Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 17, 2019)
After the long break from touring that ended with 1989/90’s Steel Wheels tour, the Rolling Stones essentially resumed their prior status as a “normal band”. Yeah, the break between the end of the 1989/90 tour and the next in 1994 was longer than in the past, but it still felt like they’d gone back to business as usual.
This impression solidified in 1997, as the Stones returned to work after “only” a two-year break. The Voodoo Lounge tour wrapped in mid-1995 and the band came back in fall 1997 with a new album called Bridges to Babylon as well as a new tour that used the same name.
We didn’t know it at the time, but this represented the end of “business as usual” Stones. Oh, they still played shows regularly, as the Bridges tour (essentially) continued through 1999 and the Stones toured again in 2002.
However, the 2002/03 “Licks” tour came with no new album to support. That was the first time the band went out on the road without a fairly recent collection of songs to support. The 2002 Forty Licks retrospective came with four fresh tracks, but those felt like a token effort to get old fans to buy the other 36 songs again.
In 2005, the Stones put out a new studio album called A Bigger Bang and embarked on a long tour to support it. As of summer 2019, Bang represents their last album of original tracks. The Stones put out a collection of blues covers in 2016 and they’ve issued a handful of new originals – mainly via another compilation in 2012 – but we may never get another Stones tour that’s “business as usual”.
As such, I view the Bridges tour as the end of an era. We find a look at the end of that end via Bridges to Bremen, a concert performance from September 1998.
Actually, it seems hard to establish the true finish of the Bridges tour. Technically, it did conclude in fall 1998, but the 1999 No Security tour essentially existed as a continuation of Bridges with a new title and other alterations.
I discuss that topic in the review linked above, so I’ll let you click it if you’re curious. In terms of the Bremen show found on this Blu-ray, it offers a pretty good representation of the “main” Bridges tour.
From Bridges itself, we find five songs: “Flip the Switch”, “Anybody Seen My Baby?”, “Out of Control”, “Saint of Me” and “Thief in the Night”. 1994’s Voodoo Lounge brings us “You Got Me Rocking”.
From there, we need to go back to 1983’s Undercover for “Wanna Hold You” and 1981’s Tattoo You for “Start Me Up”. 1978’s Some Girls delivers “Miss You” and 1976’s Black and Blue boasts “Memory Motel”.
We get the title track from 1974’s It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, while 1972’s Exile on Main Street gives us “Tumbling Dice”. 1971’s Sticky Fingers features “Brown Sugar” and 1969’s Let It Bleed includes “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
Also from 1969, we get the single “Honky Tonk Women”. 1968’s Beggars Banquet brings “Sympathy for the Devil” and the single “Jumping Jack Flash”.
From 1967, we find the single “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, and 1965’s single “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” appears as well. The Stones also cover Bob Dylan’s 1965 hit “Like A Rolling Stone”.
Outside of the then-current Bridges songs, the setlist offers a pretty typical batch of Stones songs from their tours over the last 30 years. For reasons no one can quite figure out, the band seems to love “You Got Me Rocking”, as it’s been a staple since 1994 even though it wasn’t a hit.
The only oddball songs here come from “Motel”, “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Wanna Hold You”. The Stones always do two tracks with Keith Richards as the lead singer, and the vast majority of the time, Keith plays one semi-obscure track and alternates “Before They Make Me Run” and “Happy” in the other slot.
This makes the Bridges tour unusual, as I suspect it’s the only tour over the last 30 years to ignore both of those Keith staples. “Wanna Hold You” got decent run at the band’s 2007 shows but otherwise never found its way into post-1998 sets, and outside of one 2003 gig in the Netherlands, “Thief” disappeared after 1998.
Back in 1997, the Stones capitalized on nascent cyber-mania and allowed online fans to vote for one “request” a night. Taken from a small list of choices, “Motel” won for Bremen.
Because it got 14 other plays across 1997-98 as well as 23 over 1994-95 and another 15 in 1999, “Motel” wasn’t a rarity in this era, but since it’s only showed up four times at 21st century Stones shows, it counts as an oddball.
I probably shouldn’t call “Like a Rolling Stone” an oddity because the Stones have played it more than 170 times since they “debuted” it in 1995. Heck, it was still in sets as recently as 2018 – and given that the band will start a 2019 tour right after I write this, it may pop up again.
Still, it’s not a “Stones song” so it still feels like a left field choice. If Dylan did “Satisfaction” 170 times, I’d consider that to be strange, too!
My point remains: outside of the then-current Bridges song, the Bremen show represents a fairly unambitious set, and that was true for the entire tour. When I saw the Stones in 1997, this disappointed me, as they’d pulled out some genuine rarities in 1994 and I hoped they’d continue to show the same level of setlist ambition.
This doesn’t make Bremen a bad show, of course, as the band can still generate a good performance out of a lackluster setlist. For the most part, they do, as Bremen offers a largely positive portrayal of this era’s Stones.
Bremen comes out of the gate with a rocky start, as the show’s “Satisfaction” feels unenthusiastic and flat. A few other snarls emerge via some sloppy moments later in the show as well, especially during a version of “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” that threatens to enter trainwreck territory.
That said, the Stones aren’t the Eagles, and the moments where the songs go off the rails exists as part of the band’s loose charm. Also, I sense Mick may have had some trouble hearing the rest of the band on the B-stage, which may have contributed to his poor timing during “It’s Only”.
Outside of these occasional screw-ups, Bremen presents a pretty solid show. No one will view this as prime Stones, but they largely sound good and seem fairly invested in the performance.
The Stones can go on cruise control at times, especially when they play massive stadium shows. Perhaps the fact this concert ran on TV pushed them to up their game, but they rarely seem disconnected during this lively performance.
I wish directors Jim Gable and Dick Carruthers had exercised a looser hand, though. Bremen abounds with showy camera movement and weird angles. I feared I’d get seasick from all the wobbly shots on display.
Unsurprisingly, these choices reach their nadir during “Out of Control”, as the directors decide they need to portray parts of that performance literally. This means a mix of wacky photographic techniques, all of which annoy the heck out of me.
Not all of Bremen goes hog wild, and plenty of the show uses fairly standard photography. Also, the techniques seem less problematic as the show runs, probably because the viewer gets used to them.
Still, the editing and camerawork become the biggest problem here. Even if you acclimate, you’ll still find yourself annoyed by the swoops and swishes and awkward angles.
Despite these bad decisions, I find more to like than dislike about Bremen. It gives us a complete version of a long Stones concert and represents it well enough to make it a keeper.