The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge tour opened on 1 August 1994 at RFK Stadium in Washington DC. My review of that night appeared in MOJO’s October issue of that year.
“We always get nervous on first nights – but you can’t be a virgin forever.” Certainly sounding nervous, though not looking especially virginal, Mick Jagger introduces the opening show of The Rolling Stones’ new world tour. There is a long, hot and torrid night ahead of us. But will we still respect The Rolling Stones in the morning?
To switch metaphors, the Stones are like a magnificent old steam engine, left to rust gently in its shed, then put on public view again, to be cheered by moist-eyed spectators with warm memories of the time when these iron horses were a power in the land and state-of-the-art – before it all turned small and bleepy and digital. Puffing, puffing, slowly, slowly… our beloved engine is stirring itself for one more haul. That it can move at all should give us pleasure. If it ever picks up speed, we’ll be chuffed.
For a time tonight the outcome is doubtful. The Washington August air is horribly hot, and damp as a flannel. There is a sort of torpor over the stadium, a lethargy mingled with awe. We’re gonna see The Rolling Stones, man! Think of it: the Rolling-fucking-Stones! As a result the crowd is oddly passive. If, say, Aerosmith were about to come on, everybody would understand the game – we’re here to ROCK, goddammit – and punch the air and shout Whoo! But The Rolling Stones, though… Best sit tight, watch carefully, see what happens when The Rolling Stones are actually on in front of you.
It all starts with a sluggish chug from Charlie’s drums, announcing a rather low-voltage version of Not Fade Away, followed by a stiff-ish rendering of an unexciting choice, Undercover Of The Night. Praise the Lord, then, for the liquid grace of that snaking riff which promises Tumbling Dice. And another two dozen numbers are stacked up behind.
Two of those are ceremonially handed over to Keith – Before They Make Me Run and The Worst – which he sings with shy pride, if no great loveliness, and basks awhile. For some reason it’s Keith, not Mick, who is the repository of an audience’s love for The Rolling Stones. Mick is respected, envied, or whatever, and the others get much affection. But Keith receives the love.
Charlie is Charlie and keeps his head sideways at all times, sometimes laughing for no obvious reason. Ron is still the original stoned crow, shoulders hunched, fag gripped in his mile-wide crack of a grin, eyebrows arched in hopeful “How’m I doin’?” enquiry. And there is the new bass player Darryl Jones, who’s merged inside the band’s sound seamlessly, although you visually miss the sinister old goat who used to stand unsmiling in that spot.
Jagger works the show with pro dedication; it only slows when he takes to the keyboard for Memory Motel and Out Of Tears, and probably the least successful passage is what he calls the R&B slot which included The Temptations’ Can’t Get Next To You played, as he says, in the style of Al Green. But of course there’ll always be another Stones oldie along in a moment.
On parade from their new album Voodoo Lounge are all the better songs to be heard on that half-great record. They include the opening three – Love Is Strong, You Got Me Rocking, Sparks Will Fly – and a fourth in the same vein, I Go Wild. Each of these tracks comes on like an old warrior’s battle-cry: an affirmation of virility, of appetite undiminished. Age has not withered me yet, Jagger is saying, and he says it convincingly.
Yet the Age Thing hovers. Critics have harped on it, and Jagger may well be irritated. “Not bad for a bunch of old farts,” he snorts sourly, as the band strides out of Shattered and into Satisfaction. At another point, he drawls “I haven’t heard so much about health care for the elderly since Bill left the band.” This is tonight’s only reference to the departed bass veteran, and one might have wished for something a touch more generous. As Stones send-off go, it’s hardly Shelley-and-butterflies-in-the-Park, is it?
Though the band’s senior players are in their fifties, they can play with extravagant swing and vigour. They’re still the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world, if only because the world has not thrown up a serious challenger since The Clash, and The Who are too confused, and latterday biggies U2 and R.E.M. are somehow about too many other things to be relevant comparisons. And the Stones don’t yet look silly, or undignified.
The snag is that the Stones’ response to growing old is to pretend they’re not. The chest-beating we-can-still-cut-it numbers off Voodoo Lounge are rousing and authentic, but nowhere are they matched by songs that are ripe with the cove-ish wisdom and insights which a lengthy spell on earth might be expected to supply.
On a giant screen above the stage is played the slick new video for Love Is Strong; the babes in nearly-no-clothes who writhe and cavort with the Stones are possibly teenaged. Supposing the video had featured women of 40 (still a decade or more the juniors of our boys here) then you might feel rock’n’roll was peering honestly into the process of growing up. Not here.
A kinder image of these men is that they’re relics of a wilder time. Thirty years on, the gnarly roaring boys of yesteryear appear like rake-ish old Regency bucks among respectable Victorians – gouty and duelling-scarred anachronisms in a prim new age. Or like the rascally veterans of the naught 1890s who turn up with their unreformed bad habits to annoy the sober-sided moderns in PG Wodehouse stories.
Never mind that now. Honky Tonk Women has turned the event. Deep in the set, the audience and act have found one another and are locked, at last, in a steamy embrace. The clangy old engine is bustling proudly along the track, hooting happily. Flags are flying and hats are in the air. Hurrah! Come on, old boy! You can do it!
Another grand moment is when Bobby Keys, of the four-piece horn section, takes the centre-stage to play the Brown Sugar sax solo, just as he did on the record. The “Voodoo” theme is hammered home as masked apparitions start to shimmy on stage. Bring on the dancing girls! Bring on the, er, bloke dressed as a goat, on stilts. Above the stage, around the video screen, giant inflatable figures are pumped up to their full height – Elvis, an eight-armed Hindu goddess, a punk baby are among them – and they bob serenely in the breeze.
Jumping Jack Flash ends the show. Darryl Jones has played an honourable debut, but he knows enough to hang back and let the other four – Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ron – lope together and take their bow, like a quartet of spindly pirates.