Capturing the Rolling Stones in a moment of revolution, via Live’r Than You’ll Ever Be
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“I hope you don’t mind us doing things that are new, but we tend to groove on the new things just a little bit. Rock and roll, here we go...”
Time does its best to ruin all of these things. “New” never seems as appealing as it should, as appealing as the familiar. So the years move on, motivations change and the mindset of five English musicians and the machinations moving behind them get lost as they work. All that’s left are tapes, logos, receipts, stock options and accountants furrowing their brows and crafting financial magic in an effort to maintain their commission. The thought of this being music with meaning becomes understandably buried beneath all this.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth sorting through the rubble to discover intentions and, more importantly, documented magic. In late 1969, post-Woodstock and post-mania and post-band-member-deaths-and-replacements, the Rolling Stones hit the road, armed with a handful of new songs and three-years-worth of material and frustration. They had lost a key member in body after losing him in spirit and practice much earlier. Their singer, Mick Jagger, was suddenly the public face of his generation. The band never sounded better. And for a paying audience, they’d never even sounded coherent before this.
So onto the stage the bounded, well past midnight, for the second of two shows on Nov. 9, 1969, at the Oakland Coliseum, across the river from San Francisco. They had their set rehearsed, but not yet perfected, and after the likes of B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner had already laid waste to the crowd, the Stones strolled out onstage and dashed off a reading of rhythm and blues that still has listeners shaking. There’s plenty of evidence that from outside this night, of course. It’s just that they seemed to be so good on this particular evening.
Live’r Than You’ll Ever Be captures the Stones early in their 1969 tour, a run that has been well documented, both on Maysles Brothers film Gimme Shelter and Stanley Booth’s book True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, which follows the band at the outset of their tour through the states, down to Muscle Shoals to start work on their next album and finally at Altamont, the festival where the 1960s went to die.
But before Altamont and before the recordings that became the bedrock of Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, one of the truly great live albums of the generation, there was work to do. And even while the shows were just work, they were still exceptional — the push and pull of drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman falling on either side of Keith Richards’ rhythm, Mick Taylor finding his way and Jagger working the room and keeping the songs moving. The Stones on a bad night were still exceptional. This was them on a great night, and even in fidelity that leaves something wanting, it remains stunning.
In 1965 and ‘66, the expectation was on anything but making the music as crisp and coherent as possible. The setlist would be about 10 songs deep, but the band would be lucky to get through five before the riots disrupted the show. Brian Jones may or may not be in attendance. Subsequently, Richards would spend his time learning how to sound like more than one guitar in relative obscurity among thousands of screaming girls. At some point, there would come the time to drop the guitars and bolt to the waiting car outside, shaking fans off the vehicle in a mad dash to the hotel for the next gig, where this would all be repeated.
But those repeated actions - hostile crowds, absent guitarists, etc. - geared the band up to become an unparalleled live act, in terms of both stomping ability and light danger.
It didn’t come without its costs. Jones wasn’t long for the band, and was summarily released after the band drafted Taylor to take his place on their upcoming tour. Of course, Jones didn’t live to see the beginning of that tour, the first bookend of a six-month span for the Stones capped by death.
The band kept moving. They played a show in London’s Hyde Park that wound up serving as a tribute to Jones and a re-introduction of the band to listening audiences. They were certainly moving, with a new album, Let it Bleed, just about completed, the next notch on an incredible creative run that would come to a close a few short years later. But for now, there was work to do.
I have this recording in two versions — a vinyl bootleg on a plain, white label with minimal indication of what was contained within (as it turns out, 10 songs from the second show on Nov. 9, 1969), and a download that’s more than prevalent across the web, capturing all 16 tracks from that evening. Where Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out provides the polished final product (and an endlessly thrilling listen at that), Live’r Than You’ll Ever Be is fly-on-the-wall material, literally the best approximation we have to what a night out with the Rolling Stones was like in 1969, apart from Booth’s book.
I retreat back to a scene from Booth’s tome on that fateful year, where Richards is seated next an advertising executive on a plane arguing the merits of lifestyle requirements, where he references the performances that were captured on this particular bootleg:
“You’re not free, man. You’ve got to do what they say,” Keith said.
“You have to play what people want,” the man said. “What’s the difference?”
“No, we don’t,” Keith said. “We don’t have to do anything we don’t want to. I threw my favorite guitar off the stage in San Francisco.”
“You can’t do that every night,” the man said.
“I can do it as often as I feel like it. Not always, but sometimes.”
Capturing the guitar flying across the stage and into the refurbishment pile (or the trash) isn’t exactly captured on the audio on this night. But what is, is the free, devil-may-care attitude towards a setlist that leaned heavily on a not-yet-released record, played by five charged musicians who were looking to stretch out before the masses.
Without the fear of the music escaping the room ahead a chosen release date, and looking to exploit this new audience that actually wants to hear the music being played, the band goes for it and starts leaning heavily on an album the world will soon regard as a pillar. “Midnight Rambler,” clocking in relatively brief at under eight minutes, still works as the longest song of the night. “Gimme Shelter” is given an early reading, not quite the galloping monster it would soon become on stage and still decades from the slick showpiece it would become when the band began carrying background singers on tour. “Live With Me” floats between the two, a strutting preview of the glorious sleaze they had in store.
But it goes beyond the album tracks. In the middle of the show, three fifths of the band disappears, Mick and Keith are propped up on stools, and with just a voice and an acoustic guitar, the core Stones take a crowd that’s well into the dead of night on a journey through their English interpretation of the deep south. “Prodigal Son,” familiar to the audience as one of the key tracks on the prior year’s Beggar’s Banquet, kicks it off, Jagger spinning the biblical tale over Richards’ open chords. But they pivot to even deeper blues on “You Gotta Move,” still two years from release on Sticky Fingers, and “Love in Vain,” another track from Let it Bleed, but here still a lesser known Robert Johnson ode to lost love and unfathomable heartbreak.
As Jagger had clued the crowd earlier, they were blazing through this territory with all sorts of new songs, some conjured up in the preceding months, some dredged up from the delta 30 and 40 years prior. The thought of being able to put across straight blues, just two Stones propped up with minimal instrumentation, seemed impossible just a few years earlier. Now, they had an audience who, whatever their state of mind or toxicology, were eager to listen to whatever was thrown at them.
They laid it out as best they could. They burned through their new songs, giving real estate for their singer to prowl about and letting their new guitarist fly through the songs as he saw fit, with Richards, Watts and Wyman laying the foundation beneath it. Intentional or not, it was a declarative push back against the hippie vibes wafting in from across the bay in San Francisco. As the world would learn about a month later, the danger in the air was not a put-on.
And that’s what’s documented here. The songs themselves would tighten up and the music would reach new heights later, on stage in New York City and beyond, and on vinyl as they marched through the writing and recording of Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St. and Goats Head Soup. They were in the midst of a ridiculous creative revival, and played with appropriate fire and fury. Here’s how it might’ve sounded in the back of a chic new arena, concrete shaking while the Stones grooved on all that was about to unfold.
For now, time was suspended, what was old or familiar didn’t matter nearly as much as what could be done. It’s funny how that’s now captured, frozen in the moment and available half a century later. But it still feels immediate. Time hasn’t spoiled this moment yet.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org