Will They Ever Stop?
Story by Joan Melcher
Photos by Todd Goodrich
My first thought on entering Washington-Grizzly Stadium for the Rolling Stones concert is that maybe I should have brought ear plugs. The formidable sound system, mounted on a six-story backstage, is definitely working for the opening act. A golden near-full moon pauses in its ascent over Mount Sentinel and nestles for a few minutes between crags of that well-loved profile. The surrounding countryside appears to draw into itself with the amped invasion. Colors intensify before the light closes on a balmy October night.
The 21,000-plus crowd lubricates with wine, beer, and sodas and then settles into good ole Montana visiting before someone begins a WAVE that courses through the arena. Outside, thousands opt for the free seats, climbing Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo or just pulling up a lawn chair near the stadium. You don’t have to be too close. People on Missoula’s west side and the Rattlesnake area will be able to hear most of the concert.
The Stones do not appear until complete darkness, about 8:30, and they come with an explosion of fireworks that is just the beginning of a spectacle the likes of which few Montanans will be treated to again soon, at least on home ground.
There’s Mick Jagger, gyrating like a hopped-up teenager, Keith Richards, with that inward smile and those eerie guitar fingers, Ronnie Wood, stone-faced—more like the near-dead Richards the media likes to portray than Keith tonight. This night Keith looks healthy, tanned, the lines of his face more a testament to a life well-lived than forty years on the road. I know this because there is a four-story screen embedded in the backstage that provides more than adequate views of the band, projected with an amazing light and video show. And did I mention the tongues of flame that rise like jet propulsion some thirty feet into the sky, bringing the arena to full light for several seconds? Or the huge helium sculpture of lips and tongue that protrudes from the back stage and, yes, the tongue pulsates! while the band takes a ride down the length of the field on a moving stage?
Mick struts and preens and announces he’s glad to be in MiSuuula, a word he clearly enjoys. Then he says, “I shot an elk this morning.” There’s a beat and he’s back at the mic: “I put it back.” When it’s Keith’s turn he notes, like Mick, that this is his first trip to Montana. “This is new territory for me,” he says. Then, with his curious British drawl and raspy throat, “and I’ve been around.”
You gotta love ’em.
Keith is back at the mic: “You’ve got beautiful country here,” he growls. “I’m thinking about moving in.” The crowd goes nuts.
The Stones put Missoula and the University into a frenzy with their Bigger Bang tour. Let’s face it. Most of us have never seen anything like this. Just the physical requirements are daunting. They bring in seventy tractor-trailers, taking twelve percent of campus parking for the better part of the week. Parking being the issue it is on the UM campus, you can bet no other cause would be greeted so nonchalantly.
It’s clear that part of the Stones’ draw is the generational spread of their audience. There are stories of grandmothers who saw the band in the ‘60s buying tickets for their grandchildren. I hear a young woman talking on her cell phone outside the Liberal Arts Building a few hours before the concert. She’s upset with her mother. “I told you to wait at the dorm, Mom. I had to take my test!” Mom is clearly not getting her priorities straight.
Never a huge fan, I did grow up with the Stones, many of their songs acting like book notes in my life. My first remembrance of their music was jerking away to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” at a high school dance in the Forsyth High gymnasium.
I admit I have to give it to them tonight. They are not resting on any laurels. Mick and Keith still have the chords; the band, bolstered by four horns and three talented back-up singers, is tight, but not unwilling to have a little fun with the litany of hits they roll out for two hours. “Jumpin Jack Flash,” “Brown Sugar,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Start Me Up,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Bring back any memories …? You can bet it did to the thronging masses under the autumn moon. Something ancient and tribal was happening—expertly engineered by the band that has been making tribes out of audiences for four decades.
I mused to a friend a few days before, “Do you think they’ll be on drugs for the concert?”
“Sure,” he said. “No doubt Lipitor, probably Celebrex, possibly some bootlegged Vioxx, Prozac, Lotrel for the blood pressure.”
“And I bet Mick needs a muscle relaxant after the concert – maybe Flexeril?” I add.
This concert came in a two-week period chock full of events. Some 8,000 people attended Missoula’s new state-of-the-art skate park, not far from the recently christened Brennan’s Wave, a whitewater park on the Clark Fork River. The Festival of the Book brought Ivan Doig to town, who read to a packed audience from This House of Sky, and well-loved poet Richard Hugo was brought back to life in a newly released film.
A few days before the concert, broadcasting his Prairie Home Companion radio show to millions from the UM Adams Center, Garrison Keillor envisioned panhandling elk in Missoula after learning of a city ordinance that cautions residents not to feed wildlife. Meanwhile the Stones were erecting a stage higher than all but five or six buildings in the valley. A study came out predicting Missoula would soon be the largest city in the state. It was seeming like the second wave of discovery (the first, of course, coming after the release of the film A River Runs Through It). It was fun, a little exhilarating, but in the end a bit of sensory overload—enough to make a typical xenophobic Montanan think of retreating and burying her head in the prairie sand north of Ekalaka.
I muse on this as I head back to my car, the first tentative drops of predicted rain christening my head. I hear students, who took in the concert from their grassy front lawn, go on about the real estate market in Missoula, one telling the other he’d be crazy not to buy now. “This is the next Boulder,” he says.
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