Two 70-year-old men and their band sang, strummed, danced, preened and cackled their way through a magnificent roster of rock and dirty blues classics in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night, and left an audience of 50,000 Israelis inspired, exhausted and delighted. The Rolling Stones in Israel: Sometimes, you can get what you want.
This was no ordinary concert, obviously. This was the greatest band in the world. And for the first time in their lives and ours, they were playing in Israel.
They’d spent some of the day or two before the gig seeing the sights — Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood visiting the Western Wall, Mick Jagger jogging up the coast to Caesarea, Keith Richards proving more elusive — but Mick had evidently been learning some Hebrew, too. Many bands manage an “Erev Tov” (Good evening) and a “Shalom” or two; Jagger spoke more Hebrew than English in the early stages of the show, including “Anachnu Ha’Avanim Ha’Mitgalgalot” (We are the Rolling Stones), “Hokol Sababa?” (All good?), and the unforgettable and frankly inexplicable, “Kanita Na’alayim Ba’Shuk?” (Did you buy shoes in the market?) to Ronnie Wood, who was wearing rather spiffy orange Nikes.
Still, with the greatest respect for Jagger’s impressive Hebrew, we’d come to hear him sing and his band play, and they were as outstanding as you’d expect from a band with their peerless history, and far, far better than a quartet of musicians all more elderly than the state of Israel have any right to be.
All four of them are a contradiction of heavily lined features and lean physiques — reflecting lives they’ve lived to the limit but want to keep on living. And they produce music that showcases both their decades of experience and their abiding energy. They opened with “Start Me Up” and they never stopped, pumping through 18 more crowd-pleasers all the way to “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction.”
Jagger (a great-grandfather, as of last week) was in perpetual motion — a sinewy marvel with his unique tight-butted, pigeon-legged dancing style. What sometimes gets overlooked, though, is that the man can sing — most notably when duetting with the powerhouse backing vocalist superstar Lisa Fischer. He played a mean harmonica too, using it to introduce “Midnight Rambler,” which featured the extra delight of a guest spot by the former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor.
It’s very much Jagger’s show, but Richards was a grinning, simian foil, contorted around his guitar, nicking a quick smoke with Wood when he thought no one was looking too closely. Wood, the youngster at 67, does much more of the soloing than you might think, and somehow managed “Paint it Black” with a cigarette held between two fingers of his strumming hand.
Choosing highlights from a setlist this consistently strong is foolish, but “Angie” was a rare, gentle pleasure, and “Sympathy for the Devil,” spearheaded by Jagger in red cape, boosted by demonic lights and graphics, managed to convey a thrilling air of menace.
The only lull was the two-song Keith solo spot, but the man is so maniacally lovable a stage presence that you readily forgive him the cracked vocals. “It’s good to be here,” pirate Keith declared to huge applause. “But it’s good to be anywhere,” he continued roguishly, to an even bigger cheer.
Tel Aviv turned on the heat for the Stones — it was truly sweltering. “I need some water; hang on a sec,” confessed Jagger early on, having rapidly realized that wearing three layers was overkill and rapidly removed his sparkly mauve jacket, and then his psychedelic mauve shirt, to leave a black T. While the Stones made it through intact, 147 people were treated for dehydration, asthma and other afflictions. Only at the very end did the temperature dip a little, with a few drops of rain in a divinely timed expression of “Satisfaction.”
Only one man remained cool and serene throughout, drummer Charlie Watts. Displaying further Hebrew prowess, Jagger told us it was Watts’ “Yom Huledet” and the crowd responded with a lusty, Hebrew “Happy Birthday.” With a camera filming him from beneath his bass drum, Charlie ruled, tight-lipped on high like a regal turtle, but he smiled broadly at the birthday greetings (he turned 73 on Monday) and never missed a beat all night. Pushing this band forward, even as his sticks whirr, Charlie somehow always seems to have plenty of time.
What the Rolling Stones play so peerlessly is indeed “only rock ‘n roll” as their third song of the night had it, but it’s rock ‘n roll that sends the spirit soaring. Watching its finest purveyors smilingly perform in Tel Aviv and hearing Jagger wish us “Chag Shavuot Sameach, Yisrael” (Happy Shavuot, Israel) — boycott pressure be damned — was as good as it gets.
When the choir from the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music gathered on stage for the penultimate number to chorus angelically that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” it was a heartfelt, Rolling Stones-loving Israel that joined in with the next line: “But if you try sometimes, well you might find, you get what you need.”