Live at Tokyo Dome, Tokyo, Japan, February 26, 1990
(Total Time: Approx. 133 minutes)
DISC ONE: Continental Drift, Start Me Up, Bitch, Sad Sad Sad, Harlem Shuffle, Tumbling Dice, Miss You, Ruby Tuesday, Almost Hear You Sigh, Rock and a Hard Place, Mixed Emotions, Honky Tonk Women, Midnight Rambler, You Can’t Always Get What You Want
DISC TWO: 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
Talk about making your date wait. In their earlier years, the Rolling Stones had garnered something of a reputation for being on the late side to their gigs. But their planned five-show rendevous with Japan in January and February of 1973 has to take the proverbial cake for tardiness.
Following the band’s triumphant 1972 U.S. tour in support of the seminal “Exile On Main St.” album, as well as a special January 18, 1973 fundraising concert to help Nicaraguan earthquake victims (the birthplace of singer Mick Jagger’s then-wife, Bianca, who had family there), the Stones were set to hit the road again in splashy style. With Hawaii also on the itinerary, the band was on the cusp of making its Japanese debut, having booked a slate of shows in Tokyo before heading onward to Australia as part of an intended Pacific Tour of 1973. But it was not to be. Citing Jagger’s – but curiously, not guitarist Keith Richards’s – past drug arrest (in 1967), and reportedly leery of the potential security issues that had been associated with past Stones concerts, the Japanese Foreign Ministry refused to issue the necessary work visas to the group so that it could travel to that country.
It only took 17 years – in the case of the Stones, a mere third of their history – but in February, 1990, the band finally made good on its promise to play Japan, and then some. Few of the original fans who were primed to purchase tickets during the long bygone era of Nixon in the White House could scarcely have imagined that nearly two decades later, the Stones would still be around (and touring a new album, “Steel Wheels,” no less). Nearly as unlikely was the fact that the group (albeit with Ron Wood, who had replaced Mick Taylor in 1975) would go on to play a whopping 10 shows in Tokyo, as if to make up for the lost time, and sound arguably better and tighter than they had in years.
“Steel Wheels Japan Tour 1990,” a handsome new double-disc DVD set with no label or manufacturer noted, offers irrefutable proof of the Stones’ live strengths during this period, fresh off their first U.S. tour and album in eight years (but don’t call it a reunion). This professionally shot and mixed concert, which was originally broadcast on Japanese television, appears to be the definitive version of this particular show, with restored versions of “2000 Light Years From Home” and “Sympathy For The Devil” (both of which were missing from the Japanese label Way of Wizard’s otherwise excellent, pro-shot single DVD release, “Tokyo 1990”).
Another double-disc DVD culled from the broadcast, also originating from Japan and titled “Tokyo 1990,” was issued by Devil Productions in 2006 and contained both the complete Feb. 24 and Feb. 26 shows, reportedly in very good to excellent picture quality, with stereo soundboard audio. We have not seen the latter release, but would surmise that this latest offering would be hard to beat because of the wonderfully balanced and crystal clear remix (with a touch more Keith Richards/Ron Wood guitar firepower, and a tad less Chuck Leavell keyboards and piano) offered on the menu as an alternative option to the perfectly fine “original” broadcast mix.
This is the same show that the Rolling Stones officially released in July of last year as (annoyingly and bewilderingly) an Internet-only title with veteran engineer Bob Clearmountain applying a new mix to the master tapes, as he has with all of the Stones’ recently unearthed official “bootleg” titles. Of course, a few unofficial CD and CDR audio versions of the Stones/Clearmountain version (complete with the official issue’s artwork) have, naturally, since found their way into the hands of longtime collectors who want physical product.
Just about everything about this All-Region (NTSC) release gets it right, from the easily navigateable, straightforward menus, to the band’s tautly commanding and committed 133-minute performance, to the era-faithful photos and packaging and picture-label discs. One small caveat we’ll offer viewers spoiled by a high-definition picture standard is this: Watching the concert on my 36-inch Sony flat screen reveals the slight visual and technological limitations of the era. (But played on both my home computer and laptop, the more I reduced the size of the screen and picture, the sharper the quality).
While certainly this represents a technological gold standard in 1990, from our collective vantage point more than 20 years removed of watching (and becoming used to) hi-def visuals as an everyday standard, my eyes can’t help but notice the subtle amount of color saturation and occasional slight strobing. The experience is akin to watching a vintage concert film on VHS tape, which is likely the source material for this release. I actually love VHS tapes and regularly watch vintage concerts, band documentaries, and 1970s-era movies on my dual VCR/DVD player. (And no, this is not a snarky bit of sarcasm; I’m proudly old school when it comes to my music and my gear; there’s a reason the words “RPM” and “Analog” factor prominently in the name of a music blog I write elsewhere).
So the picture itself is a product of its time, but this is about as good as it gets during this era, meaning that that “Steel Wheels Japan Tour 1990” is highly enjoyable, and as entertaining a package as one could hope for — essential even. The multiple camera angles are expert, deft, and unobtrusive, and help convey the movement, electricity, and interplay of a big Stones show.
Jagger, needless to say, requires no aid in these departments. From the moment the flashpots explode after the “Continental Drift” introduction, Mick is almost martial in his sculpted stage moves and mannerisms; they, and he, are ruthlessly cutting and precise in execution. He is easily the star and focal point of the cameras and the crowd, and his momentum and relentless (but not overdone) energy drives the band, which sounds uniformly excellent and utterly professional.
As with the “Steel Wheels” jaunt the previous year, this tour (whose European leg would be re-christened the “Urban Jungle”), was the beginning of the Stones globetrotting big band era, with a plethora of back-up singers, horn section, keyboards, and increasingly elaborate stages. But as I’ve said elsewhere at CMR, Jagger’s voice sounds much surer and better than the hoarse, huffing caterwaul that he carted around on the 1981 and ‘82 tours. As such, it’s a delight to hear him and the band break out mid-60s paisley perennials like “Ruby Tuesday,” “2000 Light Years From Home,” and “Paint It Black” with authority and relish (until their return and subsequent place as staples of the band’s latter-day set lists, these songs had not been performed live in decades; and in the case of “2000 Light Years …” never).
Another first – or rather, last – of sorts that marked the significance of the “Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle” jaunts of ‘89-‘90, was the fact that this would be bassist Bill Wyman’s final tour with the Stones. Before long, Bill would retire to fulfill his destiny as the author of hefty coffee table books on the history of the Stones. It’s nice to see and hear stalwart Bill alongside drummer Charlie Watts, and guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood, all of whom sound very strong and sure on this night. And for me, a semi-guilty pleasure is hearing the band perform “Almost Hear You Sigh,” a keyboard-ornamented soft rock ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a K-Tel “Yacht Rock” compilation (and I mean that in a good way). The tune’s muted and shadow-haunted melody, coupled with the kind of fleetingly intimate, snapshot imagery that Jagger’s always done well (see overlooked gems like “Winter” and “Till The Next Goodbye”), makes for a bittersweet, uncharacteristically vulnerable performance here.
Vulnerability and vitality link arm and arm on this two-disc set to make up one of the best Ron Wood (or, as I call it, Stones Mach III)-era video documents I’ve encountered. Stem to stern, the band sounds fiercely disciplined, and up to the task at hand. Nowhere is that made more explicit than on the torrid trifecta of signature numbers that closes the show more than two hours after it begins: “Brown Sugar,” “Satisfaction,” and one of the most full-blooded, and ferociously fun versions of “Jumping Jack Flash” I’ve ever heard, from any era. A tall order, I know. But if you don’t agree, you can drown me, leave me for dead, and crown me with a spike right through my head.