With the Rolling Stones dragging their ancient carcasses through Philadelphia this week on the final dates of their 50 and Counting Tour, I found myself thinking about a particular Stones performance from the past.
In late August 1989, the mighty Rolling Stones, once again, toured the United States after an eight-year hiatus from performing live. The schedule named Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium as the kickoff venue for The Urban Jungle Tour, in support of the band's recently-released Steel Wheels album. The Stones were a hot news topic, with stories of in-fighting between founding members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The possibility of a tour cancellation loomed heavy from day to day as the official start date approached.
Just two weeks prior to the start of the tour, Mick and company gave a surprise show at the tiny Toad's Place in New Haven, Connecticut. The astounded audience of 700 were shocked and rocked by an hour of classic British Invasion. Word of the impromptu performance spread quickly and rumors were flying about other unannounced concerts before the tour officially started. Of course, with less than two weeks until showtime, those rumors made a beeline down I-95, headed right for The City of Brotherly Love.
My ex-sister-in-law Wendy was an old-school rock and roller. At 30, she still loved and embraced the music she loved and embraced in high school. News of a Rolling Stones tour excited her in a way that it didn't excite me. (Honestly, with the exception of a few songs, I was never a Stones fan. In 1989, I was still hanging on to Elvis Costello, while going through a Run-DMC/LL Cool J phase.) Wendy, however, was aware of my love for live music. So, when the rumor mill churned its way in her direction with "reliable source information" of a super-secret Stones show at Philadelphia's Chestnut Cabaret, she took it as rock and roll gospel. It seemed that the three local bands scheduled to play the Chestnut on August 29 – Runner, Keiper Union and The Blenders – were just a front for a much bigger show. Wendy was unshakably convinced, and she did her very best to convince my brother-in-law (my wife's younger brother, not Wendy's husband) and me to join her in – what promised to be – the event of a lifetime. We went. Begrudgingly. My wife stayed home with our (then) two-year old and we three siblings-by-marriage set out for a club in West Philly.
The Chestnut Cabaret was a tiny dive bar on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. It was nondescript in its decor, boasting bent-wood chairs and rickety tables randomly strewn throughout its narrow, dark interior. However, in its storied past, it has hosted the likes of John Lee Hooker, The Ramones, Blondie, Ice-T and his controversial band Body Count and many other cross-genre acts. I saw an early career performance by They Might Be Giants (then, just a duo playing along to recorded music) and several intimate shows by the late Warren Zevon during his brief residence in Philadelphia. But tonight, Wendy assured us that we were going to see the biggest band of them all.
Several hundred other people apparently got the message, too. The place was jammed. Bodies were pushed up against the minute stage. The closeness of the crowd and the Chestnut's lack of air-conditioning in the late summer heat made for a pretty uncomfortable atmosphere. When the first band, Keiper Union, took the stage, displaying the musical prowess of first-graders hesitantly tripping their way through a guitar lesson, the comfort level dropped even more. After a few excruciatingly-bad songs, the lead singer hinted at an "upcoming surprise" and winked after mentioning "I know why you're all here."
Runner, the next band, wasn't any better. Their chintzy strobe-light enhanced set was on the verge of giving the audience a collective seizure. I downed glass after glass of water and glared at Wendy. She returned a half-hearted smile and shrugged. My brother-in-law who, at six-foot-four, had the best view of the two awful bands, shook his head with disappointment.
As the hours ticked away, the crowd grew more and more restless. The venue MC continued to tease with between-act banter sprinkled with blatant Rolling Stones references. We thought of the possibility that "The Blenders" could be a fake name, since none of us had heard of them. Wendy ran with that.
"Yeah," she said, "they're probably really The Stones!"
The Blenders made their way to the stage. They were The Blenders.
As for The Rolling Stones.... they spent the evening at the Four Seasons Hotel, sampling the finest gourmet food Philadelphia's top chefs had to offer. After all, they had to rest up for the first show of their tour.