The Rolling Stones returned to America in 1989, as part the band’s 115-date Steel Wheels trek, after an eight-year break from touring in the States. So, the anticipation for the comeback of the Greatest Rock-And-Roll Band in the World was, expectedly, soaring. The world had changed a lot since Mick Jagger last strut his spandex stuff across that Hampton, Virginia stage in late December of ’81. And, gambler’s odds had it, halfway through the ‘80s, that perhaps Mick and Keith Richards would never reunite after contentious and less than classic Stones studio album efforts, Undercover and Dirty Work, as well as each dipping into solo waters, amidst the pastels and popped collars.
Leave it to the Glimmer Twins to not only evolve into a working ‘90s rock band a year ahead of schedule, with their, at once, throwback and reformist Steel Wheels album, but also with a massive spectacle of sound, stage, and light that incredibly, as the Stones hoped, made “a basement out of a football stadium.” The core five- Jagger, Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Ron Wood- augmented by twin keyboardists, a trio of background singers, and a cast of hornmen, including longtime mate on sax, Bobby Keys, filled the boardwalk city night with a full-bodied wallop; a two-and-a-half-hour performance of vintage and fresh across this DVD/2-CD collection.
Much of the complete concert footage captured during the 3-night run of Atlantic City shows is from a December 19, 1989 pay-per-view broadcast that featured guest pop-ins from Eric Clapton (“Little Red Rooster” and “Boogie Chillen’”), bluesman and Stones hero John Lee Hooker (“Boogie Chillen’”), and the then-latest bad boys of rock, Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin of Guns N’ Roses, for the first-ever live rendition of “Salt of the Earth.” Naturally, it’s all great, especially watching Rose and his trademark shimmies aside Jagger’s swagger. Yet, the real thrill is hearing the band, especially as this was Wyman’s last tour, as they execute newer entries “Rock and a Hard Place” and “Mixed Emotions,” with as much street fighting sneer as “Happy” and “Gimme Shelter.” They can even be forgiven for the occasional odd moment: the new age lite keyboard duet (sounding like Enya and Yanni in place of Keith and Ronnie) bridging “2000 Light Years From Home” to “Sympathy For The Devil.”
It’s easy to forget now, after three decades since of watching and listening to the Stones take over stadiums all over the globe every few years, that there was a time when the band had whispers of doubt around them. Steel Wheels Live loudly answers the doubters, triumphantly rewards the faithful, and confidently rolls out those wheels that just keep rolling. As Richards remarked about the band’s abilities, “It never occurred to me that they not might be able to cut it. Absolutely not.”