Panic in Detroit: the Rolling Stones, Ford Field, November 15, 2021

what up doe

Panic in Detroit: the Rolling Stones, Ford Field, November 15, 2021
gimme mick.

It is 1987 or 1988, and I am walking with a friend to get their visa renewed at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square in London. They are worried about getting their visa renewed; I am instead waiting to set foot into the fallen leaves of the square and on absolute autopilot my brain clicks in:

Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet

I hear Mick, I hear Keith, I hear Charlie, the ringing chords, the martial beats, the outcome of Mick’s experience protesting the Vietnam War at the American Embassy in London in the early Spring of 1968. The story that became “Street Fighting Man.” This is the thing I am thinking about the minute I hear the chords to that song opening the show on November 15 at Ford Field in Detroit.

It has been a long time together, me and these guys, now three, once four, once five. Once six if you count Ian Stewart, and I do. I count Bill Wyman because he was there. I should count Bobby Keys. I should count Keith’s guitar Micawber. I should count the absent Lisa Fisher; women are not allowed to get old with the Rolling Stones, but men certainly can. Mick is 78, with the abdominal definition of a 20 year old. I can tell you that with absolute certainty because Monday night had us on the rail in the general admission pit, Keith’s side. These are tickets that would normally cost you anywhere from $500-700 dollars. These tickets cost me $80 a pair, the Stones’ accommodation to their diehards, “Lucky Dip” tickets that get you in but you don’t know where until you get there.*

*I had Dips in 2012 and started the night on the third level of the Philly arena next to the speakers hanging from the ceiling; 10 minutes before showtime a member of the staff came up holding a giant stack of tickets and upgraded us all to the 100 level just before the price break, where it’s still big money but just next to slightly less money. I have never danced so hard at a Stones concert alongside other people also dancing their asses off as hard as possible.

Monday night we dragged ourselves to the box office just before the gates opened at 5:30pm. There were two people on line ahead of us. First Mishell, then Teresa, then me. We have known each other for 25 years, from a Rolling Stones email list called Undercover. It is a very long story but we are at the point in our lives where you call and say, "I'd like to come to Detroit for the Stones" and I say "Just send me your plane info."

Honky Tonk Women.
Honky Tonk Women.

We open our envelopes. We are all PIT. I can’t even see what the tickets say because my glasses are fogging up over my mask and we are trying to not be obvious because the vultures are circling, but I am shaking and am glad I am with people who can read and think because those are not skills I currently possess. We take the four on Keith’s side, we give the pair on Ronnie’s side to Muffy and Danny, who we had dragged along so the tickets didn’t go to waste. We warned them they would have to arrive early. We warned them they could end up in the nosebleeds. I did not warn them they could end up on the fucking floor because this is not a thing that happens regularly. It requires luck or being blonde and gorgeous or maybe knowing someone. Danny looks speechless. Muffy is also in disbelief.

The opening act is a gentleman from Seattle named Ayron Jones. It is a rock and roll band composed of four Black men; I didn’t know I would have feelings about how it’s taken so long for that to happen, but during their short set (part of which involved an insane cover of Nirvana’s “Breed”) it feels like a lot of things are being made right. Grunge was a lot of things, but it was most definitely very very white, while Jimi Hendrix could not be more Seattle (“I stand up next to a mountain/chop it down with the side of my hand” - please tell me I am wrong).

The pit fills up with people who show up 10 minutes before showtime and think they can take our spots. These are the same people who are nonplussed when the show opens with giant images of Charlie Watts projected on the screens. I’m glad I’m in this spot because I haven’t had time to think about Charlie not being there, but I definitely noticed when the crew was setting up the drums and conspicuously missing is Charlie’s plexiglass baffle around the drum riser, with the setlist written in grease pencil on his left side. Charlie is gone, but it is still “Street Fighting Man.” I write “SFM” in my notebook. The guy next to me on the rail, an obvious frequent flier, turns around and says, “You’re taking notes?!” (I wish men would stop watching and commenting on what I do at a concert, but definitely when it comes to taking notes, which is my actual fucking job.)

He must have approved, though, because he starts showing me the images he is taking of Mick’s teleprompters, which display the title of the next song. I ask him to please stop, but then I start peering over myself. Mick’s monitors don’t have lyrics, and the words are not in GIANT FONT halfway down the runway like they are for Springsteen. A Stones mailing list colleague once sat behind the stage and had brought binoculars (because Lucky Dip) and used them to read the monitors all night. They say things like “EXTRA SPAZZ” and other reminders and stage directions.


Mick is down the catwalk towards us multiple times within the first two songs. There is a lot to take in besides the fact that here is Mick Fucking Jagger. His hair is remarkably luxurious. He is an absolute pro at playing to tens of thousands of people, at walking while still singing and knowing where he and everyone else is in the song. He dances, he poses, he preens, he sticks the microphone in the waistband of his pants. I am not a Mick girl but I got it a very long time ago, in 1981 when he was in those ridiculous lace-up football pants on the Tattoo You tour and I was a few rows from the stage at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. There is just an undeniable magnetism.

Previous tours would have me rolling my eyes at “You Got Me Rockin’” because it is just such a lightweight gimme compared to the rest of the Stones’ repertoire; it seems like someone trying to write a Stones song. Now it kind of feels like an old friend, and I am glad to see it. “19th Nervous Breakdown” is a trainwreck of dustbins falling down the stairs, “Tumblin’ Dice,” a song that Mick never seems to know how to end is refreshingly brief by comparison, and then Mick invokes Detroit. He has every right to do so; this has always been a bastion of support for them and according to Mick (correction: the people who do research for Mick) they have played here 25 times. I believe it. They also have every right to play a Motown song, and I know what it is going to be because Karyn Brown felt the need to text me that information from the stands on the other side of the stadium; I just wish there had been something approaching rehearsal of “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” before making that decision. For this, I blame Chuck Leavell; I like to blame Chuck for anything that goes wrong on the Stones’ stage because he likes to take credit for things he should not be taking credit for. (I think about Lisa Fischer here where she once said that she knew that every tour with the Stones was a gift.) I HOLD GRUDGES A LONG TIME. ESPECIALLY MUSICAL ONES.

The next song is the fan vote, a thing the Stones stick on the website and people vote on and then allegedly the results of that vote choose what song gets played. Back during the Bridges to Babylon tour in 1996, the Stones utilized the then-nascent World Wide Web to solicit fan opinion on which song they should play; they called it the “cybervote.” Back then, there might have been a little script writing and a little collusion with other fan groups who were trying to get their song played in order to get “Respectable” played at the Kingdome. The internet is a real place now and I am not trying to rig votes. I certainly would not have rigged “Wild Horses” but it was a delight, honestly, because it was performed beautifully and Keith sang backing vocals. “I hope Marianne is collecting her royalties,” I mutter to Teresa. It’s introduced by Mick reciting every song with a Detroit reference: “Panic in Detroit,” “Motor City Is Burning, something else I don’t remember.

Someone is standing stage right holding a French horn, which is the biggest giveaway in the history of onstage clues, because there is only one Stones song that requires a French horn and that’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” This is definitely the song designed to allow people to wander off and get beer and a soft pretzel; Mick tries to get us to wave our arms in unison; it goes on entirely too long and loses its way at least once. My notes say, “The song does not need a ragtime coda. I blame Chuck.”

I have always said I want to have the job of the person who is responsible for keeping Mick Jagger current. Tonight he lists what seems like every city in Michigan, includes Toledo and Cleveland, and then says ‘Whattup doe” which is a very Detroit thing, absolutely, but completely absurd coming out of Mick Jagger’s mouth. He invokes the 2006 Superbowl, held in Detroit (after the show, as we walk back to the car, Danny and Muffy tell us stories about how they had to put up fake storefronts on Woodward so the place didn’t look completely deserted). Mick insists he went to both Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island and had coneys at both. What’s more, Mick knows that the whole local patter shtick is absurd -- he makes a slightly off-mic aside about how the local references are not going over -- and that makes it even more hilarious. I like semi-relaxed Mick Jagger.

“Livin’ In A Ghost Town” kind of sounds like it’s going to be the Specials’ song of the same name for about three seconds and then I remember that the Stones randomly released this song in 2020 when everyone was trying to figure out what the actual fuck was going on and maybe it was some kind of promotion for the Goats Head Soup box set? It’s not a bad song and it’s actually well performed and it fits into the rest of the set well enough.

And here is the thing, and it’s at this point when I realize that I am not treating this song as a moment to check Twitter or scroll through my photos because they are selling the song. They are genuinely trying to play the hell out of it, and I realize that might sound nonsensical but the thing about the Stones is that they could roll out of bed and basically not give a shit and expend the tiniest bit of energy and they would still be a million times better than anyone else out there; this is why they are the Rolling Stones. It lets them get away with a lot. It is the kind of thing that sends them in the direction of these 15 minute versions of “Tumblin’ Dice” where Mick runs around the catwalk and the horn players drone on and he tries to get everyone to raise their arms in the air as a substitute for just playing the song. I know there are different considerations in a stadium show but sometimes there has been too much of a tendency to fall back on the obvious devices because they can. And yes I expect too much of them.

the human riff.
the human riff.

“Start Me Up” and “Honky Tonk” are great, it’s a good segue up after the ‘new’ song. Keith coaxes HTW into being with one hand barely gliding over the guitar. It’s deconstruction, it’s surgical finesse, and it is still “Honky Tonk Women.” You want the architect of the Rolling Stones? It is Keith Richards, motherfucker. And then it’s time for the Keef solo set and jesus fucking christ if there’s one thing that annoys the everliving fuck out of me is the habit of too many dudes in the audience to treat these two songs like it’s some kind of break for them. They want to sit down, they want to talk, they want to make a phone call; one time someone I know was sitting in the second row center and the people in the front row center at Soldier Field decided “Before They Make Me Run” was the moment to go out and get a soft pretzel and bring it back and eat it while Keith is playing. (Keith noticed. Keith did not appreciate it.) Tonight, Keith Richards is playing “Connection,” which, as Mishell pointed out, is actually kind of rare, and the guy who has had his fucking phone up videoing every single fucking song is… bored. I don’t mind that he’s not paying attention because he’s not blocking my view of the stage for the first time tonight.

Keith’s voice is pretty good compared to previous tours (not compared to 1975) and it sounds like he has a little more range and he’s doing more singing than rasping. Guitarwise it felt and sounded like he was more actively engaged the whole night, with Ronnie providing coordinated and complimentary support--they were working together instead of Ronnie having to cover for him which has happened many times in the past (and vice versa, I am well aware). To me the difference was that they were playing the songs the best way they could right now, as opposed to trying to play them like they did when they were 20 or 30; they’re still the same songs, played by mostly the same people. It’s hard, you know? There are not a lot of rules for this, and the people they could look to for some kind of guidance or blueprint basically did the same thing, except that the Stones are not sitting down yet.

“Miss You” was delightfully engaged; Detroit is a great rock and roll audience in the spirit of, say, Philadelphia. There was a spirited singalong; people knew and cared about the song. I still don’t want Mick Jagger playing guitar on any song and I also don’t want him pretending to take some kind of solo spot on the guitar. And then we were in the warhorses, but they didn’t feel like obligations, they felt like songs that were still living and breathing, which is not always the case, which is why we call them the warhorses. “Midnight Rambler” had darkness and bite, I missed Charlie’s subtlety here; it is a different song with Steve Jordan behind the kit but it’s not hurting from his presence at all. I just miss Charlie. And I missed him on “Paint It Black,” that song needs his simplicity, his precise way of striking the toms in that intro.

And then, the screens fill with red sparks and here is definitely a moment where Steve Jordan is shining, his approach to “Sympathy for the Devil” has a different kind of swing but not so much that it feels wrong or out of place. I was listening to the album version on the weekend when I was on my way to the airport to pick up my friends, just replaying it over and over again. You don’t think of “Sympathy” as a simple song but there is a sparse elegance to the intro, the timing of the piano chords, the drums, the backbone, and then the vocals. It would have been so easy to over-sing “Sympathy” but Mick’s delivery is, and remains, genius. Tonight, when he took center stage in his black and gold frock coat and spun into character, it was something remarkable. An argument I have had for decades now is whether or not Mick oversells himself in this song -- and to be fair it is an incredibly difficult line to walk -- because the problem is that when he overdoes it, he crosses the line into parody and I don’t believe him. I believed him tonight, with every fiber of my being. It was phenomenal. I did not expect that I would feel this way about “Sympathy for the Devil” in 2021; I am amazed and deeply grateful that I can, and did.

JJF - it’s always JJF in my mind, this is quintessential Stones for me, Keith is never more Keith, his hands fairly float over the body of the guitar, it feels like he’s more breathing on it than forming chords and strumming. The rest of the band click together invisibly and seamlessly, it’s like you don’t know when they weren’t there. It’s magic, absolute magic, and it seems impossible that this isn’t the end of the show. But no, we still haven’t heard “Gimme Shelter,” and while I was not particularly impressed by Sasha Allen in the rest of the show, she was unbelievable on “Gimme Shelter.” She sang the hell out of it and was an incredible foil for Mick in that moment.

And then the riff, the riff, the riff. The riff that came to Keith in a dream. He woke up and recorded it and there it was. He knows it; he’s talked about being the antenna and that he’s just here to transmit what he pulls down. There isn’t a better place to be than standing in a crowd of thousands of people thrusting your fists into the air and singing, “Hey hey hey / that’s what I say” in unison, and then letting the drummer hit the backbeat.

There was so much joy on that stage tonight. They do not have to do this, they have enough money to last them and their children forever and a day. Right now, for sure, they are doing this because this is who they are and they have to keep doing it until they can’t do it. There was a lightness I have never seen before, and I am glad for the Stones and I am glad for us.

Stones' production wifi names. <3