So…it rained. A lot.
Over the past few weeks, the Rolling Stones concert (with guests Kanye West, Alice Cooper and Sloan) on the Halifax Commons has met with some obstacles, most notably lesser-than-expected ticket sales and opposition from residents who objected to the show for a variety of reasons, from the investment of government funds to the closing of the public Commons for a private event.
It seems Mother Nature took the side of the opposition.
What began as a beautiful morning when I awoke around 8 a.m. became a cold, wet nightmare as the day wore on. Beginning shortly before Sloan’s set at 4 p.m., the skies opened up. While it was at its worst during Alice Cooper’s set around 6:30 or so, it never became anything less than heavy drizzle until close to the end of the Stones’ performance at 10:30. For an entire day, some 50,000 people were cold, damp and would have been miserable if not for the rock and roll. Even still, I could feel the people around me starting to drag during the Stones’ performance, and the set-ending “Satisfaction” was met more with “thank God we can go home and shower” than “I never want this moment to end.”
I can’t speak for the entire crowd, though, since I never really got a sense of how many people there actually were. That’s because we were really close.
Overhead shot taken by The Chronicle Herald
Our view of the stage
Oh sure, we could have been lollygaggers and strolled in at 4 or so and stood on the grass further back in the field and still have a decent view. But I paid almost 100 bucks for my ticket, and I was damnhellass sure that I was going to make the most of it. After a morning brunch at Smitty’s, our Commons Infiltration Team consisting of PR mates Heather and Lindsay, along with Lindsay’s friend Colleen and her comrades Amy and Ashley arrived at the Commons around noon or so. After getting through the surprisingly lax security – had I known I would have brought along a proper camera – we took our time, strolled around to the merch table ($50 t-shirts? No thanks!) and wandered up to almost the front of the stage, probably 20 feet back from the barrier at most (maybe 7 or 8 rows of people).
Besides the view, the best reason for being up near the front of the stage was that the ground was covered in wood, I presume to prevent the most enthusiastic concert-goers from wrecking the ground. We realized that given the forecast of rain, staying put would be to the mutual benefit of our concert-going experience and our footwear (a smart mood, considering how muddy the way out was). So over the next few hours, we passed the time sitting on our lovely, lovely wood floor playing card games as classy as Crazy Eights and War, taking shifts to go get hideously-overpriced grub and use the facilities. We deserve medals for our foresight, because from the time Sloan went on, there was no going back.
Before I begin, a quick note about photos in this thread. All were taken with my new camera phone and are of varying quality. Like most camera phones, it doesn’t handle strong light well and the zoom feature, which I used on a couple of good shots, makes it look really pixilated. Still, hopefully they give a good sense of what it was like to be as close as we were. Also, there are way more of the Stones than anyone else, for the simple reason that it was the least rainy during their set so I felt safer exposing my expensive phone to the elements.
I’m not sure which was more disappointing: the onset of the rain or Sloan’s opening set. The band that just released a fantastic new album returning somewhat to their alt-pop roots didn’t show up, and the keener crowd was met instead by everyone’s favourite substitute, Stadium-Rock Sloan.
I recognize the band had a couple of big restraints they were working against, namely a large, Rolling Stones-focused crowd and a hideously-short half-hour to work with. And I’m not exactly asking for the band to not play its hits, but that the set opened with “Money City Maniacs” and ended with “If It Feels Good, Do It” reflects how uninspired it was. “The Good in Everyone” was the only token song prior to the band’s shark-jumping Navy Blues. I’m a fan of Andrew’s stuff, but why give him three of the five new songs while denying Patrick/Chris a chance to show off some of their great new material? We didn’t even get a single Chris Murphy scissor kick.
The boys better make a trip back shortly so Halifax can get a proper concert, stat.
Money City Maniacs
The Other Man
The Good in Everyone
I’ve Gotta Try
The Rest of My Life
Flying High Again
Who Taught You to Live Like That
If it Feels Good, Do It
During Alice’s set, the skies REALLY opened up, and he and his band played through the roughest portion of the day’s weather like troopers. While Alice’s music does little for me – it’s childish riff-rock with props – you’ve got to hand it to his band, playing with no shelter in the pouring rain with as much passion as they would have under dryer circumstances.
If the music was competent, the props felt more than a little forced. I think it’s the kind of stuff that may have worked in a dark venue with lots of lights and smoke, but outside at suppertime in the pouring rain it just felt a little odd, in particular an S&M vampire woman who made Alice disappear behind her cape. WTF?
Two thoughts. The first is that I want to know what makeup Alice uses, because even though it was pouring rain through the entire set, not ONCE did it run. Stunning. The second is that of all the things you could possibly throw into the crowd, why a crutch? After performing “I’m Eighteen” while dancing around with a black crutch, Alice proceeded to chuck it directly at my head. I was one of several people to get a hand on it before I was shoved down to the ground when an oversized-man who also had a hand on it gave it a good tug. Eventually it was given to a little kid, which is probably for the best, because that way he doesn’t have to worry about it being stolen while he enjoys the show (who would take a crutch from a child, really now…)
(I’m not nearly enough of a fan to be able to construct a full setlist. He did play all of the following, along with several others. It was a surprisingly long set.)
No More Mr. Nice Guy
Billion Dollar Babies
Lost in America
Under My Wheels
I was maybe more excited to see Kanye than the Stones. Late Registration was one of my favourite albums of last year and I think he’s among the most fascinatingly talented people not just in hip hop, but in popular music today. He was also a rapper at a rock show, a risky spot considering the Stones’ spotty history of having R&B artists opening for them (there are many stories of Prince being booed like crazy when the Purple One toured with the band back in the early 80s).
I can’t tell how the crowd as a whole dug Mr. West, but the keener kids where I was seemed to be into it (although not as much as the Alice Cooper, for some odd reason). Kanye’s setlist played it pretty safe, every song a single from his two albums (with the exception of “Get Em High”). And while it’s perhaps a bit hypocritical of me to criticize Sloan for a safe set while championing Kanye for the same, I think the circumstances that Kanye faced warranted the hits-only set (as much as I would have loved to hear something like “Gone” or “We Don’t Care”).
Plus, Kanye – like most rappers – often releases his best tracks as singles, from the set-closing “Touch the Sky” to the undeniable highlight “Jesus Walks,” which was delivered passionately as the rain poured down into the rapper’s eyes. Backed by an all-female string section and his DJ, Kanye was the first performer to make full use of the stage, running back and forth from one extreme end to the other and doing everything within his power to get the Stones crowd into his set. Hopefully a few concertgoers were converted by the solid – if too short – performance.
Diamonds from Sierra Leone
Heard ‘Em Say
The New Workout Plan
Get ‘Em High
All Falls Down
Through the Wire
Touch the Sky
*during which the strings and the backup singers performed Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and “Bittersweet Symphony”…or were they covering the Andrew Oldham Orchestra covering the Stones? How much do you want to bet most of the people at the concert would have no idea what I’m talking about here?
The Rolling Stones
My favourite Rolling Stones song is “Gimmie Shelter,” which deserves every accolade it’s ever been given. It’s dark, grimy and apocalyptic, unrelenting in its crude vision of the world. And given the weather last night, it would have been timely and fitting.
It wasn’t played.
Not that I expected it – the song hasn’t been played during the Bigger Bang tour – but its absence is a notable sign of everything that was wrong with the Stones’ performance. Not unlike Sloan almost five hours before them, the Rolling Stones largely ignored the idiosyncrasies and intricacies that makes them one of rock and roll’s greatest legends and played a set that rivaled Alice Cooper’s in terms of vacant showmanship.
What a show, though. A giant eight-story stage with a giant video screen and what must be hundreds of thousands of LCD lights, countless fireworks and flames, and a moving mini-stage that takes the band out into the middle of the crowd for a few songs. Oh and a giant inflatable set of lips.
But all for what? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who believes that stadium/arena settings are inherently too large and unwieldy to make for an engrossing concert experience. But there’s an art to it, and it involves doing two separate things over the course of your performance. The first is to blow the audience away, to play to the very back of the crowd with every ounce of energy and passion that you can possibly muster even though you can’t even see their faces. The second is to allow the audience to come to you, connecting with them on an emotional level beyond the visceral and bringing the people at the back right up on stage with you (metaphorically, of course). While the current incarnation of the Rolling Stones is spectacular at doing the former, they fail miserably at the latter and as such, the concert “experience” feels woefully incomplete.
The perfect metaphor for this is the moving mini-stage, a great idea in principle – bring the band to the people – but which comes across as borderline-Spinal Tap in practice. Watching the band awkwardly all get onto the moving drum platform and continue to perform while the ramp slowly floats over the crowd is pretty absurd in my books. It’s as if the band has abandoned any hope of bringing the audience to them, so they’ve committed themselves even more so to going to them, in this case quite literally.
(They’ve taken my “bring the people at the back right up on stage with you” idea literally too, allowing the richest concertgoers to pop $500 to watch their set from the rafters on their stage. Oh and there’s the VIP people who paid $300 to sit in the bleachers far off to the sides. We had better views than all of them. The Stones seem to appeal to that select demographic of people with more money than brains.)
Why did the Stones fail to truly connect? Song selection was part of the problem. It’s notable that one of the set’s most spectacular moments contained almost no pyrotechnics and was hardly one of their most memorable songs. But “Streets of Love,” a track from their 2005 A Bigger Bang album, was absolutely fantastic, if only because the performance of the ballad was one of the few moments where the band stopped trying to be showmen and just let the song work. Mick’s vocal was passionate and turned a rather simple song that the majority of the audience had never likely heard before into a sing-along moment to remember. If there had been a few more ballads like “Streets of Love,” it would have gone a long way in making things more interesting (I mean, is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” or “Wild Horses” at the very least too much to ask for?)
The other problem is that the band tends to take some of their most interesting material that they do choose to play and stadium-izes it to a fault. The poster child in this department is “Sympathy for the Devil” – on record, it’s an articulate, witty and engrossing song that comes across as a spontaneous jam, but in its stadium form it’s loud, theatrical and accompanied with strategically-placed fireworks. Get it? Devil? Fire? Far too often the band doesn’t give you room to get close to the songs because if you do your eyebrows will be singed. In part because of this, of their biggest hits only opener “Paint it Black” truly impressed me, a fantastic choice for opening the show.
Now after all that ranting, did I have a good time? Absolutely. Do I regret my ticket purchase? Not at all. For one, Mick is a spectacular frontman, still delivering fantastic vocal performances and still able to dance like an 18-year-old girl – the guy is almost exhausting to watch. Keith was not only funny on the mic but his two-song set was a nice break in the middle of the performance. “Monkeyman,” from Let It Bleed was pretty friggin awesome. And really, a lot of my criticism is likely tainted by the rain and cold that dampened the crowd’s spirits somewhat (mine included).
But I’m being critical here because expect better from a band with the heritage and back catalogue that the Stones have. I’m not asking that they reinvent the wheel, nor am I suggesting that they abandon their stadium-ready greatest hits. But when a band THAT iconic with songs THAT fantastic fails to breathe any life into them and instead relies on pyro and theatrics, and when I leave the show feeling “that was fun, but…” then maybe the logic behind the Bigger Bang needs to be questioned.
Paint It Black
It’s Only Rock and Roll
Oh No Not You Again
Let’s Spend The Night Together
Streets Of Love
You Got The Silver
Start Me Up
Honky Tonk Woman
Sympathy for the Devil
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Encore – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
(Note: It’s interesting that the Rolling Stones’ website includes “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in the setlist before “Satisfaction,” indicating that perhaps the band planned to play it but did not for some reason).
The Commons was an absolute mess as soon as we stepped off our wooden oasis: nothing but mud everywhere, hardly any grass to be seen. I sincerely hope that the concert promoters’ claims to having all site cleanup covered in their budget were more than just bullshit, because they’re going to need it (we’ll see how well that goes).
Oh and here’s a shot of my pruned fingers right after the show, with as many wrinkles in them as Mick’s cheeks.
So as I’m moving out from home in a week’s time and I have a shitload to do in between now and then, I’m not going to be blogging at all this week (with the exception of tomorrow’s Amazing Race update). See you all next week sometime!