The Rolling Stones have been the sagging butt of old-fogy jokes for so long that you almost had to wonder whether they wrote the set list for last night's MCI Center show in hieroglyphics.
Just think: It's already been 16 years since all those "Steel Wheelchair" cracks surfaced. That was during the band's "Steel Wheels" era, when the average age of the group's principal members was in the mid-forties -- a downright senior-citizenly range for a band that once shaped youth culture.
In hindsight, however, those were the salad days. Now, with the Stones' average pushing past 60 (it's a wispy white hair past 61, to be semi-precise), the lads are looking every bit their age as they grow to resemble a collection of dried-apple dolls. And yet, when Mick Jagger (62), Keith Richards (61), Charlie Watts (64) and Ronnie Wood (58) got their close-ups on the giant LED screen here, this much was clear:
The Stones are hardly just some crinkly museum piece as they shuffle along in their fifth decade together.
Yes, their new studio albums don't much matter anymore. (The latest, "A Bigger Bang," is easily the group's best in a quarter-century, but it's really little more than an excuse to tour.) And, sure, they sell out stadiums and arenas around the world basically on the strength of nostalgia.
But the Stones, circa 2005, still are quite capable of summoning the sort of vitality that plenty of pop-music whippersnappers a third their age will never match. Occasionally -- as yesterday -- they even make a full night of it.
To the surprise of almost anybody who's seen the band live at various points over the past two decades, Mick, Keef and Co. delivered an electrifying tour de force of a stage show that suggested their best days aren't all behind them.
Usually, the Stones fill the vast space between the great moments during their live shows with all kinds of spackle -- perfunctory performances that say far more about the band's professionalism than about its ability to find nightly inspiration. Last night, though, after a rough and uneven opener, "Start Me Up," during which the rhythm section stuttered and the dueling guitarists Richards and Wood sounded tentative as they tripped over each other's riffs, the proverbial switch seemed to go on.
And, in spite of a muddy audio mix that often buried Jagger's vocals behind a wall of guitar, the current basically remained on over the course of the next 21 songs -- most of them longstanding staples of FM radio.
Though the Stones have performed the likes of "Brown Sugar," "Honky Tonk Women" and "Satisfaction" live about a bazillion times, the group attacked the old standbys with the urgency of an outfit with something to prove -- a surprise, given that the band's place in the pantheon has been pretty well secure for a long time.
The group made no concessions to pop trends during the set (save for disco, during "Miss You"), and instead stayed true to the formula that first made the Stones famous: Straight-ahead rock-and-roll rooted in the blues. At one point, during the new "Back of My Hand," the Stones even returned to those roots, playing a Delta blues stomp during which Jagger expertly channeled Muddy Waters, both on his guitar and with his voice, which turned into something of a raw howl.
More typically, though, the singer brayed his way through feisty, unsentimental lyrics, even as he led the so-called World's Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band through one of the World's Most Strenuous Aerobics Acts. He's still the prototypical frontman, prancing and strutting and jerking and exhorting and otherwise throwing off so much energy and attitude, even at his advanced age, that it's sometimes easy to forget that the backing band isn't so bad, either. While Wood and, especially, Richards made sure to remind the audience of their prowess through their frequent blues licks and searing solos, the incomparable Watts melted into the background, holding steady alongside the bassist-for-hire, Darryl Jones.
Watts, whose proper posture and constant poker face makes him look more like a college professor than the drummer for a band that was once among pop music's most dangerous, appeared happy to operate in the background.
Not so, of course, for Richards, who ran off some of the most propulsive if economical riffs this side of Chuck Berry while preening for the sold-out crowd -- occasionally as a cigarette dangled from his lip and, always, as a bunch of weird things dangled from his matted hair. (Richards, in fact, looked as though he'd gotten his head tangled with a wind chime.)
Whether the Stones are still living the dream or simply earning a fabulous living is open for debate. It's only rock-and-roll, but you like it. You really, really like it, some of you: The most coveted seats in the house -- those near the front of the stage, where one might have been close enough to count all the wrinkles -- were list-priced at $403, though scalpers were getting four figures for top tickets.
Get used to it, kids: The band appears poised to tour in perpetuity. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
The Rolling Stones may be the kings of Jurassic rock, but who doesn't love a dinosaur that can still kick out the jams like this?