I spend a lot of time around concerts and concert venues. I have said that asking me to come see a band on a day off is like asking a carpenter to come over to your house and watch you build a cabinet. Until now, I’d never seen the Rolling Stones live and wasn’t sure I even wanted to. As bands get older and farther from the initial energy and their classic songs they often lose something. I have had the opportunity to work for bands that I was a fan of in my youth and had some of that music ruined for me by their personalities, their loss of abilities and lack of interest or options.
When my friend called me to ask if I wanted to stop by and take the tour of the show, I was glad because I always want to see what the fuss is about on the big shows. We followed the Stones into Philly when we were on the Foozer thing and I was even amazed at the amount of backstage signs left by the Bigger Bang tour… in color copies no less! Every major tour takes the time in these anonymous arenas to place directional signs up so that people looking for offices, dressing rooms, catering, even the stage don’t have to ask a passing person every ten feet. In Philly, there must have been 20 destinations listed on the Stones signs.
I drove the 13 or so miles from my house to the AAC and then experienced the first sign that the big show was in town; all of the regular parking lots had been bumped up to $20 for the evening’s event. Once I was parted from a crisp twenty, I called JD and he met me at the employee entrance. After being wanded by security (all AAC events and personnel are checked since 9/11) we walked down into the depths of the arena. The AAC is only a few years old; it’s still in pretty good shape. It has a pretty standard layout for a modern arena with a looping hallway that circles the shape of the arena floor. The first observation was there was a lot of people there; tour personnel, stage hands, arena employees moving in all directions. The color copy signs from the Philly experience were everywhere letting people know how to find the places mentioned above as well as other spots unique to their tour like a work out room and the Rattlesnake Lounge…
My friend took me directly to the stage where Delbert McClinton was soundchecking with his band. Merle Haggard was supposed to open but became ill the day before. If you don’t know Delbert’s music, you’re missing out; he’s a great singer and has a great history of recordings and performances in his 65 years.
The stage was obviously higher than the standard 5 or 6 foot tall decks that I’m used to seeing; it was also raked like an old theatre (downstage lower than upstage, that’s where the terms come from. The reason for the elevation became clear shortly. Many of the large tours that build and carry their own stages house technical and concealed areas under and within.
Directly behind the stage was the backline techs area, a corridor of guitar wardrobe cases, work boxes, quick change rooms and audio connections. There also appeared to be some massive hydraulics hidden nearby… more on that later.
This is where I began to meet the Stones backline crew one by one, guys I have heard about for years and had never met. Often the relationships on the road begin because of the “friend-of-a-friend” element of our business. If a common friend vouches for you, it can open doors beyond the endless parade of visitors that come to shows that often blur from day to day. There are tours that travel with a lot of guitars and this is one of them. For me the biggest have been the Eagles, Aerosmith, Springsteen and now the Stones. This didn’t even include the collection of guitars out of rotation or collected during the tour as they were housed elsewhere for space sake.
It was almost too much to absorb. I try to stay out of the way of the guys working and not ogle their stuff as I know how that make me feel when I’m working; uneasy. We moved stage left to stage right (Jones, Richards, Jagger, Woods, etc.) and then ascended the stairs as Delbert was completing his soundcheck to look at the amps and other goodies. Their amplines travel in special enclosed setcarts that I believe they call “wombats” which all you need to do is take the front and rear door off and plug it in. There are enough ’59 Fender Tweeds to make a gear hound jealous, but that is what they love and insist on. I got a glimpse of the new Shure wireless stuff (nicely interfaced with a laptop and a printer to trace frequencies and daily changes and some great old ’69 SVT heads in off white (I’m not that cool, I’d never seen those before!). Charlie’s kit, well, what can you say…
It was at this point that the big gag for the show was pointed out to me; the drum set would slide forward, the center part of the stage would level out and then slide out to the other end of the arena with the band riding it, playing. I wanted to see that!
There are also some large and well used video elements; a giant screen behind the band and a wall behind that both projects video and could be somewhat see through; not as limber as the U2 360 degree LED balls but another layer of high tech wonder to add to the show.
The lighting rig looked large but deceptively simple; it was just laying in wait like all light rigs.
As doors opened and the fans arrived, there appeared to be a shift in the security; I’ve been around some serious bunches before, but these guys were very ready. Believe me, if you’re thinking of doing something stupid at one of their shows, you are being watched and will be dealt with… ’nuff said.
During the dinner hour I was directed into the Rattlesnake Lounge, the VIP/food/drink area for guests. I was told it might be a good place to network for work, etc. I found one of the many pod-based espresso machines on the tour (4 that I saw) and whipped up a tall one. MMmmmmmmm. I thought I might have a better chance getting a pothole fixed on my street than getting a gig in that place as it seemed like the Dallas business/ political elite had taken over… I walked across the hall to tour catering where the working folk were grabbing a bite and instantly felt more at home.
As with these large tours, I ran into folks I knew and had worked with in the past. My friend Mike is one of the monitor mixers (there are two). Aaron runs the hydraulics that move the band from one end of the place to the other. Fido is on the audio crew and doing a fine job.
Delbert put on a great opening set which honestly I watched on a big flat screen behind the stage but heard coming off the stage. I’ve been a fan for nearly 25 years and it was great seeing him once again.
After a 45 minute changeover and a little wait time, show #41 of the Bigger Bang tour was underway with the usual Stones opener “Start Me Up”. From the get go, 62 year old Sir Mick was on the move and with the exception of the few moments he was off stage, he didn’t let up. The band also featured 3 backing vocalists and a 4 piece horn section who joined the others 4 songs in. The set list included a pretty decent cross section of old and new, as well as a couple from this year’s recording. Here’s a link to a photo of the set list…
I watched most of the set from the front of house mix position where the show sounded great, vocal and guitar friendly, balanced and with great drum tones. Keith and Ronnie, just being themselves, loose and such rock caricatures, have so many generations of guitar players trying to look cool by copping their moves and just looking like bad imitations. They might not hit every note or even the right one, but Keith often sketches a song, visits it rather than playing it note for note and looks damn cool doing it. At times the guitars wandered from the mix, but with so many guitar changes and the often unique attacks from the players, any mixer would have been chasing them around. A nice plus was backing vocalist Blondie Chapman’s acoustic would sit atop the mix, a wonderful texture added to the song.

Highlights for me would be:

Midnight Rambler, nearly 10 minutes long, stretching, turning and with a unique lighting chase that added to the danger of the song and the time it came from…

A semi-acoustic Wild Horses, shot on the video screens in sepia-tone…

Shattered, an idiotic riff so catchy, it sums up some frantic summer months in my youth…

Miss You, the band circles Charlie and the stage crosses the arena to right in front of me where then they performed a few songs…

Honky Tonk Woman is classic cowbell, wherever it was coming from…

I’d give you the details on the end/encore section but I walked back to the tech area and said my goodbyes to the guys and went to my car durning Brown Sugar. I recorded a short series of thoughts in the car on the ride home and you can hear that here…

All in all, a good show and one of the better bands I’ve seen this year, even with the amount of festivals I did earlier in the year. For sheer transportation to another planet, I’d have to give the prize to Primus at Lolla Chicago and the best opener we had on Weezer was the Kaiser Chiefs.