The Rolling Stones play Vancouver on the Steel Wheels Tour

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Twenty-five years ago today–on November 1, 1989–the Rolling Stones played Vancouver’s B.C. Place Stadium. It was the first time I’d ever seen them live, so I was pretty psyched. Here’s the review I wrote for the Nov. 10-17 issue of the Georgia Straight newspaper.

In what was surely the biggest Vancouver concert event of the ’80s, the Rolling Stones hit Vancouver for two nights last week amid a flurry of hype and much grovelling for tickets. Now that Jagger and the boys have gathered up their money-bags (they play the Cotton Bowl in Dallas this weekend), one can take the time to analyze their local shows and come to a decision.

Was it all bloody worth it?

Let’s weight the pros and cons. First off, on the downside, there’s the venue itself. If any group can make the dome sound decent, it should be the world’s greatest rock and roll band, but the sound was still weak–it’s been much better for bands like U2 and Supertramp. And though lacklustre sound might be forgiven in a venue built for football, what’s not so easy to ignore was the incredible deadness of the crowd. After hearing all about the riot that occured the last time the Stones played here, I was expecting the crowd to be bristling with wild enthusiasm and on its feet from beginning to end. But on Wednesday it was just a one-way street. The Stones rolled down it and the crowd of 53,000 politely watched from the sidewalk.

Now for the good stuff, the thumbs-up material. When it comes to songs, you can’t beat the Stones’ repertoire, and their choice of 25 tunes left little to complain about (although my older sister did beef about the exclusion of “Angie”). From their best-known tunes like “Brown Sugar” and “Satisfaction” (which finally got the crowd mildly riled up), to more obscure numbers like “2,000 Light Years from Home” and new ones from the band’s 29th album, Steel Wheels, the Stones’ set-list was a winner. It showed the band’s great emotional and musical range, from the opening stomp of “Start Me Up” to the show’s biggest lyrical highlight, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.

Next to the super songs, the stage itself was a big–and I mean BIG–part of the Stones’ show. With some 800,000 pounds of black and orange scaffolding, two huge silver smoke-chutes, and silver netting draped over mountains of amps, the stage resembled the interior of a high-tech steel mill. The 250-foot wide, 130-foot high structure was augmented by a colossal lighting set-up that included 80 spinning Varilites (computerized spotlights), 100 animated color changers, and 22 man-operated followspots. According to the Stones’ fact sheet, a half-million watts of power are consumed by the system each show.

Also quite amazing were the show’s two main effects–a pair of 55-foot, inflatable tarts that came out of nowhere to bob up and down at either side of the stage on “Honky Tonk Women”. A massive fan filled the giant dolls with air in roughly half a minute; it took about twice that time to deflate them.

But perhaps the most impressive part of the Stones’ show was the performance of the band itself–and in particular that of Jagger. All the fancy effects and classy tunes in the world could have been for naught if those songs weren’t performed with the verve and style that the Stones are famous for. Jagger strutted and pranced through every song, displaying a rippling stomach that men half his age would envy. Guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood were happy to hang out in front of Charlie Watts’ vintage drum-kit, smoking ciggies and stumbling around while casually chopping away at their axes. Bassist Bill Wyman, the oldest Stone at 53, kept to himself at stage left, expressionless and still.

All in all, just being able to see this craggy-faced crew of legendary rockers do their thing was an enormous experience. And, on reflection, things like muddy sound and a dull crowd weren’t enough to spoil that satisfaction. The sheer fascination so many people have for the Stones was mirrored in the starry orbs of Vancouver’s own Colin James, who just before the show had been backstage rocking out with Richards and Wood. “I’m buying,” he announced, all bright-eyed as he swaggered up to the media bar. “I’ve just been jamming with Ron and Keith!” And while I was happy for the upcoming young blues-rocker, the only sad part was, I’d just finished buying my own beer.

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