A tale of two venues

The difference between the Stones' two area appearances was more setting than set list

The Rolling Stones--an atmospheric disturbance more predictable and (nowadays, at least) considerably less disruptive than El Nino--blew through the area last week, playing Owen Field in Norman, Oklahoma, on Tuesday, October 28, and Fort Worth's Texas Motor Speedway the following Saturday. Although much of the dark menace that once surrounded the band has dissipated--it's hard to imagine Mick Jagger pulling off "Play with Fire" anymore--they proved themselves the uneven keepers of an old-school flame that still burns brightly for thousands of people. Although the Stones are very nearly capable of generating their own context, a comparison of the two shows reveals that there are still some environmental factors that add to the experience, and that the Texas Motor Speedway provides few of them.

On the drive up Interstate 35, Oklahoma City radio station KRXO (107.7 FM) had whipped itself into an entirely un-ironic froth over the show, with DJs gushing "The Stones! In Norman! Whooda thunk it! Rock! On!" in between Led Zep; Foreigner; and Emerson, Lake and Palmer songs. So great was their delight and apparent surprise that you might have imagined Norman a leper colony, the recipient of a recent B-52 carpet-bombing raid, or both. Instead, Norman is a cleanly scrubbed college town full of boisterous Sooners prone to much "Whoooo"-ing and holding aloft of beer cans. Owen Field, a traditional college stadium, sits at the edge of the University of Oklahoma campus. That night it looked like a cauldron, with a thick, dirty-white mist--equal parts breath-vapor and various smokes and exhausts--boiling out of the top. For a second, a bit of the old creepiness, the dark power, of the Stones asserted itself. It was soon lost, however, among a general carnival atmosphere: Thousands without tickets milled about the venue, ruddy-cheeked in the cold and swilling 3.2 beer; surrounding dorms had their windows and porch doors thrown open, the better to hear the show. There was a definite sense that not many morning classes would be attended the next day.

The show at the Speedway, however, was quite a bit different. The sense of an impending event was swallowed whole by the immensity of the raceway complex. Sitting in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by acres of parking, the grandstands and support buildings for the track were huge, like the assembly plants for jetliners or Saturn V rockets. The traffic trickling in around 5 p.m. was swallowed by the asphalt-and-grass expanse allotted for parking; even at the end of the show, close in to the track itself there were dozens of unfilled spots.

The stage itself--which had seemed suitably mammoth at Owen Field, its gilded superstructure and giant inflatable female statuary recalling D.W. Griffith's Intolerance--was dwarfed by the hundreds of yards of empty seating that stretched away on either side like gray concrete wings. In back of the stage, far off in the distance, the stands on the other side of the racetrack could dimly be seen. Mara, a lucky record-store employee from Missouri who received complimentary tickets and was invited to meet the band, reported that the distance between the "backstage" area and the stage was more than a mile; she also said that Mick Jagger was the only band member who didn't shake the hands of those civilians who got to meet 'n' greet the Stones.

The two shows had certain similarities. Both started--as have most of the shows on the tour so far--with the quintet of "Satisfaction," "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll," "Let's Spend the Night Together," "Flip the Switch" (off the new album), and "Gimme Shelter." Jagger then strapped on an acoustic guitar and slowed things down a bit--in Norman with "Sister Morphine" and in DFW with "Dead Flowers." The next group of songs is where the band chose to mix up the set list; throughout the North American leg of the tour so far you could count on hearing "Has Anybody Seen My Baby" and "Out of Control," the other songs off the new album that are getting live play, as well as "Miss You" and Keith Richards' "Wanna Hold You," usually preceded by his "All About You." The other songs featured "19th Nervous Breakdown" and the gospel-tinged "Shine A Light" (Norman), "Bitch" (DFW and the in-between show in Albuquerque on October 30) as well as a surprising Speedway appearance of "Star, Star." Other earlier venues saw versions of "Ruby Tuesday," "Memory Motel," "Rock and a Hard Place," or "Factory Girl" in this spot.

Then it was time for the giant walkway to extend from beneath the main stage, slowly reaching the small, club-sized stage that rose to meet it, located well out amid the floor seating. The Stones, led by Charlie Watts, then strode across it and played a brief "club set" that harkened back to their roots: Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie," "Crazy Mamma" (or "Last Time" in Norman), and "You Got Me Rockin.'" The smaller stage was a nice touch, a way to bring the band closer to the folks in the back. The idea worked better at the Speedway--where the seating was relatively shallow but stretched along the sides of the main stage--than it did at Owen Field, where the football field layout meant that the crowd was confined to a fairly narrow band that went back quite a way. Regardless of how the audience was arrayed, however, it gave many a much closer look at their heroes than they had expected--especially when the band walked back through the crowd on their way to the main stage--and generated a small sense of something that previous Stones tours have been almost devoid of: intimacy.

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