Coinciding nicely with a milestone very few bands reach, the Rolling Stones have released GRRR Live!, a recording from their iconic 50th anniversary tour in 2012.
The band have had a touring life that spans generations, and it’s no wonder the guys had to take some time off after their 2005 tour, A Bigger Bang, which clocked up more than 140 shows over two years. These kinds of numbers can only be matched by decorated and collectively accepted legends in the game. So, following the mammoth effort, a hiatus was in order, with the knowledge that they would be back for more.
The music that was recorded to compile this live compilation album, was taken from a historic performance in Newark, New Jersey, in 2012, that marked the 50th anniversary tour called 50 & Counting. Clearly, by the name, this was not to be their last hurrah, and history shows that to be the case. It is now widely accepted though that the performance put to rest on this LP is one of their best. During the lead up to the anniversary tour, Keith Richards was documented in an interview with Paul Sexton, saying that the band had more energy than when they were touring back in 2005. Once you make your way through the track-listing of endless hits, it becomes apparent that this was in fact true. The performance somehow gets livelier the deeper you go.
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Perhaps the energy came with the momentum rustled up from when the band recorded two new singles. ‘Doom & Gloom’ and ‘One More Shot’ were recorded as fresh additions to the 50th anniversary studio compilation album GRRR. Ronnie Wood couldn’t believe how fast these two singles were recorded; it was the most efficient recording process the band had experienced before. Both tracks can be heard loudly and proudly in this live compilation record. It is nice to hear something that was new at the time, shining through with the looseness and groove that the Rolling Stones does so very well.
There is something about the Stones live, for they are at their most authentic, as raw, rough and ready is what they do best. Talking to Paul Sexton, Ronnie Wood explained how keeping it raw when recording the two new songs meant it all came together quite simply. Mick Jagger was quoted expressing how they wanted the anniversary to be both reflective on the past, but also have a future-facing element to the celebrations.
Part of that endearing outlook led the Stones to invite a list of star guests to lift the last show of the tour to the next level. These inclusions really made for most of the highlights in the performance. Additionally, the Stones aired the concert as a pay-per-view so that the world could join along in the celebratory show. Since then, the performance has been unavailable, until now!
Kicking the album off with a rocky ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’, the stones are clearly in shape. We hear Mick light up and the backbone support from Charlie Watts is simply rock-solid. Keith and Ronnie of course take turns in the limelight, their tones meshing to create washes of licks and riffs that never fail to land. Ronnie stretches his virtuoso muscle on ‘Paint it Black’ however, with that sitar-based riff. It’s all too familiar, yet each song has playful elements that adds textures and dynamics that of course colour the live performance. The band strikes that balance of leaving in parts of a song to ensure integrity is maintained, yet willing to play around enough to create spaces to jam and explore what happens with some healthy improvisation.
Quite a surprise occurs five songs into the setlist, with the opening bars to ‘Gimme Shelter’, piquing interest at such an early stage of the performance. The song itself is gold standard in a Rolling Stones set, but perhaps usually placed somewhere near the conclusion. A nice change to have it placed so early on, and that wasn’t all. On the second verse, Lady Gaga appears seemingly out of nowhere and fires in with her pop-diva chops. Lady Gaga ad libs like no other, continually adding energy into the song, creating appropriate breaks and filling Jagger’s palate up with options to riff from. They clearly find a nice synergy as the performance breathes and finds a natural progression that leaves the audience audibly feeling buzzed.
It then must be mentioned that ‘Wild Horses’ as a follow up, really does the ambience justice. The song keeps the audience warm with a tender number to keep that anticipation rife and the ears satiated for a moment. ‘Wild Horses’ is a fan favourite and it’s nice to hear Mick on the acoustic guitar, adding some organic sounding notes to the performance.
Very swiftly though, we are back to never-heard before line-ups, with John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr. joining the band on stage at the end of ‘Wild Horses’. Four guitarists on stage make for a tidy six-minute excursion into improvised axe work. Together they performed ‘Going Down’, a bluesy number from Freddie King, that pays homage to the genre that inspired it all for the stones. Each guitarist gets his moment to explore the fret board. They all find new sounds that fit nicely into the backing bars that hold the blues foundation together. It’s a real treat and certainly one not to be overlooked.
The next guest appearance is from the Black Keys, who provide guitar, vocals, and a secondary drum kit to the stage. This time, the Stones decided to play a number never publicly performed, called ‘Who Do You Love’ by Bo Diddley. With Patrick Carney on drums, alongside Watts, we get a groovy shuffle beat, that provides some bold rhythm for Dan Auerbach to lay his fuzz-tinged guitar overtop. It’s a nice modern sounding edition of the song and it’s another strong point on the track listing.
Mick’s quips and ad-libs are always something to savour, and there is no lack of them on this album either. He engages with the crowd frequently and does so when preluding ‘Miss You’, asking the crowd if they feel like singing on this one? Jagger leaves space for the audience to contribute to the “Ooo ooo ooos”.
Another unique inclusion on the set-list is a Keith Richards song, ‘Before They Make Me Run’ which comes to life just after the band introductions. Keith’s vocals are smokey and make for a sweet change in timbre. The song breaks the set-list up nicely and returns to classics with ‘Happy’ from their seminal release Exile on Main St. Keith stays on vocals for this one too and it competently builds energy once again.
Finally, after ‘Happy’, we get the ultimate extended cut, with ‘Midnight Rambler’, with Mick Taylor joining to really bring it home, making it feel like their early days again. Listeners are treated to a 12-minute ensemble that includes the crowd, with Mick commanding early on to “Bring it up!”. Mick is tight on the harmonica, creating that every-lasting rootsy riff that creates an unforgiving earworm. Mick Taylor really draws out notes and hangs on strings, playing to the pace change as the song winds it way down in the middle to let Jagger build it back up for the punchy finish. Jagger gets the crowd to yell “oww!” a few times and then comes back to the riff as the instrumentation is reintroduced. This is the most jam-band stylistic moment on the record and it’s a rewarding commitment for that matter.
The final big-name guest is none other than Bruce Springsteen (aka: The Boss!), who brings his gravelly voice to add extra grit to ‘Tumbling Dice’. The song dribbles its riff as we make a heady transition to what feels like a final few songs. We then get ‘Brown Sugar’ and a hellish ‘Sympathy For The Devil’. This leads to an encore performance of three more songs. The crows audibly support the angelic opening from a choir, harmonising the introduction to ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’. The song feels uniquely like a reprise, but of course this is the first time the song is being played on this occasion. Perhaps it feels nostalgic and bittersweet as its timeless sound leans on the anniversary theme. It’s a great way to start an encore with such a sturdy ballad.
The record comes to an end with our staple of staples, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’. Both picks feel entirely appropriate as early hit makers for the band, that have continued as popular tunes. Satisfaction in particular, has that edge because it was such a controversial song when it was released in the late sixties. Seen as having influenced the counterculture, it’s a popular culture landmark that deserves the honour of being a closer. Once again, appropriate playful instrumentation and crowd interaction define the performance. Winding down, the rock epic finishes well and concludes the tremendous album with a bang.
Overall, this live recording holds some great new sounds with unique guests and some old friends too. It’s nice to hear the liveliness after so many years, and with a performance and set-list like this, it makes for a legendary Rolling Stones performance that can be revisited time and time again. This album contends strongly with the likes of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, which is widely considered the Stones’ best live record to date. A quality live recording, that documents the band’s legacy, this one is not to be missed.