The Rolling Stones last night blew into Pittsburgh, one of 15 cities on their 2015 Zip Code Tour. They are not currently promoting a new album. However, they are celebrating the reissue of their 1971 album Sticky Fingers. Several songs from the album were on the concert’s set list including “Brown Sugar,” “Bitch,” and Moonlight Mile.”
Mick Jagger, The Stones lead vocalist and front man, was a contemporary of Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol. Warhol created the concept for the band’s Sticky Fingers album and the cover art for Love You Live. Mick Jagger even toured the Warhol Museum before one of their previous Pittsburgh concerts. The Stones first appeared here at the former West View Park’s Danceland on their first American tour in 1964 (which Jagger referenced between songs), the Stone’s most recent concert was the 2005 show at PNC Park.
Lingering rain would not dissuade the multitude of Stones fans from the region and beyond from seeing the Stones at Heinz Field. Much like a Steelers game day, traffic was heavy, parking lots were filled, and there was some consumption of adult beverages therein. The crowd was orderly with many wearing Rolling Stones T-shirts from previous concerts. The audience consisted mainly of Baby Boomers, and about a quarter were youngsters who wanted the experience of seeing one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands in the world.
Mick Jagger (lead vocals, guitars, harmonica, percussion), Keith Richards (guitars, vocals), Ronnie Wood (guitars), and Charlie Watts (drums) have made up the core of the band since longtime bassist Bill Wyman departed in 1993. The basic essence of the Rolling Stones is an in-your-face hard rock that’s also euphonious, that features lyrics and vocals ranging from having sex all night (“Some Girls”) to respect for soldiers and hardworking people (“Salt of the Earth”), and blends an explosive mix of vocals, guitars, drums, and brass that makes you want to move. The group is so talented they can also slow it down for an occasional sweet, emotional ballad.
Saxophonist Karl Denson, of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and Lenny Kravitz’s band, is one of the musicians touring with the Stones for Zip Code. He joins other longtime supporting musicians including Chuck Leavell (keyboards, backing vocals, percussion), Lisa Fischer (backing vocals, percussion), Bernard Fowler (backing vocals, percussion), and Darryl Jones (bass guitar, backing vocals).
The stage occupied the south end zone, blotting out most of the downtown buildings that are normally seen. The cathedral-like lighted spires of PPG Place could be seen in the background above the stage, providing a somewhat spiritual accent to the scene. Devoid of much decoration or theme as in past tours, the stage was expansive and basic with two very large video screens on each flank. A long runway went from the stage out to the center of the on-field seating area. The rain continued through opener Awolnation. Many people were AWOL from their seats due to the rain and unfamiliarity with the artist.
As the time got closer for the Stones to take the stage, the rain stopped and a large Rolling Stone Zip Code tongue logo was shown on each video screen, customized to the Pittsburgh tour stop with “Pittsburgh 15212” (North Shore’s zip code).
As Heinz Field’s lights went down to signal the show would soon begin, a video played different colorized images including goats, the Stones members in psychedelic era clothing akin to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper look, driving scenes, red lights, and at the end, a highway sign that read “Welcome to Pittsburgh 15212.” Fireworks then went off as Keith Richards launched into the opening chords of “Jumping Jack Flash” on his Telecaster guitar. Ronnie Wood was in the mix with his Stratocaster, as Charlie Watts banged out the beat, and Mick Jagger led the band in vocals and with his dance and strut moves. The man can still move and sing very well. The crowd roared a Pittsburgh welcome. Richards was first to move out onto the runway into the center of the crowd, followed soon thereafter by Jagger.
Jagger started the night in a beautiful blue velvet-looking blazer with black lapels, Keith sported a green vest that he wore unbuttoned. Wood was wearing a shiny black leather jacket. Dressed in a yellow T-shirt all night, drummer Watts got a very nice ovation during band introductions that grew even louder when he pulled up his pant legs to reveal Steelers-colored black and gold striped socks. Except for Watts, the Stones had several costume changes throughout the night. Many of these were planned, but due to the extreme humidity of the night a few more may have been incorporated.
Next up was “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I like it).” Keith Richards—who Rolling Stone ranks fourth on its list of 100 Best Guitarists—sounded top-notch as he ran through the riffs on a goldish-colored Gibson with black trim. Wood and Watts were at the top of their game as well. Jagger said “It’s great to be back in Pittsburgh.” “All Down the Line” followed.
The stage was set with Watts and kit on a riser at center stage with Wood to the front left, Richards front right, and Jagger wherever he wanted to be. On the stage right flank Chuck Leavell played keyboard and organ. The background singers/percussionists were in that area as well. Stage left featured bassist Darryl Jones and the brass section.
Following was “Tumbling Dice” which had an animated video of jazzed up dice tumbling. Then “Doom and Gloom,” the lead single taken from GRRR!, the 50th anniversary compilation album released in 2012. Jagger strapped on his Telecaster and ground out some great opening riffs while singing “sitting in the dirt, feeling kind of hurt.” Fog was created and about two dozen white laser lights shined on it.
Jagger spoke of several cool things rising out of Pittsburgh: Big Macs, pull tabs, and Andy Warhol. “Warhol designed our Sticky Fingers album cover,” he proudly said. Then the band launched full force into “Bitch” from said album. This really had the crowd moving with fantastic guitar riffs, driving drums, brassy horns, and great lead vocals. Mick and company slowed it down with the lovely ballad “Moonlight Mile” also from Sticky Fingers. During the song beautiful shots of nature and the moon were shown on the video screen. Watts made nice use of percussion mallets on the drums to set a different tone for the song. Jagger said: “This is our first time playing Heinz Field, but we all ate a lot of Heinz Beans growing up.”
“Paint it Black” was an online fan choice song and beat out three others including “Shattered” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Wood was playing some type of electric sitar for the song. Watts’ brilliant drumming provided a solid foundation for the band. “Honky Tonk Women” followed, sans the large inflatable honky-tonk women of some past tours. Leavell’s keyboard talents shone through with some nice honky-tonk piano playing throughout the song.
Keith Richards capably provided the lead vocals on two songs—”Before They Make Me Run” and “Happy”—as Jagger took a quick break. “Happy” found Wood playing some very nice slide riffs. As the crowd clapped, Richards graciously thanked them.
Jagger reappeared—now in a shiny silver jacket and with a harmonica—to run through “Midnight Rambler.” Jones provided a funky bass line as the group played the Some Girls hit “Miss You.”
Up next was “Gimme Shelter,” which has one of the best rock song openings, with its signature guitar riff intro and mystical background vocals, followed by the drums and the rest of the band joining in. It’s a great live song with hard rock beat and soaring vocals. Fischer’s dynamic vocal range brought an extra dimension to the song. The next track, “Start Me Up,” started up with a fireworks display.
The stage looked like the devil’s workshop during “Sympathy for the Devil,” with a blazing fire on the video screen, eerie red lights, fog, and Jagger in a red boa. Woods and Richards jammed furiously at center stage as Jagger aptly played the role of Lucifer.
“Brown Sugar” was a delicious, boiling concoction of guitars, drums, horns, vocals, and keys. It’s another Stones song with great opening riffs that continue throughout the tune. Denson’s saxophone play on the song demonstrates why he is an in-demand player. Jagger engaged the audience with a little sing-along action on the “yeah, yeah, yeah, ooh” part of the refrain. Having concluded the main set, Jagger said “Good Night Pittsburgh” and the band left the stage.
On the video screens a special black and gold tongue logo was shown with the Steelers logo sliding down to the tip of the tongue. The animated sequence would then repeat. The Penn State Concert Choir who were brought in to participate in the show started up with a beautiful rendition of the opening lyrics, then the French horn notes began. There was no doubt now that the first song of the encore was “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Jagger employed more audience sing-along for the song and when he said “My favorite flavor” and paused, the crowd readily shot back “cherry red.” Jagger thanked the audience and the choir.
Richards tore open the last song of the night with the opening power chords of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” while Watts beat the drums mercilessly, and Jagger sung and danced. The crowd erupted with joyful applause. “Satisfaction” was the Stones first No. 1 hit and picked by Rolling Stone to be second on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs. The Stones have always been astute observers and chroniclers of popular culture and that’s why their line about marketing and commercialism in the song is so smart and fun: “When I’m watchin’ my TV / And that man comes on to tell me / How white my shirts can be / But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke / The same cigarettes as me.”
It was great to have the Stones back in Pittsburgh again. One thing that would have made the show a little sweeter would’ve been for them to play “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” from Sticky Fingers, which they have played on other Zip Code tour stops. But like the Stones say, “You can’t Always Get What You Want.” The sellout crowd of 55,000 got what they needed and had a grand time. It seemed like the Stones had fun as well. We hope to see them again in Pittsburgh again in the not too distant future.
Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and a lover of great music.