The Rolling Stones live, 2002

By David Watts Barton,  The Sacramento Bee, December 11, 2002

Yes, the Rolling Stones are, as they have long claimed, “the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World.”

They proved it again Friday night at PacBell Park in San Francisco, where their latest tour began a three-night Bay-area stand that concludes Tuesday night at the Oakland Arena.

No other band that still exists – the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead are long gone – has managed to fuse nearly every strain of American roots music into such a concise, imaginative and true-to-the-source form while still sounding contemporary.

The Stones are classic in the best sense of the term, as their ability to draw more than 35,000 fans into an open-air stadium on a cool, damp November night demonstrated. (Though opening act Sheryl Crow and band got soaked, the skies cleared for the duration of the Stones two-hour set.)

And no other rock act – the blues and soul acts that inspired them are another matter – has managed to do it so convincingly while approaching retirement age.

To see Mick Jagger, 59, strutting, dancing and commanding the stage would inspire anyone who aspires to age with vitality and passion, and has great meaning in particular for the baby boomers who form the band’s core audience.

But what attracts that audience, many of whom paid the top price of $300 a ticket, is a catalog of songs from 40 years of recordings that comprise a veritable tutorial in blues-based rock ‘n’ roll. The hits come at the audience one after the other in dazzling procession: “Brown Sugar,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – these are the songs that built rock music as we know it, and created the expectations of greatness that the current “Licks” tour again aims to fulfill.

On most levels, the show satisfied those expectations. Keith Richards, 58, Jagger’s partner and onstage foil, riffed his way through the songs with the nonchalance and effortless cool that is expected of him, striding the stage while chopping out variations on a rhythm guitar style all his own.

Drummer Charlie Watts drove the band in his inimitable way, forever tapping out 16th notes on the cymbals and knocking out grooves that are so superficially awkward that they shouldn’t rock at all, and yet they do – and then some.

Oh, and yes, guitarist Ron Wood was there, too – 27 years a Stone and still not an adequate musical replacement for the departed Mick Taylor – but he swaggers well and took a couple of workmanlike guitar solos. Along for support of the four main Stones were longtime bassist Daryl Jones, keyboard player Chuck Leavell and saxophonist Bobby Keyes, along with three other horn players and three backing vocalists, including Bernard Fowler.

Together, they played on a stage – put up the day before in the middle of a torrential storm, as Jagger mentioned in thanking the crew – that was simple and spare, designed to serve the music, not distract from it.

Still, despite the enduring power of the band and its songs, the show was also something of a disappointment on one level. Because the Stones have toured with increasing frequency through the ’90s and into the current decade, they had promised shows that were not mere recitations of the band’s greatest hits.

The band, which is playing theaters, arenas and stadiums, is said to have rehearsed 140 songs for the tour. That way, they could play songs that they’ve rarely or never played on past tours, and would be able to mix up the sets from night to night.

Judging from set lists from other shows, they have done just that on other tour stops, pulling out second-string but brilliant songs such as “She Smiled Sweetly,” “Torn and Frayed,” “Live With Me,” “Monkey Man,” “Shattered,” “Hand of Fate,” “Let It Bleed,” “All Down the Line,” “Stray Cat Blues” and “No Expectations.”

But Friday night, the band injected no such fresh blood into the set. Opening with “Brown Sugar,” “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Start Me Up,” the band ran through a 20-song, two-hour set that didn’t contain a single surprise.

There was a terrific rendition of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and “Midnight Rambler” had a shambling blues vamp in its midsection, but those, like virtually every other song, have been staples of the Stones’ show for 30 years.

They did cover Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” on a small stage in the middle of the field, getting a bit closer to the “cheap” seats, but even that was recycled from a previous tour. “Little Red Rooster” was as interesting as it got, and that as well has popped up frequently on previous tours.

Still, by the time the show reached its climax, the band was on fire – “Gimme Shelter,” with a terrific chorus sung by Lisa Fisher, “Honky Tonk Women” with opener Crow sharing vocals with Jagger (and demurely declining his bump-and-grind overtures), and then “Street Fighting Man” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” perhaps the band’s two best songs, worked up to a frenzy by Richards and Watts as the band hammered home the riffs that launched classic rock.

An ever-so-quick encore of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and they were gone, having handily reclaimed their title. But at the same time, it felt like a missed opportunity to see what the Stones can be beyond “the Greatest Classic Rock Hit Machine in the World.”