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The Rolling Stones — Steel Wheels/Dallas 1989 2nd Night (No Label)

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Rolling Stones - Dallas 1989 2nd Night DVDThe Rolling Stones – Steel Wheels Tour/Dallas 1989 2nd Night

Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas, November 11, 1989

DISC ONE: Continental Drift, Start Me Up, Bitch, Sad Sad Sad, Undercover Of The Night, Harlem Shuffle, Tumbling Dice, Miss You, Ruby Tuesday, Angie, Rock And A Hard Place, Mixed Emotions, Honky Tonk Women, Midnight Rambler, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Little Red Rooster

DISC TWO: MC, Can’t Be Seen, Happy, Paint It Black, 2000 Light Years From Home, Sympathy For The Devil, Gimme Shelter, Band Introductions, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, Brown Sugar, Satisfaction, Jumping Jack Flash, Outroduction (Carmen)

(Total Time approx. 146 minutes)

For the past twenty years now – that is to say, less than half of the time they’ve been together – the Rolling Stones have criss-crossed the world with extravagant tours that have lulled many of us into the mind-set slogan that guitarist Keith Richards has spoken of: you have the sun, moon, the stars and the Rolling Stones. Their presence on the road (if not the studio) has, more or less, been an automatic given dating back two decades.

But this certainly wasn’t the case back in the 1980s. I can vividly recall feeling as though the sun and moon had a better chance of colliding than the Stones had reuniting for a new album and/or tour – or for us ever seeing them again, or (in my case) for the first time. Following the band’s 1981-82 world tour in support of ‘81’s “Tattoo You,” the Stones had become curiously quiet. They didn’t tour for 1983’s underrated “Undercover” album, and the only noise or commotion we heard for the next two years were the barbs traded between Jagger and Richards over Mick’s desire and decision to break away for a solo album, 1985’s “She’s The Boss.” That year, Mick and Keith (along with guitarist Ron Wood) took other dates to the massive ‘Live Aid” concert for African famine relief, performing with Tina Turner and Bob Dylan, respectively.

Even if you hadn’t read the gory details and salacious gossip about Mick and Keith’s feud during  those lost years of limbo (plus, as we learned later, drummer Charlie Watts’s admission that he had developed an addiction to heroin and alcohol), by the time “Dirty Work” dropped in early 1986, all you had to do was glance at the cover and credits to know there was a storm of trouble brewing in the paradise of the Glimmer Twins’ us-against-the-world partnership.

Setting aside (but not necessarily forgiving) the ‘80s sherbert color scheme, there Keef was on the cover, glowering as he claimed prime position on a couch, while a displaced Jagger looked ill at ease off to the side, as if he had fallen off the end or drawn the short straw for who had to wear the day-glo yellow trousers. Inside, instead of the familiar Jagger-Richards co-writing credits, we saw a laundry list of guest musicians and collaborators (Jimmy Page, Bobby Womack, Tom Waits), and producers (Steve Lillywhite), with only a smattering of songs co-written solely by the principals.

So, scene set, here’s where it gets interesting. Flash forward to the end of the decade, and the announcement that Jagger and Richards had commenced writing and recording together again. Then the kicker: With a new (mediocre) album, “Steels Wheels,” in the can, the Stones would at last be returning to the road, after nearly seven years away.  Instead of a last gasp victory lap, the “Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle” world tour of ‘89-‘90 actually launched the most active and lucrative touring era in the band’s now 50-plus year career.

It is against this backdrop of history and anticipation that a handsome new double-DVD set, “Steel Wheels: Dallas 1989 2nd Night,” arrives to refresh our memory of what it was like for many of us (and certainly me) to see the flesh-and-blood Stones up close and personal (and on the giant video screen) and hear them coming through the amplifiers and speakers, running through their best-known songs and even a few new ones too. It’s a nicely transportive time capsule of a classic ’89 concert.

This set, another “no name” label release, consists of a strong, complete November 11, 1989 Stones concert at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, the second of the group’s two-night stand there that came right in the middle of their lengthy U.S. tour. This has been a fairly rare, scarcely available show on both DVD and CD. The only other DVD I know of featuring this pro-shot show was a Japanese edition that surfaced ten years ago, titled “Where Is JFK?”  There are also at least two CDs of the show that made their way into the collectors’ market: the two-disc “Texas Rangers” (Chamelion Records), which possibly utilized the same video source used here and the Japanese DVD, and Vinyl Gang Product’s double-disc entry, “The Boys Are Back in Dallas.”

This new “no name” version is housed in a standard double-DVD case with fetching, era-appropriate, front and back color photographs of the band, and silver, professionally printed disc artwork featuring the metallic “Steel Wheels” design. I’d place both picture and sound quality of the show somewhere in the 7 out of 10 range. Throughout, Watts’ drums are distant and Bill Wyman’s bass is non-existent, making for a somewhat thin mono mix (to my ears, at least) lacking a deeper depth to balance out the vocals and guitars which are front-and-center and very present.

The video, meanwhile, appears sourced from a solid, fairly strong color VHS-quality tape of its time, and has a timing strip running atop (and at times, below) the picture, which can be a bit distracting. But I find the ticking numbers, furious as they are, preferable to the tactic/option of blocking out the numbers with a solid black strip, which to me impedes the picture, rather than just super-imposes onto it. Overall, it’s a straightforward, no-frills presentation with a menu choice to “play all” or select the song you want.

What is most strange about this film is an odd sensation I got after awhile that the audience is almost completely absent, with both audio and visual crowd cues having seemingly been mixed out of the show. We barely hear them (okay, fine), and aside from the vast darkened sea in front and around the band, we don’t see any specific faces or people having a good time. Instead, it feels as though we’re watching a closed dress rehearsal, with the band sealed off from everybody. While I might be inclined, in most cases, to welcome that “no crowd noise” approach, here it seems to sap the event of some of the energy and atmosphere of what looks to have been a lively, highly enjoyable show with the boys back in town.

The 1989-90 set list is a strong career-spanning overview, with several numbers besides the new “Steel Wheels” material (“Sad Sad Sad”; “Rock And A Hard Place”; “Mixed Emotions”; “Can’t Be Seen”) not having been performed in more than 20 years (“Ruby Tuesday”; “Paint It Black”) – or ever before, for that matter (“2000 Light Years from Home”; “Undercover Of The Night”; “Harlem Shuffle”). In fact, there’s a visual throwback air to the proceedings as well, as Jagger makes his stage entrance to “Start Me Up”with a shortish shock of hair and the slightly spiked bangs he wore around 1967.

Coupled with his red leather waistcoat, black pants, and what might be described as a “Seinfeld”-ian “puffy shirt” befitting a swashbuckling dandy lion (yes, pun intended folks), it makes for a rather austere look that matches the crisply cut moves and sculpted gestures on display for the evening. “Bitch” follows with a catty tangle of Keith’s and Ronnie Wood’s guitars. Richards, apparently happy to be back on the road, riffs loudly throughout the song.

Jagger straps on an electric guitar and wastes little time lighting out for the new “Steel Wheels” material, ripping into a spunky “Sad Sad Sad” whose brisk tempo and punchy sound make a smart segue after “Bitch” (although no one is going to ever confuse those two numbers). Then, set to a strobe-lit image backdrop of political prisoners, people suffering, and symbolic graphics of barbed-wire and chain-link fences, the Stones delve into the funky gamble of ‘Undercover of the Night,” one of their few overtly political songs and better post-“Tattoo You” tracks which, of course, they never got a chance to perform when it was released back in ‘83.

“We gonna have a beautiful night out here I think,” Jagger says by way of saying hello to the crowd before the band opens into their cover of “Harlem Shuffle,” the Bob & Earl tune from 1963 that Richards had long wanted Jagger to consider recording. Though it was never a classic to my ears, the tune works well in a new, soul-leaning Stones live format featuring not only the Uptown Horns brass section but three backing vocalists (the first Stones tour to include non-instrument playing backup singers). Given the ten or so people on stage besides the Stones themselves, the next number, “Tumbling Dice,” has the distinct flavor of a soul revue-cum-variety show gala.

As with the ‘81/’82 tour, Jagger has traded in much of his dancing, jumping, and jogging for long walking strides from one end of the vast stage to the other. Keith, looking quite a bit more sober and attuned to the performance at hand than on some previous tours, strikes a number of familiar poses, such as his right arm raised like a bird of prey over a just-delivered chord, or a lick he likes. It’s a different kind of showmanship than in younger years when merely showing up in a toxic state conveyed Keef’s essence.

“Wanna take a break Bill?”  Jagger asks, seemingly half-silly, half-serious after the acted out stage mini-drama of “Miss You.” “Just give us a minute. You know there’s a lot of very old people on stage.” True, it would be Wyman’s last world tour with the Stones, but even as the oldest member of the band, he’s all of 53 here – a kid by today’s Stones standards (by contrast, Mick is 46 here). Speaking of ancient, we soon get two of the Stones’ biggest and oldest ballads, a baroque “Ruby Tuesday” (and a song likely as old as some in the Dallas audience, not having been performed live since 1967), and 1973’s “Angie.” The selections make for a nice series of close-ups and dissolves of Mick and Keith working in tandem.

The emotional resonance and sheer gorgeousness of those ballads, unfortunately, make painfully clear the sub-par quality of two new “Steel Wheels” tracks, the self-consciously slick “Rock and a hard Place” and the hammy, by-the-numbers “Mixed Emotions.” on the upside, the next number and old saloon vamp, “Honky Tonk Women,” does indeed feature more cowbell (!)

No matter what year or what tour, “Midnight Rambler” rarely fails to stake its claim as the Stones most vital showpiece, show-topper, and show-stopper. It gets just about everything both the Stones, and Jagger’s stage personae, represents into its dramatic mix of blues, titillation, menace, sexual id, and prime time rock theater. Plus, it’s a reliable showcase for Jagger’s typically expressive harp playing.

Curiously, the ‘89 tour marked the first time in 13 years (after being in absentia for three tours) that “Midnight Rambler” re-entered the set list. It’s lighter here than it was during the Mick Taylor touring years of ‘69-‘73, but Jagger still inhabits the title character with a weirdly unsettling combination of a taunting and playful predator, and the mercurial glee of a psychopath on the prowl.  Even the screen shot we get of Keith reveals he’s enjoying the return of the Rambler: at one point, he mouths a lyric and flashes a grotesquely lunatic expression at Charlie Watts before breaking into a grin, like he just cracked himself up.

Jagger dedicates one of the Stones’ earliest recorded efforts, Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” to an old friend in the audience, Small Faces/Faces singer-songwriter Ronnie Lane, who happened to co-found Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood’s previous band. Wood shows his appreciation with some tasty bottleneck slide guitar, cigarette still in hand, that gives the number a greasy funk and slippery sense of fun. Here and elsewhere, sideman Chuck Leavell’s piano augments the tune nicely.

Disc two opens with a pair of Richards “solo” spots – the new, nicely delivered “Can’t Be Seen” (to which Keith adds to the title “with you … And if you don’t know why, you’ll never learn”) and a somewhat slovenly “Happy.” There’s a small splice, it seems, in the original video source at the song’s conclusion that results in a mini-deja vu of Richards repeating his thank you to the audience. Then Jagger, who had earlier excused himself to “slip on my evening gown,’ reappears with a costume change to a green velvet dinner jacket, and steps into “Paint It Black” in the same arch, hyper-formalized manner with which he sang “Ruby Tuesday.” The film then suddenly switches to black and white (I get it!).

One of the DVD’s more intriguing moments comes on the band’s live debut of “2000 Light Years From Home,” that features a middle break that, in terms of both sight and synthesized sound effects, could have been lifted directly from Pink Floyd’s stage repertoire. We get a psychedelic film-negative treatment during this segment that coincides with the oddly alien, martial arts-meditation moves Jagger was exploring at the time.

From there, the band dive into the slew of career-defining Stones standards (“Sympathy For The Devil”; “Gimme Shelter”; “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll”; “Brown Sugar” “Satisfaction”;  “Jumping Jack Flash’) that have tended to bring their shows to a frothy, if familiar, climax. Of these, “Satisfaction” is the true standout on this night, which finds the boys pummeling the song, and audience, into submission with a serrated, almost punk-metal edge. Jagger delivers the lyrics with a blunt, forceful insistence not heard from in ages, and then breaks into that testifying, Otis Redding-style exhortation (“can I hear you ONE TIME! Can I hear you TWO times!”) he employed on the ‘69 tour. Not a question, mind you, but an instruction.

When he does that, it’s as if those 20 intervening years between then and now – encompassing all the tours, albums, feuds, detours and silences – have vanished, disintegrated into irrelevance.  And all that’s left is the Rolling Stones on stage, giving us satisfaction once again, improbably and yet inevitably, like the cycle of the sun, moon, and the stars. And yes, the Stones.

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If you liked this review, buy me a cup of joe. (Suggested: $3 a shot or $7.5 for a double)

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