Discover more from Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins
A New Rolling Stones Live Album!
Grrr Live! is Actually Pretty Grrreat
A new Rolling Stones live album is about as newsworthy as any overused "breaking news" banner is on CNN or MSNBC: "Merrick Garland sneezed today..." "George Santos lied about..." Let me know when the trials start.
This by my count is the 13th official live Stones release. But Grrr Live!, recorded in Newark, NJ, at the Prudential Center in December 15, 2012, is the first to grab my attention since. . . Get Yer Ya-Yas Out in 1970. Ultimate Classic Rock magazine (UCR) ranked a dozen Stones' live albums in June 2022, and named Ya-Ya's the Stones best. The first Stones concert album, Got Live if You Want It (1966) was from the prehistoric era of stage recording. Supposedly at the Royal Albert Hall, there were out of control fans and erratic miking. Exciting for its era, but not quite authentic: Producer/manager Andrew Loog Oldham resorted to a mish-mash of other live recordings, and overdubbed crowd noises on two studio tracks for the LP release.
It figured at the time that the Stones would be touring (2012-2013) to celebrate their 50th anniversary. But the band was also supporting a compilation album called Grrr, which as even the casual Stones listener knows, is superfluous to the point of ridicule: Some sites name as many as 30 compilations; UCR rated 14. The compilation, predictably, did not make a big bang, much less a bigger bang.
But Grrr Live!, released Feb. 10, 2023, grabbed me from the beginning with "Get Off of My Cloud," a peak moment from 1965, when the Stones were rambunctious as they were ambitious. I'd heard the song on the radio a few days earlier, and the blast made everything else disappear, like that flip-flop in your stomach just as the psychedelics are beginning to kick in. Which might also be what the song is about. Here's a guy living on the 99th floor of his "block" which made no sense to an American teenager at the time; maybe it was "housing block," or apartment complex? Is that it? It took a few years for me to find out that "windscreen" was the British equivalent of windshield. But who cares? It's one of the great Stones' rave-up songs ever, relentless from the get-go, no reticence, no mercy, just get offa my cloud, I mean, go away, fuhgeddaboudit.
The Stones stay in this zone, the 1965 pre-"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" mode, with "The Last Time." Now this great song, "The Last Time," credited to the still-evolving Mick Jagger/Keith Richards songwriting team, should come with an asterisk. There are many traditional gospel songs with similar lyrics that preceded this, that have the same chorus: "This could be the last time, may be the last time, I don't know." One well-known version is "This May Be the Last Time" is by the Staples Singers.
But the arrangement is all Stones, and while the Staples version sounds like a walk through a haunted graveyard, "The Last Time" is a celebration of something . . . who knows, but of rock and roll itself, the increased confidence of a band not just hitting its stride, but hitting hit at a breakaway. "Satisfaction" would be the next single, the secret would be out, there would be no more argument, this was the best rock and roll band in the world. "Satisfaction" actually closes out the show, on the CD/DVD of 24 tracks, 23 songs and "band introduction." Charlie Watts is still alive and well, as essential as ever. Watts, Jagger, Richards and Ron Wood on guitars, and longtime members of the traveling show, Darryl Jones on bass, Bobby Keys among the sax players, Chuck Leavell on keyboards, Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer background vocals.
The Stones are not here to frustrate their fans, expose new material. But for once on a live album, the Stones are having a blast blast blast ("Jumpin' Jack Flash," the penultimate song which precedes "Satisfaction"). They are enthusiastic and fresh-sounding, not bored zombies stuck in the role of the World's Greatest Rolling Stones Tribute Band.
Consider the placement of "Start Me Up," the now too-familiar one-time launch riff, that doesn't appear until the 18th slot. If you don't want to wait that long, turn on the TV and look for the Applebee's "$14.99 All You Can Eat" commercial (or let it find you), driven by the Stones' original recording of "Start Me Up." It was a great riff, but it got tired fast, the "Na-Na-Na-Na-Hey-Hey-Goodbye" of overexposed Stones riffs.
After "The Last Time" comes "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)," which might be a generic song if any band other than the Rolling Stones had the audacity to write and perform this song. I mean, early Kiss might have gotten away with it, possibly, but they just didn't have the jam. AC/DC could pull it off. It may be a better-than-generic Rolling Stones song only because the Rolling Stones are the genre, so just go with it, because "Paint It Black" is next.
"Paint It Black" may be the Rolling Stones record from the 1960s to have grown the most in stature in the ensuing decades. Here Keith plays that little sitar-like figurine at the beginning, then come the drums: Tom-toms, they sound like to me, on the original single, Charlie Watts beating the house down, he's blowing up the studio, he's declaring war. It's 1876 and the drunk General Custer is looking up and hearing nothing but Charlie Watts' drums at a stampede clip, about to get what he deserves, a voice in his head saying: "I see a red door and I want to paint it black." At that point, the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe dispatch the invaders, chalking up a big win at Little Big Horn for the indigenous inhabitants of the land. "Paint It Black" is that haunting, and powerful. (I have a student the last two semesters at St. John's who is a proud member of the Sioux Nation, who I ask for stories and recipes; I gave her a copy of Louise Erdrich's extraordinary novel The Sentence and I hope it inspires her further.)
Then there are the people on this album which my students would call "features," from the current nomenclature for "special guest": Some had hoped that Rihanna's Super Bowl halftime show might include "features" such as Drake, as in the song "Work" (feat. Drake).
The features, or special guests, carry their weight on Grrr. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street is heard on "One More Shot," a routine new song from the 2012 compilation album, which I didn’t know existed. I thought a whole gospel choir was featured on "Gimme Shelter," but that immense vocal sound came from the lungs of Lady Gaga, no relation to "Lady Jane" from the Stones' fling with the European-American fashion/society/aristocracy, mutually mesmerized by 1972. The Don Nix blues song "I'm Going Down" (or "Going Down"), often associated with Freddy King, gets a boost from John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr., and likewise the Black Keys both energize and sound swallowed whole by the brash energy of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?" This is young Stones' nasty roots material that asks no questions . . . except "Who do you love?"
Former Stones' guitarist Mick Taylor, who added so much musically to his short tenure with the band, gives a taste of those glory days on "Midnight Rambler." With Jagger on harmonica (he has gotten very good on that mouth harp), Taylor leads what sounds like the three-guitar attack that gives the spacious (12 minute) Southern boogie groove its sustenance.
Jagger, coy as never, introduces the final feature as having walked to the concert. The crowd is juiced for Bruce Springsteen on "Tumbling Dice": It sounds like he sings the second verse, prepared as ever, fitting right in. It's an indication of how good the Rolling Stones are on this night that even in New Jersey, Springsteen is just another "feature." Hi Bruce; goodbye Bruce. These are the Rolling Stones. For a catalog overstuffed with recycled material and live recordings, with this one you can really get what you want.
Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and keep it free for everyone, consider becoming a paid subscriber.