1989 Dress Rehearsal: Philadelphia
Dress Rehearsal - Philadelphia 1989
In 40 years, the Rolling Stones have released 40-some albums. Which is to say, in four decades they have released about two days worth of music. For this reason, I have always felt compelled to look for more. Concert tapes, studio outtakes, rehearsals, backing racks, flatbed truck appearances, hotel songwriting sessions and even guest appearances with everyone from Carly Simon to Feargull Sharkey offered a chance to hear the band outside of their "recorded legacy".
So…every once in a while my mailbox transforms into a gift basket, and I come away with Stones music I've never heard. A while back I was forwarded some recordings, which purported to be a Steel Wheels Dress Rehearsal.
It has always been interesting, funny, and musically rewarding to listen to Rolling Stones' rehearsals. There have been a handful of great listening experiences (Woodstock 1978…Dallas '72…Toronto '98) and a rusty evening or two (Surrey 1968…the 1978 SNL rehearsals). But we've never really had anything like this newly discovered Philadelphia performance from 1989.
"What passes for 'spontaneous' is very often nothing more than mistakes"…M.J.
On the eve of the crucial coming-out-of-hiatus tour, the band took the stage across the street from the Veterans Stadium venue for a final "all systems" rehearsal in structurally condemned J.F.K. Stadium. There, in a pouring rain, in front of dozens of fans, the Stones ran through the entire Steel Wheels set list (excluding late addition "Almost Hear You Sigh"). In keeping with the philosophy of Mick's solo tours, the Steel Wheels tour would feature strict studio arrangements of the hits, and a Broadway show's worth of lighting, sound and staging cues. Things were very organized. A complete practice run-through of the concert was more than prudent. After all, this was show business!
From 1966 to 1981, The Rolling Stones visited the United States like clockwork, staging concert tours every three years. The routine ground to a halt however following the '81 shows. After 20 years of writing, recording, mixing, promoting, and worldwide concert appearances, the band needed a break. They would play no U.S. concerts for the next 8 years.
History will point to the very real, yet overblown "feud" between Mick and Keith, particularly keying on the Jagger solo albums and tours. During that time our other principal players killed time doing art projects, speedballs, and Mandy Smith. With so many tabloid-ready diversions, most accounts of the Stones in the 80's will likely miss the overwhelming factor of Ian Stewart's death. Stu was the Anchor and his passing set the band adrift…
Finally, in 1988, word came down from Rumor Mountain that a re-focused Mick wanted to try an album and tour with the Stones. The quicker-than-usual Chris Kimsey sessions yielded a cleaner-than-usual record, with the band obviously searching for their collective groove again. But, mixed emotions or not, they decided to run the Tongue Flag up the concert tour flagpole and see if America saluted. Ninety-eight million dollars later, the verdict was in.
So here I sit, munching on a soundboard of the Steel Wheels Dress Rehearsal. A unique document, to be sure, featuring an entire Stones stadium concert with virtually no audience. As one might expect, the "sizzle" is missing from this recording…but the "steak" is well done! There's nothing like the early stages of a Stones tour to witness how hard they actually work at the production. In this case, the new attention to detailed arrangements highlights the considerable chops of what I'll always believe is "The Most Under-Rated Rock 'n Roll Band in the World".
One can hear how the weeks of practice at the girls' boarding school paid off as the band brings an entirely new sound to their stage show. As famed restaurateur Bill Wyman once noted, all other bands in history have musically "followed" their singer and/or drummer. But since Beggars Banquet and "Honky Tonk Woman", the Stones have followed only their rhythm guitarist…except for the Steel Wheels tour.
Desperate to get the band back on the road, Keith was relegated to "playing along" with the Rolling Stones while Chuck Leavell served as musical director, with the rest of the musicians following, yes, the singer.
Thankfully, and damn near poetically, the whole Steel Wheels tour itself served as a dress rehearsal for Phase four: "The 90s and Beyond". Once they got playing, the rust fell off like a prom dress at midnight. By the time of the London 1990 broadcast, Keith was again at the helm of a mighty ship indeed. And once the genie was out of the bottle, the wishes couldn't be granted fast enough: more tours…smaller venues…club shows... indoor tours…expanded, modular set lists which tripled the number of different songs played during each tour…an unplugged album and TV special…some live TV again…a classic-sounding album in Voodoo Lounge and a fine live-ish film with At The Max.
We don't have any right to expect the Rolling Stones to still be available to us. The "very best ever" in jazz, in dance, in basketball, in literature, in government, are no longer among the living; let alone still plying their crafts as well as they always had. The Stones, critics be damned, have not lost a step. For my money, the 1999 No Security Tour was a better concert than the life-changing 1966 Aftermath show I saw. Yes, the Stones are still here; and the success of the Steel Wheels tour was a career turning point.
Now if we could just get some between-album singles….
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