CHICAGO -- There wasn't much hoopla. The city didn't come to a halt like it did the last time the Rolling Stones came to town. There were no fireworks, no balloons, no stadium-sized video screens projecting frontman Mick Jagger's every move.
But if you're the Rolling Stones and you're playing your last U.S. show for a while, you don't need much.
As the Stones, arguably one of the most beloved and certainly among the most influential bands in rock history, waded through the first half of their show Thursday at the United Center, they filled the house with their classic blues-style rock like so many bands who have played there before. While they seemed naked on the wide stage without all the pyrotechnics and golden props surrounding them, there was a purity there that had been lost in the multimillion-dollar stage designs that have followed them on this tour.
The legendary blues-rockers wrapped up the U.S. portion of their seemingly never-ending Bridges To Babylon tour in the Windy City, where they started it back in September. Then they were playing at the cold outdoor Soldier Field to two nights of 54,000 screaming fans. Then they were generous enough to offer a secret show at the tiny Double Door for 400 or so lucky fans. And everywhere there was a mood of anticipation that the Stones did their best to live up to over two nights of live performances.
This time around it was a beautiful day, but the show was indoors in the
(relatively) intimate United Center with just 21,500 fans. Tickets to the
most expensive rock show in Chicago history cost upwards of $300, more than three times as much as the already pricey September tickets. There was anticipation, but mostly among Stones fans, not the entire city.
The Stones managed to recover from a rocky start Thursday to finish the
show, and the tour, with a suitable rock 'n' roll ending. They opened as they did back in September, with "Satisfaction." But
muddy sound and some technical problems, including twinges of screeching feedback, kept the crowd at a distance. And as Jagger went to the acoustic guitar for "Sister Morphine," the fifth song, most of the audience fell back in their seats.
John Hand, a fan who said he had spoken to the venue's staff about the technical difficulties, said that the Stones didn't get a sound check. "Mick [Jagger] seemed pissed off," added Hand's friend Albie Cullen. "You could see him yelling at Keith [Richards]. He made the rest of the band really play for this crowd."
The 54-year-old Jagger, projected on two smallish screens at the side of the stage, looked as if he were frustrated early on. He seemed to want more from the audience, but he also seemed lackluster himself, perhaps tired from the lengthy tour that now heads off to Canada and Europe. At one point, he asked the crowd, "Are you having a good time?" But his voice was faint and he had to ask again.
The tour and the activities surrounding it, while highly publicized and well attended, have had their low points. A 31-year-old audience member was killed when he fell from a second-tier balcony at the Pontiac Silverdome outside of Detroit. David Bowie had to fill in for the Stones on the premiere of MTV's "Live at the 10 Spot" after Jagger developed a sore throat. The boat that guitarist Ronnie Wood was riding on caught fire and he had to be rescued from the water.
Still, their tour's opening slot sported some of the most renowned artists in the business, including Bob Dylan, the Smashing Pumpkins, Blues Traveler and Pearl Jam. But some -- such as Meredith Brooks, who got booed off the stage in South America -- didn't fare too well with restless crowds.
And, in turn, the Stones were named the top grossing act of 1997. The 33 shows they played in 26 cities grossed $89.3 million for an average of $3.4 million on 58,125 tickets per city. That figure has risen to about $4 million per city this year even though the Stones are playing in arenas rather than stadiums. "They are the premiere concert attraction in the world," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert industry weekly Pollstar. "They have proven once again that they still pack a financial and artistic punch."
Spencer Weisz, a Chicago art dealer, said he got his front-row tickets for Thursday's show through a friend of a friend. He was also front row back in September. "I've seen the Stones fewer than six times," he explained. Still, for his girlfriend, this was a first.
And when Jagger and his bandmates took to a small stage in the center of the arena as they have throughout the tour, they also returned to their legendary form. They led off with a bluesy "Little Queenie" and "I Just Want to Make Love To You." But then, as Jagger paraded around in his patented sinewy strut, and as the bras and roses rained down upon them, the frisky Wood grabbed the singer's butt as he bopped by.
The Stones then launched into Dylan's classic "Like a Rolling Stone," and the crowd was on its feet.
Jagger's harp solo was much bluesier than Dylan's folky original. Lead guitarist Keith Richards' open shirt billowed and Wood stood, cigarette clamped between his third and fourth fingers on his strumming hand. As the
sing-along continued, the audience, bathed in yellow lights, belted out the famous "How does it feel?" refrain.
Finally, as Jagger began the migration back to the main stage during the opening bongos of "Sympathy for the Devil," he led the band through a classic
Stones set, including "Honky Tonk Woman," "Start Me Up," "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and the confetti-filled encores of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "Brown Sugar."
As they took their bows to wrap up the U.S. leg, one of the backing vocalists scooped up a bunch of the confetti that littered the stage and sprinkled it over Jagger's head.
There was a palpable sense of finality to that moment, as first the entire crew and then just the four Stones waved to the audience.
But for Linda Lukasik and Mary Glusak, who have been attending Stones shows together since 1964, there is no end. "As long as the Stones keep going, we'll keep coming," Lukasik said. "They've kept me 16 for 34 years."