out-of-sync moments during encore numbers "You Can't Always Get What You Want," aided by the Green Valley High School Choir, and the closer "Satisfaction," featuring former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor. 

Taylor was one of the few left turns planned for this tour; he also appeared during an epic, centerpiece version of "Midnight Rambler," where he proffered a virtuoso solo. Eight songs earlier, pop artist Perry — one of many guests the Stones have included throughout the tour — surfaced for fan-chosen "Beast of Burden," neither adding nor subtracting anything from performance or song. 

Her presence, as well as the conservative setlist, made the Vegas stop seem a little less interesting (at least to musicphiles and diehard devotees) than previous dates on this tour. Just a few days before in the Bay Area, Northern California residents John Fogerty and Tom Waits sat in during covers of The Valentinos and Willie Dixon, respectively, with Bonnie Raitt also stopping by one of the two shows to contribute to "Let It Bleed." For the Stones' club gig at Echoplex in Los Angeles last week, the band even threw in Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain." No noteworthy covers or deep cuts made it into last night's show, though it did feature a shuffling, twangy, horny rendition of "Emotional Rescue," played for only the fourth time ever and but sounding like it had been honed and perfected for years. And fans of the Stones' best-regarded album, 1972's Exile on Main Street, were treated to live favorites "All Down the Line," which contained one of Jagger's most enthusiastic vocal deliveries all night and some great lead fret runs by Wood, as well as Richards' spirited go at "Happy," Wood again shining, this time on slide guitar.

You could guess most the rest of the setlist from there: "Brown Sugar," "Start Me Up," "Paint It Black" — songs that sounded more or less like both their studio and previous live versions, and, had any one been left out, would have drawn indignation from fairweather fans and Stones-concert newbies during the exodus out of the arena. (And I'll venture a guess that some of those on the other end of the spectrum of persnickity Stones fans groused during nonessentials like "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" and "You Got Me Rocking.") Among the chestnuts that still raise eyebrows and neck hairs played at the Garden were "Gimme Shelter," aided by longtime backing singer Lisa Fischer, who nearly stole the song from Richards and his iconic, weighty riffs; and "Jumpin' Jack Flash," performed ferociously, as if it was starting the show and not nearly ending it. In fact, the boys should have used it for the closer instead of "Satisfaction," but, ahem, you can't always get what you want.

Unless you're The Stones themselves, of course. And if they wanted a tour that measures up to their towering legacy, one that could best end their half-century run, they've got that, too.