Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 6, 2016)
It remains to be seen how the recent thawing of relations between the US and Cuba will affect the latter nation’s long-term prospects, but in the short run, one change occurred: the Cubans got to rock. More than 50 years into their existence, the Rolling Stones visited Havana for the first time and played a massive free show in March 2016.
To document this event, we get a concert film called Havana Moon. Though this mainly focuses on the performance itself, Moon also comes with a little documentary material on occasion, and that means comments from bandmembers Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood. They tell us a bit about the show’s impact and their relationships.
As for the concert itself, it mixes songs from various parts of the band’s career – though mainly from the distant past. From 1997’s Bridges to Babylon, “Out of Control” delivers the most recent tune. After that, we leap all the way back to 1974 for the title track off of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll.
1973’s Goat’s Head Soup presents “Angie”, and 1971’s Sticky Fingers provides “Brown Sugar”. 1969 gives us the single “Honky Tonk Women” as well as four songs from Let It Bleed: “Gimme Shelter”, “You Got the Silver”, “Midnight Rambler” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
From 1968, we get the single “Jumping Jack Flash” along with Beggars Banquet’s “Sympathy For the Devil”. The final two numbers come from singles: 1966’s “Paint It Black” and 1965’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.
Over the years, it became fashionable to mock the Stones as too old, too past their prime and too feeble as live performers. According to some, the Stones have sucked on stage since 1997 – or 1989, or 1981, or 1978, or 1975. Take your pick.
I’ve seen the Stones live more than 50 times since 1989, and I didn’t go to those shows out of some form of misguided loyalty. I went because the band still could play.
Sure, these concerts came with their ups and downs. Some days they’d be on fire, whereas others they looked like they couldn’t wait to get back to their hotels.
These variations didn’t depend on the space of years – I witnessed clear highs and lows within days of each other. In January 2006, the band’s Chicago show defined “mailed in”, but barely a week later, their Baltimore concert gave us a tight, ferocious performance.
The point being: you can find terrible Stones concerts from their “glory days” and you can get stunning Stones gigs from their “Metamucil years”. Havana Moon falls into the latter category, as it demonstrates just how much butt these elderly men can still kick.
While I noted the ups and downs I’ve experienced at all those Stones shows, I can cite one mostly common denominator: venue size. In general, the Stones play better when they perform in smaller locations – it’s not a coincidence that the best Stones show I ever saw took place at the tiny Roseland Ballroom.
Look at those 2006 concerts I mentioned. Sure, both occurred in arenas, but Chicago’s United Center offers a virtual behemoth compared to Baltimore’s relative cozy 1st Mariner Arena, as the oft-renamed building was known at the time.
I think the Stones also respond to a sense of history. The two best 2006 shows I saw were Baltimore and Atlantic City, both in relatively small – and old – venues. Cripes, the Beatles played both of those spots, whereas the United Center was barely a decade old in 2006.
Despite the massive crowd in effect, we find an energized version of the Stones in Havana, as they get the importance of the event and live up to it, a factor more remarkable given the vanilla nature of the set list. One other reason the Stones play better in smaller venues comes from the song choices, as the band allows themselves more liberties when they perform in front of fewer people.
When they do numbers they’ve not beaten to death over the decades, they feel more invested, I suspect, and enjoy themselves more. It must be easy to go on cruise control when you play the same songs you’ve done since Nixon was in the White House.
Make no mistake: Havana Moon represents maybe the least ambitious Stones set list I’ve ever witnessed. As depicted in the movie, we get only one song post-1974! The film drops five tunes – found here as a bonus – but those still focus on the oldies. After “Out of Control”, the shows second-newest song came out 35 years ago – not exactly new and fresh, is it?
Even “Out of Control” can’t be viewed as some sort of concert rarity. If the website Setlist.fm gets its stats correct, the Stones have played that song more than 200 times.
Perhaps surprisingly, “You Got the Silver” offers the concert’s least-played song. A lead vocal from Keith Richards, the band didn’t touch it live until 30 years after its debut: the 1969 track had to wait until 1999’s “No Security” tour to show up onstage.
Most of the Moon tracks have been played umpty-ump times over the decades, of course, and that’s what makes their vitality here so impressive. As mentioned, I think the Stones got the importance of the event, and their performance matched that.
Sure, they’ve played these songs hundreds of times – over 1000 for a few of them – but they never performed the tracks for this crowd. I suspect it must be tough to muster enthusiasm for the 1100th rendition of “Jumping Jack Flash” at a show in Pittsburgh, but in your band’s Cuban debut? Probably a lot easier.
And the Stones do seem enthusiastic during Moon. As I mentioned, this setlist focuses almost exclusively on the band’s warhorses, and these are mainly songs I’d love to not hear live again.
Despite that fatigue factor, I got into the performances in Moon just because the band seemed so invested and involved. If they care so much about “Satisfaction”, I guess I should, too.
When was the last time Jagger looked like he was having fun during “Brown Sugar”? I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed that, but he seems to have a ball here. Heck, Mick and Keith actually interact at times, a connection that usually doesn’t occur on stage – they almost look like the pals they used to be.
While I can’t find a duff performance in the bunch, two stand out as especially good. Going back to its 1997 debut, “Out of Control” always worked well live, and that continues to be true almost 20 years later. The song allows Jagger to really feel his oats and this version adds charge to the proceedings.
And then there’s “Midnight Rambler”. One of the warhorsiest of the warhorses, the Stones have played that one more than 650 times, but you wouldn’t know that from Moon’s incendiary performance.
Sure, the song’s always been strong live, but sometimes its extended running time makes it drag. Not here, as the song grabs the crowd by the throat – and baby, it’ll hurt.
In terms of the home video presentation itself, Moon comes from one flaw: too damned many crowd shots. These subside somewhat as the program progresses, but I still think we find too many of them, and they create a sporadic annoyance.
Otherwise, director Paul Dugsdale shows good restraint. The program lacks any visual affectations, and Dugsdale makes no attempt to turn this into a 110-minute music video. Editing seems fairly sedate, and this allows us to enjoy the show without cheap, tacky attempts to “enliven” the proceedings - Moon lets the Stones entertain us all on their own.
And entertain us they do during this excellent show. I admit I entered Havana Moon without great enthusiasm, as I expected a less than exciting rendition of played-to-death hits.
Instead I found a band at the top of their game, energized, enthusiastic and on point. I own a large collection of Stones music, and some of it resides in my possession due to a sense of “obligation”: I keep it because I feel like I must as a fan but I never play it.
I thought Moon would fall into that category, but it doesn’t. It’s just a great show in its own right, and I’ll revisit this one happily in the future.