The Rolling Stones were clearly worried about pacing. In 2015, committed to performing the newly reissued Sticky Fingers in its entirety for the first time ever, they had to deal with the 1971 album’s often-serious topics and occasionally hushed dynamics.
Sticky Fingers isn’t as somnolent as its drugged-out 1972 successor Exile on Main St., but the album arguably confronts bigger themes – with the death of the ’60s hanging over the whole proceedings like a shroud. How would that play during a warm-up show in front of a tightly packed club crowd buzzing with anticipation for a huge new tour?
They cheat a bit, opening with “Start Me Up” and moving the radio-favorite “Brown Sugar” from the LP’s first-song position so that it could be leveraged as an album-closing romp. They also warm up the crowd with “When the Whip Comes Down” (from 1978’s Some Girls) and “All Down the Line” (from Exile). Still, the show – available in both audio and video formats as Sticky Fingers Live at the Fonda Theatre 2015 – can’t help but unfold in a manner far more considered than any in recent Rolling Stones memory.
This works in Mick Jagger‘s considerable favor. As the Stones evolved into an arena act at the turn of the ’80s, his onstage persona became prone to brittle, cartoonish overacting. At the same time, their relentlessly upbeat, hits-focused set lists unfolded with a metronomic repetitiveness. Wildly profitable, this strategy nevertheless tended to ring hollow for those who bothered to wander deeper into classic-era triumphs like Sticky Fingers.
You weren’t going to hear “Sway” (which hadn’t been performed live before 2005, and hasn’t been part of their set lists since this Fonda Theatre show), “Sister Morphine” (another late live debut, it first showed up in 1997 and hasn’t appeared again either) or “I Got the Blues” (which wasn’t played, at one point, for 28 years). And there’s a reason: Jagger can’t settle for barking and braying his way through these.
Instead, he removes the long-affixed Famous Rock Star mask on Sticky Fingers Live at the Fonda Theatre 2015, shifting in large measure back into his original blues- and roots-loving singer-songwriter prototype. Where Jagger might have taken the droll way out before, he moves here between tightly focused menace and a drawled sensuality.
Watch the Rolling Stones Perform ‘Brown Sugar’
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Jagger’s bandmates are similarly reinvigorated. Charlie Watts couldn’t be more at home in an intimate setting before 1,200 fans, as Ron Wood more forcefully tangles with Keith Richards. Never the musicianly ace that Sticky Fingers-era guitarist Mick Taylor was, Wood has often simply come off as a genial foil. The Fonda Theatre show gives him far more opportunities to step forward and make important musical contributions.
Together, they turn moments like “Wild Horses” into stark reminders of how emotionally resonant the Stones always were, just beneath the preening, tough-guy surface. Their reserved, note-perfect take on “Sister Morphine” provides a more distilled version of the narcotic anguish that the Stones later fully explored on Exile. “Bitch” is brutal, unregenerate — and just as dangerous, even today, as earlier revolution-minded statement-songs like “Street Fighting Man.” Desperately sad, “I Got the Blues” still provides the dark epilogue to every societal challenge the Rolling Stones laid out in 1969’s Let It Bleed and 1968’s Beggars Banquet.
The source material for “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” which originally featured an eruptive turn by saxist Bobby Keys, provides a sturdy platform for free-form exploration – and the Stones, with Karl Denson taking over for the late Keys, take full advantage. By the end, they aren’t just knocking; the Rolling Stones are kicking that sucker off the hinges. The searching take on “Moonlight Mile” found here brilliantly recaptures the sense of dreamscape reverie found on the old vinyl, before finally giving way to “Brown Sugar.”
This rip-roaring update provides Jagger a chance to quickly reanimate his familiar bravado, and he’s soon happily spitting out rooster-tail innuendo to the bacchanalian guitars of Richards and Wood. They keep it interesting, closing out with covers of “Rock Me Baby” (in tribute to the recently passed B.B. King) and Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose” on either side of the eternal “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
Once the Rolling Stones officially got back on the concert trail, however, Sticky Fingers – along with all of its unflinching honesty – was basically put away in favor of another check-cashing run through the jukebox favorites. That makes Sticky Fingers Live at the Fonda Theatre 2015 a lasting treasure.
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