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Rolling Stones: Live At The Wiltern (2CD/DVD)

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Cowed as the The Rolling Stones may have been by the tragedy that was Altamont in December 1969, 'the greatest rock and roll band in the world' nevertheless came to take some risks as their career evolved in the wake of the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards rapprochement in the late Eighties.

Machine-like as the operation became circa Steel Wheels (Rolling Stones Records, 1989), ensuing years saw the iconic British group take great pains to avoid just cranking out the hits. The group solicited the fanbase for novel setlist inclusions to freshen up appearances in stadiums, rearranging vintage material and held concerts in smaller venues.

Like those performances captured on Stripped (Rolling Stones/Virgin Records, 1995) and further documented on From The Vault: Sticky Fingers Live at the Fonda Theatre (Eagle Rock Video, 2015), the band continued to play small theaters and Live at the Wiltern continues in that same vein.

Part of the 2002-2003 Licks tour celebrating the group's fortieth anniversary, this set presents the Stones in an intimate setting, playing more than a little rarely performed material. Twenty selections present a testament to their longevity, not to mention their prolific, if somewhat erratic, nature as timeless, stellar material—the opener, "Jumpin' Jack Flash," resides next to that which is the definition of prosaic.

With Tom Petty and Neil Young among the capacity crowd in the two-thousand-plus seat venue, the Stones waste none of their nearly two hours of playing time. The rarity of "Live With Me," off Let It Bleed (London/Decca, 1969) appears second in the setlist and features a vigorous sax solo by Bobby Keys. Former Allman Brothers Band keyboardist Chuck Leavell spices up the noisy arrangement of the bawdy number with his piano.

A cull from the overrated Tattoo You (Rolling Stones, 1981), "Neighbors," verifies how chief songwriters, vocalist Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards, are not above resorting to generic changes in their original material, but some charged fretboard interplay between the latter and Ronnie Wood (Faces, the original Jeff Beck Group) salvages the performance.

Two selections from the famous return-to-form album, Beggars Banquet (London/Decca, 1968) suggest the wisdom behind the expansion of their repertoire and further suggest they might mix up their setlists regularly. No question the subtleties of "Stray Cat Blues" and especially "No Expectations" benefit from the close quarters of the Wiltern, but the fact is the blues-orientation of the former could carry to the far reaches of a stadium, while the latter—with the lead vocalist on acoustic guitar and Wood offering decoration with a lap slide—simply deserves more attention: it may well be the finest composition its authors ever wrought.

On the small stage, Jagger is not tempted to overdo the physicality of his stage performances and thus undercut vocals. Nevertheless, on "Beast of Burden," off Some Girls (Rolling Stones, 1978), his gesticulations might well have been fully excised to match the chastened but defiant tone of the song. Or he could have simply reserved the jumping and dancing for his time sharing the spotlight with opening act Soloman Burke on "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" (which the Stones covered in 1965).

Apart from those unabashedly crowd-pleasing moments—and the homage to roots represented by Otis Redding's "That's How Strong My Love Is" and the Miracles' Motown paean to dance "Going To A Go Go"—the other bonafide highlight of Live At The Wiltern has to be "Can't You Hear Me Knocking;" the second half the studio rendition on Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones, 1971), is nothing more than watered-down composite of early Santana jams.

Here, however, a more readily discernible Latin sway underpins an extended highly energized, instrumental passage following Jagger's fevered singing (where, in barely avoiding caricature, he follows suit with Richards' first vocal slot on "Thru And Thru"). Darryl Jones' pulsing bass, otherwise, as minimal in the audio mix as Charlie Watts' drums, underlies rhythmic percussion (some courtesy of the famed session drummer Jim Keltner) that plays off the singer's bluesy harp to great effect.

Clearly depicting the musicality the Stones were aiming for here, the roughly twenty-minute number surges to a climax in much the same way as the clutch of hits that close this performance. Preceded by a tribute to their blues roots, complete with brassy horns, in the form of "Rock Me Baby," "Honky Tonk Women' and "Start Me Up." among others, ensure that, aside from the slightly varied quality of the songs, the Rolling Stones evince as much pride in their work as relish for it.

More often than not, camera work for the video heightens the action. Taken from various angles including panoramic front and center, as well as either side of the stage, not to mention floor level, shots of the audience are oddly scarce. Still, the quick cuts accentuate the fast-moving action by all of the participants, not just those positioned at center stage or in immediate proximity thereof. Nevertheless, watching the DVD (or Blu-ray) brings only a minimal sense of being there.

On the other hand, hearing alone on compact disc (or vinyl) is much more stimulating, so the various physical packages of Live At The Wiltern not only mirror the range of material in the concert, but the accessible nature of the release. Nevertheless, differing vinyl and audio/video combo sets cannot mitigate the generic graphics of the double-fold digi-pak; better that front, back and inside sleeves were populated with more photos like those within the twelve pages of the booklet.

A greater array of action shots might well also reduce the length of Paul Sexton's essay. This journalist/author's writing curiously borders on pure puffery, so such changes in the graphics would more closely align the cover design with the potent musicianship which is the antithesis of these budget-priced cosmetics.

Album information

Title: Live At The Wiltern (2CD/DVD) | Year Released: 2024 | Record Label: Mercury Studios/Rolling Stones


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