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Legendary Rolling Stones continue to master the field

The Associated Press
| Wednesday, June 17, 2015 9:00 p.m
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Rich Fury/Invision/AP
Mick Jagger performs at The Rolling Stones Zip Code Tour opening night at Petco Park on Sunday, May 24, 2015, in San Diego.
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Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts sits in with Band 2 at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, Tuesday, June 2, 2015.
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In this May 24, 2015 file photo, Keith Richards performs at The Rolling Stones Zip Code Tour opening night at Petco Park in San Diego.
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Ronnie Wood on guitar as The Rolling Stones perform live at Mt Smart Stadium on November 22, 2014 in Auckland, New Zealand.

Survivors of the British Invasion are few.

The Beatles burned brightly and called it quits in 1970, long before anyone could accuse them of being past their prime. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey soldier on as The Who, despite the deaths of half the band’s original members, Keith Moon and John Entwhistle. A biopic about The Kinks is in the works, but siblings Ray and Dave Davies still are not willing to make amends and reunite.

That leaves The Rolling Stones, appearing June 20 at Heinz Field, as the last viable band from the era, and arguably the best rock band of all time.

“I believe they are the greatest rock ‘n’ roll act ever,” says longtime Pittsburgh music promoter Pat DiCesare. “If I could have any rock ‘n’ roll act in history, it would be them.”

DiCesare still prefers the Beatles’ music over that of the Stones but thinks the longevity of the three remaining original members — Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts — along with Ronnie Wood, who joined the band in 1975, slightly trumps the Fab Four’s brilliant but brief run. But no matter which band one favors, it’s undeniable the Stones have left an indelible imprint on popular music and culture and influenced a wide cross-section of Pittsburgh musicians.

‘Can You Hear The Music’

When she was growing up in Oregon and Indiana, singer, keyboardist and songwriter Heather Kropf wasn’t allowed to listen to rock music. When she discovered the Stones, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, her high-school classmates condemned Kropf for her choice of music.

“They said I was going to hell,” she says.

That didn’t deter the Highland Park resident, who now appreciates the band for more than just its music.

“I feel like what they do well is capture the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll,” Kropf says. “I know that sounds very cheesy, but they have an attitude in the way they deliver a song. I think you could take it to a college class and pick apart gender and other sorts of social commentary in that attitude, but it’s what I like about them, and I think it’s what they do really well.”

Jenn Wertz wasn’t banned from listening to the Stones, but her exposure to the band in “an Internet-less existence” came mainly via clips from rock ‘n’ roll movies shown at the old Stanley Theater, Downtown. The Stones became a gateway group for Wertz, leading her to Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Robert Johnson.

“My teenage years were a little tough and (the Stones) were sort of like a horizon for me, a place to aim for,” says Wertz, a singer and songwriter formerly of Rusted Root. “It wasn’t that I wanted to be a musician, (the band) was just a very enlightening source in my life.”

The Stones originally wanted to be a blues band, but the music of “Get Off of My Cloud” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was cast with a rock ‘n’ roll veneer. As the band evolved, it created a new paradigm for what rock music could be.

“In general, they had no formulas,” says Chip DiMonick, the front man for the Chip DiMonick Band. “The Stones and the Doors and Led Zeppelin, they all kind of took the blues influence and did completely different things with it. … Some of those approaches to music have been almost forgotten about. If you bring them back and make them new again, it opens up a world of possibilities.”

‘The Singer, Not the Song’

It can be argued that Keith Richards is the heart of the Rolling Stones, and Charlie Watts provides the soul. But without Mick Jagger, the band would not have become an iconic, larger-than-life entity that transcends music. Those lips, those hips, the hair, the flair, the showmanship, the charisma — no one before or after comes close to duplicating Jagger’s frontman persona.

“It’s amazing that when they got started that (Jagger) was so far ahead of the game with how to be a frontman,” DiMonick says. “To this day, every frontman who runs around on stage and exerts energy gets compared to him. He was just so far ahead of his time and defined that role; it made (the Stones), as an act, timeless.”

While Jagger’s showmanship attracts attention, his vocal skills are similarly impressive. Scott Blasey, lead singer for The Clarks, thinks Jagger’s vocals are atypical and inspired.

“Mick is really unique,” Blasey says. “He sings around the beat, he doesn’t sing on the beat a lot of times. He’ll either be out in front of it or behind it. It’s just all over the place, and if you try to copy that, you’re going to fall flat on your face.”

“The way (Jagger) sings is something that I can’t do, although I do like the spirit and energy that he has onstage,” Wertz says, “that sort of flagrant expression of weirdness and sexuality mixed together. Only some people can pull that off.”

But like an actor or comedian, Jagger needs good material to be convincing. The songs composed by Jagger and Richards are some of the most well-known of the rock genre and will outlive the band’s existence. Those songs are so good, they defy description, says Sean McDonald, a musician and producer who owns Red Medicine Recording Studio in Swissvale.

“You can’t look at the sun, and you can’t talk about that stuff,” McDonald says. “It’s everywhere. It’s undeniable. It’s that great. … (Jagger and Richards) are almost like (John) Lennon and (Paul) McCartney were, and maybe that’s what you need, those diametrically opposed personalities to get the best out of each other. You can’t deny those songs are just incredible.”

‘I’d Much Rather Be with the Boys’

While Jagger commands the spotlight, Watts sits stoically behind one of the smallest drum kits of any major rock band. Like Jagger, his approach is unique.

“Charlie Watts is all about playing behind the beat no matter what kind of grooves those guys do,” says Joffo Simmons, longtime drummer for Joe Grushecky’s band, the Houserockers. “His playing has a real swing sensibility to it, probably because he’s a jazz drummer.

“Until I started learning those songs, you don’t realize how out-of-the box those arrangements are. Learning those songs, I developed a whole different set of chops,” Simmons says.

“A lot of people downplay Charlie Watts’ simplicity,” says McDonald, who also plays drums. “But with two guitar players, a piano player, background singers, horns, you don’t need to play a lot. Less is more. … What he didn’t play is as valuable as what he did play.”

Simmons thinks there’s another facet of the Stones’ drummer that’s overlooked. Watts, who is 74, is one of the few rock musicians — along with Jagger and Richards, who are both 71 — who’s been able to perform at a high level for an unprecedented period of time.

“I think going out and playing that long that well is a very undervalued thing in music,” Simmons says. “I think there’s only a handful of musicians who have reached that level.”

Then, there’s Richards. The model for Johnny Depp’s character Jack Sparrow of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” film franchise, Richards’ raffish attitude sometimes overshadows his musicianship. But the way he plays guitar is most responsible for the Stones’ connection to the band’s roots.

“They found a certain sound, they found a way of playing those rhythms that wasn’t done that way before,” says Bill Toms, a touring musician and songwriter from Scott. “Keith Richards went to the five-string open G tuning of the guitar, which a lot of blues guys did for years and years. It’s just the way he used it within the framework of a rock ‘n’ roll song that was different at the time.”

Like Watts, Richards’ approach isn’t flashy or outrageous. His playing serves the song.

“You can listen to the songs and barely know he’s there,” Wertz says of Richards. “It’s like Charlie’s drumming; you kind of pass it up, take it for granted. But it adds so much.”

‘Confessin’ the Blues’

The first time the Rolling Stones performed in Pittsburgh was at West View Park’s Danceland in 1964. DiCesare didn’t promote that show but recalls it attracted only about 400 fans.

“It was a nonevent,” DiCesare says. “Nobody was even aware of it.”

A year later, DiCesare booked the Stones at the Civic Arena to headline a “Shower of Stars” concert also featuring The Byrds, Bo Diddley and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Tickets were $3 to $5, and the paid attendance was slightly more than 9,000, a disappointing turnout.

It wasn’t until the Stones returned in 1972 with Stevie Wonder as an opening act that they reached star status in Pittsburgh. As the band progressed to stadium shows at Three Rivers Stadium and PNC Park, the stages and props grew proportionately larger.

But the music remained the same, even if there were slight detours, a la the band’s’ flirtation with disco on the 1978 single “Miss You.”

“I think what’s unique about them is, through everything, they haven’t lost their initial direction,” Toms says.

“Even though they often go off in little tangents, it’s always blues-based. It seems the Stones still want to grow up to be old black blues players, even in their 70s.”

“They find a way to keep their own style but make their music pop enough that people can identify it and get excited about it,” say Ben Valasek, a musician from Kittanning. “I like the fact that there’s still an old blues origin to the music, and they’ve found a way to transform that to also be mainstream.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

Categories: Music
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