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Rolling Stones live up to legendary reputation with an incendiary Austin concert

If this was the last time we see the Rolling Stones in Austin, it was a hell of a way to go.

The legendary British rockers played the final stadium-sized show of a 13-date U.S. fall tour at Circuit of the Americas on Saturday night, energizing a huge crowd with a two-hour set of 18 songs drawn largely from the band’s career-defining first decade.

Dressed in spectacularly colorful attire, core members Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood consistently dazzled the crowd with struts, solos, smiles and the sheer confidence that comes from rocking like twentysomethings when you’re seventy-something.

In the end, it all comes down to how good the songs are, and the Stones have few peers in that regard. Thirteen of the 18 tunes in the set were recorded in the 1960s, and all of them clearly have stood the test of time. From the immediately invigorating opener “Street Fighting Man” (1968) to the perfect encore-closer “Satisfaction” (1965), the Stones reminded us why they’re still widely regarded as the world’s greatest rock & roll band.

More from the tour:Rolling Stones tour production director discusses stage setup

Ron Wood, from left, Mick Jagger, Steve Jordan and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones perform at Circuit of the Americas on Saturday in Austin.

Four huge vertical jumbotrons dominated the large but mostly simple stage set, beaming crystal-clear high-definition video of the performance to the far reaches of the venue’s back lawn. Even if you were closer to the stage and could see the band reasonably well, it was hard not to get transfixed by the video presentation, in part because it was so well-executed.

The sound, too, was dialed in with remarkable clarity. Rarely if ever did the 11-piece ensemble sound muddled, not an easy feat for such a large band in a sprawling venue. Speaking to the American-Statesman last month, production director Dale Skjerseth said the show was designed to emphasize “the importance of the sound,” and what we heard verified that he was good for his word.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones perform Saturday in Austin at Circuit of the Americas.

A few surprises and memorable moments

• Not only did fans select the title track to the Stones’ 1969 album “Let It Bleed” as the show’s audience request number in online voting, but Richards used one of his two lead-vocal spotlights to play another track from that album, the country-blues acoustic tune “You Got the Silver.” In all, the set included more than half of “Let It Bleed,” counting three staples that got played at every show this fall: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Midnight Rambler” and “Gimme Shelter.”

• Austin got just 18 songs, whereas other stops on this fall’s tour got 19, with the exception of Dallas earlier this month. (Was there a one-song Texas tax?) What got cut was a slot early in the set that in other cities had frequently gone to “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (occasionally “Rocks Off” or “Get Off of My Cloud”).

• A minute before the Stones took the stage at 9 p.m., the jumbotrons lit up with a one-minute photo and video collage memorializing drummer Charlie Watts, who died in August at age 80 just a few weeks before the tour began. Jagger gave a brief but eloquent speech about Watts a few songs in, dedicating the show to him and sparking chants from the crowd of “Charlie! Charlie!”

Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones performs Saturday in Austin at Circuit of the Americas.

• The new “Living in a Ghost Town,” released during the pandemic and introduced by Jagger as “our lockdown song,” was one of just two selections taken from the 1980s onward (the 1981 smash “Start Me Up” was the other). Only “Tumbling Dice,” “Miss You” and “It’s Only Rock & Roll (But I Like It)” came from the 1970s. The rest was one giant Stones Sixties fest, and gloriously so.

• “We like Austin so much that we’re thinking about moving here after the tour,” Jagger announced midway through the set. Take that with the intended grain of salt; after name-dropping Elon Musk and referencing vodka brands Deep Eddy and Tito’s, plus a story about getting drunk at Scholz Garten, he concluded with the disclaimer: “Of course, none of this is true, as you well know.”

A 'dazzling' show

At 78, Jagger remains one of the best frontmen in popular music ever. He paced back and forth across the full length of the nearly football-field-sized stage often, also using an extended runway that jutted out into the standing-room section of the audience. His vocal control and energy level remain remarkably strong. Richards and Wood are similarly lively; Wood was on fire with several guitar leads, while Richards at times grinned broadly when he served up an especially tasty riff.

Before the show:See where Mick Jagger's popped up around Austin

New drummer Steve Jordan filled in admirably for Watts, playing with precision throughout and bringing thunderous power when called for (especially on “Satisfaction”). Backup singer Sasha Allen got her well-deserved spotlight just prior to “Satisfaction” in the two-song encore, dueting with Jagger on the dramatic “it’s just a shot away” and “it’s just a kiss away” key lines of “Gimme Shelter” as they walked to the far end of the runway together.

Behind them, keyboardist and musical director Chuck Leavell (who also played the crucial cowbell part in “Honky Tonk Women”) led the rest of the band: bassist Darryl Jones, backing vocalist/percussionist Bernard Fowler, keyboardist Matt Clifford, and saxophonists Karl Denson and Tim Ries. Throughout the night, the supporting musicians helped make the Stones sound as good as they did.

Ron Wood, from left, Steve Jordan and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones perform at Circuit of the Americas on Saturday in Austin.

Following Richards’ mid-set mic-turn with “Connection” and “You Got the Silver,” the band grooved into the home stretch with extended arrangements of 1978’s “Miss You” and 1969’s “Midnight Rambler,” each of which ran beyond 10 minutes. The deeply bluesy vibe of the latter, delivered mostly as a stripped-down six-piece with bass, drums and keys backing the three principles, reminded that for all their greatest-rock-band rep, they’re still one of the best blues bands on the planet, too.

The show’s most dazzling moment was the next-to-last song of the main set, “Sympathy for the Devil.” It kicked off with sparkler-type fireworks spewing from the top of the stage, followed by a full-on pyrotechnic blast into the sky at the first chorus. The video screens were awash in glowing red-and-yellow imagery, a stark contrast to the black-and-white footage used on the preceding “Paint It Black” (in keeping with its key lyric, “no colors anymore, I want them to turn black”).

Strong opening act

Ghost Hounds, a Pittsburgh band that has opened about half the shows on this fall’s tour, took the stage at 7:15 p.m. for an entertaining, high-energy 45-minute set of rootsy American music that meshed well with the Stones’ vibe. Frontman Tré Nation is a consummate professional, a strong singer with a congenial attitude and an engaging rapport with his eight bandmates.

Pittsburgh band the Ghost Hounds opens for the Rolling Stones at Circuit of the Americas on Nov. 20, 2021, in Austin, Texas.

Concertgoers faced setbacks

As memorable as the Stones’ performance was, fairly significant issues with traffic and crowd-flow at the venue led to frustrating experiences for many concertgoers. The small roads that approach the venue often get clogged with major jams when Circuit of the Americas presents such Super Stage shows that are far larger than the usual concerts in the property’s Germania Insurance Amphitheater.

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Many fans took to Twitter with stories of ditching their cars on the side of the road and walking the rest of the way. Musician Miles Zuniga of platinum-selling Austin band Fastball was among them, posting: “I’m never going back to COTA ever! Worst concert experience ever. Rolling Stones were good but it took us 3 hours to go 14 miles and we only made the show because we paid some dude $40 to park in his yard.”

Inside the venue, some fans with general-admission lawn seats had problems just getting to their designated area because of foot-traffic bottlenecks at one of the entrance gates. Furthermore, setup of food and beverage booths in the lawn area seemed badly designed: There were lots of cocktail booths with almost no line but only one area with food booths, leading to ridiculously long lines that also contributed to the blockage of an entry point.

Setlist

1. Street Fighting Man

2. It’s Only Rock & Roll (But I Like It)

3. 19th Nervous Breakdown

4. Tumbling Dice

5. Let It Bleed

6. You Can’t Always Get What You Want

7. Living in a Ghost Town

8. Start Me Up

9. Honky Tonk Women

10. Connection

11. You Got the Silver

12. Miss You

13. Midnight Rambler

14. Paint It Black

15. Sympathy for the Devil

16. Jumpin’ Jack Flash

Encore:

17. Gimme Shelter

18. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction