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A mixed bag...
on August 19, 2007
First, the positives: the performances across these four discs are generally strong, the concerts well-filmed, and the breadth of (musical) material presented is admirable. While age seems to have finally begun to catch up with Keith Richards, whose once-impeccable rhythm sense is not quite as razor-sharp as it once was, compensation is at hand in the form of Ronnie Wood, whose new-found sobriety has lent a degree of focus and precision to his playing which raises his performances here several notches above anything to be found on live recordings from the Stones' previous few decades of touring. Aided and abetted by an array of professional but rarely overly-slick backing musicians, the band themselves, as presented here, still excel at what they do best - entertain on a huge scale. They're not breaking any new ground here, and the lack of emphasis on material from their latest, surprisingly-strong studio album A BIGGER BANG is disappointing (for the first time in years, they're touring off the back of a genuinely decent record, but the setlists are still overwhelmingly filled with tried-and-tested old hits, with a bare handful of numbers from A BIGGER BANG scattered across the four discs. A missed opportunity), but they still do what they do about as well as anyone could reasonably expect.
Specific musical highlights will differ from viewer to viewer - I was particularly taken with a rocking take on 'Bitch' taken from the band's first-ever show in mainland China, and the deep blues of 'Back of My Hand' hidden in the otherwise largely-skippable 'making-of' documentary on the fourth disc is compelling. The BIGGER BANG songs shine across the board, in fact - 'Streets Of Love', is performed in Austin, Texas, with a power and intensity which easily surpasses the album version, and 'Rough Justice', while melodically-unremarkable, joins VOODOO LOUNGE's 'You Got Me Rocking' as a deservedly-popular late-period addition to the Stones' live repertoire. A short featurette on the fourth disc also includes snippets of a fascinating, unforgivably-incomplete swing arrangement of 'Miss You', as performed by Charlie Watts' jazz big-band side-project, which I'd love to hear in its entirety.
Presentation-wise, these discs are good but not perfect - the sound mix is strong throughout, and while the presentation is laughably self-important (the lengthy introduction clip which precedes each disc, with the camera spiralling through space to the strains of various Stones hits, goes on a good deal longer than most viewers will be willing to tolerate without reaching for the `skip' button), and the menu screens are less user-friendly than I would have liked, these are relatively minor criticisms for all but the most technologically-minded consumer. The most important thing is the music, and the performances are generally better-filmed than was the case on the similar FOUR FLICKS set, released only a few short years ago.
This brings me, however, to the main criticism I'd make of this set, however: redundancy. Coming so close on the heels of FOUR FLICKS, and packaged in such a similar fashion, comparisons are inevitable, and in almost all regards, THE BIGGEST BANG comes off second-best. In terms of song selection there are, of course, a good number of welcome rarities scattered among the predictable roll-call of over-played classics, with a solid, if slightly stilted, runthrough of the never-before-performed STICKY FINGERS track 'Sway' in place of FOUR FLICKS' similarly-hyped take on 'Can't You Hear Me Knocking', but a non-dedicated fan could be forgiven for overlooking these relatively minor distinctions in favour of the rather more obvious reliance on familiar old warhorses like `Satisfaction', `Jumpin' Jack Flash', `Honky Tonk Women' and so on, all of which are featured multiple times across both this and FOUR FLICKS. As a celebration of the band's fortieth anniversary, FOUR FLICKS arguably had a stronger justification for this apparent excess - by contrast, the sheer volume of material presented on THE BIGGEST BANG seems over-the-top, a triumph of quantity over quality. It may seem churlish to complain that we're being given too much material for our money, but in all honesty, this set achieves very little which couldn't have been communicated rather more effectively via a more stripped-down two-disc set, centred on the Rio de Janeiro show which is the better of the two full concerts presented here. Where the three concerts which formed the bulk of FOUR FLICKS showcased the Stones in a variety of different-sized venues, with a varied tone to their respective atmospheres and setlists, the two concerts found on THE BIGGEST BANG are both from large-scale outdoor shows, with the result that they look and sound rather too similar to justify the substantial overlap in material - there's also far too little representation among the extras of the intimate, sweaty small-stage performances which were the real highlight of FOUR FLICKS, in the form of the Paris club show which filled the third disc of that set. I suspect that fans who want to witness the band at their musical best, trading riffs and licks face-to-face on a tiny stage, would be best-advised to wait for Martin Scorsese's upcoming concert film SHINE A LIGHT, recorded during the same tour at a far smaller venue than those primarily-featured on THE BIGGEST BANG.
Sure, this set is a bargain for die-hard Stones fans, and serves as a fine souvenir for anyone who caught the band on their latest mega-tour, but the non-converted will probably find little to interest them here once they've played the two main concert discs a few times.