The Rolling Stones seem determined not to let their set lists get too mossy. This week in Tokyo, the band played the Goats Head Soup song "Silver Train" on stage for the fifth time ever... and the first four of those five times were all back in 1973.
One likely reason the Stones haven't played it in 41 years — besides the fact that it was a B-side (to "Angie"), not a proper single — is that it prominently featured second guitarist Mick Taylor, who quit the group at the end of that '73 tour. When Taylor retired from the Stones, this feisty album track was retired, too.
But as any Stones fan well knows, Taylor has been brought back into the fold for the 2013-14 tour, not as a full-time member, but a guest player on two or three songs per night. That's led the band to revive some of the early '70s tracks he played on — some giants from the Stones' catalog, like "Midnight Rambler" (the one song Taylor solos on every night), and some more obscure, like "Sway."
And if you're going to dig that deep into the catalog, why not go for a nearly forgotten rocker on which Mick Jagger sings about a prostitute? The song is so obscure at this point that some music fans may remember it better for the cover version that the Black Crowes recorded, or even the Johnny Winter version (which was actually released before the Stones' own). In honor of the tune's unexpected revival, the Stones just posted a performance clip from 1973 that was filmed for the Don Kirschner's Rock Concert show as well as England's Old Grey Whistle Test and Top of the Pops.
So when Jagger says the words "We haven’t done this song live since... I don’t know, we did it a couple times in the ‘70s, but that’s about it," as he did in introducing "Silver Train" in Tokyo, it's the kind of moment that's truly music to hardcore fans' ears.
This brings up an interesting dichotomy of the Stones' current international trek; their performances are undeniably greatest-hits sets, with the exception of a couple of wild-card slots each night. But the possibilities for those surprise choices are almost endless, given how the band has rehearsed at least 75 songs in preparation for or during the tour.
Last April, when the Stones did nine days of rehearsals at a Burbank facility, fans congregated outside the soundstage every day to overhear the din from the sidewalk — and the diligent among them marked down an astonishing 62 songs that the band ran through during those sessions alone. There was no guarantee that all those numbers would actually be included over the course of the band's treks, but most have at some point.
And that wasn't the end of the band's prep. After a tour break, they regathered in Paris in the first week of February, where fans were able to hear Mick Taylor joining them for rehearsals of second- or third-tier songs that included "Sway," "Heartbreaker," "Shine a Light," "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," "Till the Next Goodbye," "Worried About You," "Moonlight Mile," "Streets of Love," "Loving Cup," "Out of Control"... and, yes, to everyone's astonishment, "Silver Train."
During one day of the Paris rehearsals, Taylor and Ronnie Wood were the sole guitarists — now, that would be an interesting bootleg to have — because of Keith Richards' absence. The reason? Richards took the day off because he had just become a grandfather for the first time, as his daughter Angela Richards gave birth to a baby boy, Otto Reed, on Feb. 6.
Meanwhile, Taylor isn't the only nightly "guest" whom fans look forward to these days. At their second Tokyo show this week, introducing a duet of "Gimme Shelter," Jagger introduced his vocal partner as "Oscar winner" Lisa Fischer, who recorded the original stunning backup to the song. His backup singer isn't technically an Academy Award winner, but the film in which she's featured, 20 Feet from Stardom, had just won the documentary prize four nights earlier.
The Stones' tour continues this month in China, Australia, and New Zealand. An announcement is expected about a rumored June/July leg that would supposedly take them to Spain, Germany, Israel, and Austria.
It will be a real heartbreaker (doo doo doo doo doo) if the Stones don't return to America to let U.S. fans have another chance at hearing a Taylor-era novelty. But it won't be a never-ending tour like one of Bob Dylan's. Charlie Watts has said that the prospect of being on the road forever was "daunting" at his "tender age." But, as Wood recently remarked, "While the big wheel is rolling we are going to capture it before it stops totally."